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The Evolution Of Motorcycle Clothing

By Bill Akins

Style Matters

I recently spotted a meme with an old style motorcyclist's cap on a biker skull. It made me think about the old style riding caps worn back in the 1930's up until the 1960's and why they went out of style. 

Most young riders today don't even know about them unless it's from the movies. They were worn by Marlon Brando in "The Wild One" (the jacket & cap obviously copied by Shia LaBeouf in "Indiana Jones & the Kingdom of the Crystal Skulls"). They were very common from the 1930's through the early 1960's. They have been out of style for a long time but motorcyclists are starting to wear them again. They are so much more stylish and classy looking than a common baseball cap. Just like flared thigh riding pants ("jodhpurs") and high riding boots are versus jeans & sneakers. This was from back in the day when motorcyclists dressed to ride.

Either I gravitate towards things that are old school, or I was born too late into a time that I don't really fit into. I haven't figured out which it is yet. But what I do know is that somehow, some way, "Motorcyclists" have somehow become known by modern day society as "Bikers" although that is not really the correct term. "Motorcyclist" is the correct term because the term "Biker" comes from the word bicycle.

In the early days of motorcycling, it was called "Motorcycling". Somehow that term changed to include an "R" in it. Motorcycles came into being almost at the same time the first motorized carriages appeared and those first motorcyclists wore almost the same type of clothing as the early automobile motorists. Pork pie hat, gauntlet gloves, goggles, and a long motoring coat. The women riding in the early automobiles would wrap scarves around their heads, or tie their hats tightly on with scarves under their chins.

Motorcyclists soon realized the long riding coat could get caught up in their drive chains. Many switched to waist length coats or jackets that would not entangle in the drive chain. They also switched to the type of military officer's riding breeches, which were flared at the thigh to be roomy and tight from above the knee down, coupled with high riding boots or leg wrappings known as "Puttees" (to avoid catching in the open chains of their motorcycles), They kept the goggles and also adopted leather helmets like early aviators wore. This style continued throughout the nineteen teens and into the 1940's. 

In the 1930's, leather helmets were still being worn but many riders began wearing military, or police style visor caps. Motorcyclists also started wearing high horseback riding boots instead of the puttees. The flared thigh officer's riding pants (Jodhpurs) were still worn and kidney belts were used to protect the rider's kidneys from the vibration. Gauntlet style gloves were worn to protect the hands from road stones. This was a reflection on what the motorcycle cops were wearing at that time. Their snappy uniforms had a cut and style that made sense for motorcycle riding.  

In the late 1940's and early 1950's, things began to change. Riders had for the most part abandoned the Jodhpurs and began wearing blue jeans. The civilian riding boots got shorter. They became more like the shorter jack boots that enlisted German soldiers wore in WW2. That look became known as "The Greaser" look, popularized in many movies and TV shows like Fonzie from Happy Days. Rolled up at the bottom blue jeans, black Brando style jacket (it came out long before Brando but he really popularized it), hard visor motorcyclist hats, a white T shirt and a Brylcream laden ducktail haircut. 

What happened next was a major shift in motorcycle clothing fashion. In July of 1969, the movie "Easy Rider" was released and drastically changed the clothing fashion of motorcyclists. The black leather jacket was replaced by fringed Indian style leather jackets and the blue jeans became bell bottoms. It also popularized the look of chopper style motorcycles. 

Even more than the Greaser era, the late 1960's completely destroyed the motorcycle fashion of the previous generation. Gone was the classy look of the motorcyclist with the visor cap, traditional black zippered motorcycle jacket, riding breeches, high riding boots, kidney belts, gauntlet gloves, and the neck ties worn by their parents and grandparents. It was replaced with images propagandizing the public that what was cool was to look like Peter Fonda and Dennis Hopper in Easy Rider. To ride stoned, on a chopper, long hair flying, giving the finger to anyone on the road.

Along with the hippie fashion look, the outlaw motorcycle clubs were getting a lot of press. The public saw how they dressed with head wrapping scarves, denim jackets and vests adorned with pins and patches and the club's “colors” on the back. Movies and television picked up on the look which created an unfair negative stigmatizing of all motorcyclists which lasted for a long time.  

Somewhere, the term "Motorcyclist" changed to "Biker" and the term has stuck. It's universally used today by everyone, even motorcyclists. Is it because it's shorter and easier to say? To this day, the  "outlaw" motorcyclist look permeates the  motorcycle fashion scene. Go to any motorcycle meet, and you will see shirts, jackets, and vests with patches and pseudo biker gang "colors” back. 

As for myself, I love the old school 1930's through the mid to late 1950's motorcyclist fashion and employ that somewhat in how I dress to ride. I can guarantee you that if that became the fashion again, due to some movie or otherwise, more riders would be dressing that way. I hope it may be coming back full circle. We need a change from the patches covered vests, head scarves, and baseball caps that motorcyclists are now wearing. Time to bring back the old motorcyclist apparel fashion that's so old, it's new again. I'm an avid student of all kinds of history and the history of motorcycling too, and wanted to share this with those who may not be old enough to remember how motorcycle clothing fashion used to be.