FIT Students Digitize and Unzip Biker Jacket History

The 1980 version of The Perfecto, which debuted in 1928 and is still sold by Schott Bros. Source: FIT

The 1980 version of The Perfecto, which debuted in 1928 and is still sold by Schott Bros. Source: FIT

The FIT fashion and textile grad students always pull out the stops on their shows in the Museum at FIT’s side gallery, turning mini-shows into main events, as in their current exhibition, Beyond Rebellion: Fashioning the Biker Jacket. The gallery installation highlights the jacket’s role in history, culture, couture, and street fashion, but the team makes its history come alive even further on their superb companion digital site featuring photos, videos, and the historical context. See the jackets in person and touch the leather swatches before April 5, and go play with the web site at any time.

The digital timeline begins with the birth of the motorcycle in the UK in 1902, but the fashion story starts in 1928 with the debut of the leather riding jacket, The Perfecto by the Schott Bros. It’s the template upon which all other cool looks – street, couture, punk, ready-to-wear – are based. It combines the swag of a WWI aviator jackets with the utility and protection needed by one of the original road warriors. Retail: $5.50.

From Rei Kawakubo’s 2005 Biker + Ballerina collection (leather, gingham, and tulle) for Comme des Garcons. Source: FIT.

From Rei Kawakubo’s 2005 Biker + Ballerina collection (leather, gingham, and tulle) for Comme des Garcons. Source: FIT.

In the first gallery next to The Perfecto, fashionable visitors were hovering to take in all the information in Paula Sim’s excellent illustrated deconstruction of the jacket’s iconic design features as if it were the Rosetta Stone. How and why did the details we know so well all originate? The asymmetrical zip thwarts wind, epaulets secure riding gloves during breaks, the belt keeps wind from whistling up your back, and zips at the wrist do the same for the glove-sleeve juncture. The extensive use of hardware was a desirable touch inspired by chrome and metal features on the just-taking-off auto industry. Want or need?

It didn’t take long for motorcycle-loving vets to start applying patches and insignias to the aviator-inspired jackets, just as they had done with patches, insignias, and pins during the war. By the 1930s, as shown on the timeline, club patches gradually became associated with “outlaw” clubs. Nevertheless, the popularity of motorcycle riding grew, documented by the curators with a 1951 Sears catalog showing a premium $33.95 leather moto jacket featuring a snap-off lamb collar and “built-in kidney support”.

Screenshot from the FIT show timeline

Screenshot from the FIT show timeline

As the curators note, the watershed year for this utility bomber was 1953, when Brando sported cuffed-jeans-and-jacket attire in The Wild One. Banned initially in the UK, the film (and Brando) became a sensation, giving mass audiences a pop-culture version of what happened in the 1947 Hollister, California motorcycle club riots.

The style went viral, pushed further into street-style consciousness by emerging rock-and-rollers and The King himself, Elvis. Take a look at some iconic 50s performances that the digital curators included on the show’s website. Scroll up to 1956 in the timeline to see Gene Vincent tear it up onstage and to 1968 to see Elvis rocking his leather look doing Jailhouse Rock in his NBC comeback special.

It's so Schott: Stefano Pilati’s Fall 2009 jumpsuit for YSL. Source: FIT, gift of YSL.

It’s so Schott: Stefano Pilati’s Fall 2009 jumpsuit for YSL. Source: FIT, gift of YSL.

In 1960, YSL became the first high-fashion designer to bring the biker look to the runway – a move that contributed to his exit from the House of Dior. Never mind, though. When he opened his own house two years later, he continued riffing on the bad-girl theme.  The rest was history, with plenty of rock musicians, high-end designers, and Vogue stylists following suit.

The curators feature New York’s own Ramones as the epitome of the 1970s motorcycle-jacket-wearing punk-music rebels, and present lots of album covers as evidence of the jacket’s enduring presence.

As for fashion from the FIT collections, the team has pulled together a dozen high-end interpretations, beginning with Mr. Versace’s 1993 gold-stitched biker jacket with pull-tab logo hardware and a more subdued version by Emporio Armani. Fashion lovers have plenty of other versions to savor from Ms. Herrera, Rick Owens, JPG, Rei Kawakubo, and others.

All the techniques rolled into one in Jean Paul Gaultier’s 1987 creation of leather, fake fur, suede, and wool. Note the trapunto, elbow studs, fringe, and pin stripes. Source: FIT, gift of Anne Zartaian.

All the techniques rolled into one: Jean Paul Gaultier’s 1987 leather, fake fur, suede, and wool jacket with trapunto, elbow studs, fringe, and pin stripes. Source: FIT, gift of Anne Zartaian.

In the far corner, the team offers a wall where you can touch and compare different types of hides and treatments used for jackets, marvel at the trapunto-on-leather techniques Mr. Versace and JPG used so extensively, and learn that patent leather was invented in 1811.

If you can’t get to FIT in person, browse through the fantastic exhibition site, listen to the nine-minute audio tour, and download the exhibition brochure. Better yet, do both.

As for the current popularity of the biker jacket on the Streets of New York, enjoy the slide show by the FIT student team, shot on the only warm weekend day so far this year in Williamsburg:

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