The History of the Motorcycle Vest


The vest is an indelible icon in motorcycle culture. Worn by riders as a testimony of their motorcycle lifestyles, vests are symbols of rebellion and individuality.

In the early days of motorcycle history riders wore sweaters, varsity jackets, and garage overalls as a means of protection while operating their machines.  Only a few organized motorcycle clubs had their names stenciled in the back of their jackets.  A practice that would evolve itself in parallel with the future emerging vests.

The evolution of the motorcycle vest can be traced to the Second World War. The men who fought in WWII were barely out of adolescence, some as young as 18 years old and the war was the first place they’d ever been besides home. Airmen tended to cling to things that were familiar to them and this sense of identity was expressed by painting their airplane noses and their amazing A-2 jackets with icons of the Americana pop culture of the times.

The A-2 of Richard E. Fitzhugh, the pilot of the B-17G “El Lobo II,” who completed 30 missions with the 457th Bomb Group. Then in 1946, he flew Winston Churchill on a speaking tour, and “El Lobo II” became the subject of a model kit. Photo from Jon Maguire and John Conway's "American Flight Jackets" Book.

The bonding created by these men under such pressure was amalgamated by symbols and images that gave them the sense of belonging, comfort, power, protection and courage. Images that ranged from familiar sunday paper cartoon characters to pinup girls were all painted in their jackets creating a visual language on its own.

After the war, veterans came home with the need to relieve the impact of the stress they lived during the armed conflict and many found such relief in motorcycles. These machines were the fit vehicle to break the monotony of the more quiet life back home injecting a dose of adrenaline and excitement.

As motorcycles became more powerful and faster, the need for more adequate protection was in place, so the use of the war bomber jackets, such as the limited AN-J-3, the standard B-10, and the leather A-2 (probably the coolest jacket ever made) became a common sight among riders and motorcycle clubs. These jackets offered better protection but presented the problem of restricting the mobility of the arms and being too warm for most riding conditions.

During the following decade into the late 50’s, America saw the propagation of motorcycle clubs. At the same time a series of social and media events that alienated segments of the motorcycle community, ignited a significant force of rebellion on these clubs (Search for Hollister 1947). All these ingredients were reflected in their social view, their culture and sense of style. It is this rebellion and the need for functionality that made bikers cutting off the sleeves on their jackets resulting in what is now known as “Cuts”.

The Cuts evolved in parallel with the styles and trends of the times, from earlier cut off leather bomber jackets to lighter denim jacket cuts.

In the 50’s the fashion trends of the Greasers in the US and the Rockers in the UK turned the leather jackets into emblematic part of their style. In this era, silver screen hero Marlon Brando sealed the fate of the Schott Perfecto motorcycle jacket as an emblem of the motorcycle outlaw club in the film The Wild One (1953) but cuts were still in its infant stage. The cuts got amplified in the 60’s and 70’s by the club’s tradition to sew patches in their vests with their club names, logos, and the cities where they were active. These vests became a presentation card in the motorcycle culture, evolving into a sacred symbol of respect, displaying something not just made but earned.

Later in the late 70’s, 80’s and part of the 90’s, the leather vest took the spotlight in the evolution of the cuts. Departing from the raw look of the 70’s denim, the leather vest became the symbol of motorcycle rebellion catapulted by the style’s permeability of the punk, metal, and glam music styles. An exhibition in the Fashion Institute of Technology of New York (FIT) on motorcycle jackets suggested some of these groups were attracted to the sexual and fetishistic qualities of the leather garments. This permeability of countercultures solidified even more the vest in the perception of the biker’s community.

In the late 2000’s through today, there has been a resurgence for the vintage, more raw denim vests and styles of the 70’s and many adaptations had taken place.

The vest is an expression of self, bearing witness to the experiences and adventures of a singular rider; also a common expression of a group bonded by motorcycles. The motorcycle vest is without a doubt one of the most enduring icons in motorcycle history.

At Motorwolf we understand the value of the traditions that surrounds the motorcycle vest. Our cuts are designed with utmost respect for what they represent… your motorcycle history.

 

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1. "El Lobo II" Flight Jacket Photo from Jon Maguire and John Conway's "American Flight Jackets" Book.

2. "Backs" picture Copyright San Francisco Motorcycle Club

3. Vintage images taken from Pinterest shares. Owner of Copyrights unknown to the time of publishing.


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