The Genteel
April 21, 2021


Gang shot from The Wild Ones, with Marlon Brando and supporting cast in Schott leathers. Source:
motorcycles, hells angels, auckland, bikers, gangs, leather, jacket, david walmsley, the genteel, fashion, menswear

Auckland Hells Angels, 1960.

From early portrayals of Marlon Brando and James Dean to the popular television series, Sons of Anarchy, motorcycle culture has captivated North American audiences for nearly a century. The leather jacket, initially worn by riders and aviators out of necessity, has become a wardrobe staple of the every day consumer.  

What is known today as motorcycle apparel spawned from the need to protect servicemen during World War I. But a schism in biker wear occurred in the 1920s; English brand Belstaff (founded in 1924) began producing waxed cotton jackets that were weather-resistant and breathable, while in 1928, American brand Schott NYC produced the definitive Perfecto leather jacket

The two companies would construct and define the image of the rider for the next 80 years: Belstaff's weather-resistant look embodied the more casual café rider, while heavy leather Schott jackets came to represent the dedicated lifestyle rider depicted in the media by biker gangs, greasers and street toughs. Both companies began with the mantra of protecting riders and both were eventually adopted by the mainstream, as consumers and other companies began to take notice and mimic the look. Despite the changes undergone by both companies since then - with Belstaff turning to high fashion and Schott's senior designer appearing on Project Runway - the template for biker apparel set in the early 20th century is still very much relevant.

 The motorcycle has taken on numerous representations in American culture over the last century - symbolic of the free spirit, rebel, criminal and edgy urban professional...

American actor Steve McQueen was one of the few cultural icons to bridge the gap between the styles of Belstaff and Schott. An accomplished competitive rider, McQueen actively moved between the Belstaff and Schott aesthetics, depending on the project he was working on and the bike he was riding, unlike most bikers who settle into one type. Using his rider persona, McQueen helped to solidify the trope of the anti-hero within mid-20th century American pop culture. There isn't a public figure more embedded within biker lore; discuss motorcycles with military veterans or seasoned riders and the legend of McQueen is sure to come up. The "King of Cool" became such a mainstay within American film that he was even the highest-paid actor in world in 1974.

On the other hand, punk and metal forefathers The Ramones and Motörhead are almost always pictured in Schott's leather. Heavily used in films and worn by celebrities, the look quickly became a favourite on and off set, as the rebel became a cultural hit. The pervasive symbolism of the freedom-loving rebel spawned countless reinventions of the biker aesthetic around the world.

More recently, high fashion labels and designers such as Rick Owens (A/W 2009), Balmain (A/W 2012) and Balenciaga (S/S 2011) have absorbed the edgy black leather biker jacket into their collections. In 2011, Belstaff was purchased by LABELUX and repurposed into a luxury brand: a move that exemplifies just how influential biker culture has become. Motorcycle-inspired leathers have gone from being available at inexpensive motorcycle supply shops to being sold for thousands of dollars at high-end global retailers. 

motorcycles, bikers, leather, jackets, fashion, menswear, the genteel, david walmsley, ewan mcgregor
Ewan McGregor for Belstaff.

As the biker look has become more popular, motorcyclist-inspired street apparel has moved away from its original purpose: to protect riders from the elements and from falls and accidents. Riders who have made motorcycles an intrinsic part of their lives may lament at a perceived watering down of their way of life. But, just like any culture or trend that becomes popularised, it's to be expected; over time, cultural iconography spawning from subcultures becomes incorporated into the mainstream cultural milieu. The baseball cap grew out of a brimmed straw hat meant to block the sun from ball players' eyes, military jackets and camouflage have permeated urban apparel, and combat boots can be found pounding the pavement of any given metropolitan avenue. 

The biker aesthetic has grown immensely and shows no signs of stagnation. The entertainment industry is enthralled with portraying bike culture's deviance and rebellion, however skewed it may be. The motorcycle has taken on numerous representations in American culture over the last century - symbolic of the free spirit, rebel, criminal and edgy urban professional - becoming deeply ingrained within the psyche of several generations of North American youth. The fashion and style of the motorcyclist has followed suit.  



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