By RACHAEL FREY
Like a second skin, it still holds the shape of the body that broke it in. The leather is barely visible beneath patches proclaiming the wearer’s favourite bands and hand-lettered quotes musing on the failings of humanity. Bristling with swathes of silver spikes and studs, festooned with chains, this black leather jacket screams, “I’m not like you, and I’m proud of it!”
It’s one of many uniquely customized leather biker jackets on display at the Glenbow Museum’s Worn to be Wild: The Black Leather Jacket, February 8 to May 4. The collaborative creation of Milwaukee’s Harley-Davidson Museum and Seattle’s Experience Music Project (EMP) museum, the travelling exhibition explores the garment’s meteoric rise as a pop-culture icon.
The History of Cool
Though it’s been more than 60 years since Marlon Brando’s iconic role in the 1953 film The Wild One helped catapult the black leather jacket into popular culture, the appeal hasn’t faded. Actually, the cachet has expanded, making it a staple for rockers, movie stars and everyday Joes who are looking to inject some instantaneous cool into their image.
“When people are wearing a classic biker-style black leather jacket, it’s rife with symbolism,” says EMP senior curator Jacob McMurray. “You can’t escape it.”
Though the black leather jacket has been an unmistakable emblem of rebellion for decades, it started out as a very practical garment. At the beginning of the 20th century almost all transportation from motorcycles to airplanes was unenclosed, making utilitarian leather jackets essential to protect drivers from the elements, McMurray says.
As more and more people started wearing the jackets, garment makers began experimenting with designs that would increase functionality and set their product apart. McMurray points to the ’20s, ’30s and ’40s as the time when the classic black leather jacket look was developed, with features such as an asymmetric zipper, split collar, sleeve zips, “D” pocket and angled-forward arms, a style still widely worn today.
“These jackets are being worn by bomber pilots in World War II, by biker gangs in the ’50s, by English rockers in the early ’60s, by punk rockers in the ’70s and ’80s, by rock stars and film stars and fashionistas in the last several decades,” McMurray says. “It really does accompany the history of America, of the Western world.”
The exhibition features jackets designed by Jean Paul Gaultier and a jacket worn by Elvis Presley. The King of Rock ‘n’ Roll bought this particular biker jacket in 1956 with his first Harley-Davidson motorcycle, which is also part of the exhibit. Movie costume jackets such as the one worn by Arnold Schwarzenegger in Terminator 2 and the jewel-encrusted faux-leather jacket worn by Harry Shearer in This is Spinal Tap are also featured.
The exhibit’s impressive array of genuine punk rock leather jackets is on lend from a man who owned a Seattle clothing store in 1980s. There, punks were encouraged to exchange their old, customized jackets for new ones. McMurray points out that, unlike many of the other jackets in the exhibition, the punk jackets were not contrived to sell a certain image to the masses.
“They’re made from the heart and there’s no marketing weirdness with that sort of stuff; it’s very real,” he says. “It’s interesting because it becomes a form of communication where those jackets sort of subliminally speak to the people in that crowd, and at the same time repel the people who are not interested in that or are not part of that crowd.”
The black leather jacket looks much the same as it did 80 years ago, and it’s still just as cool as it was when Brando sported it in The Wild One, but McMurray says its wearer-resume requirements have relaxed a bit over the years.
“It’s become a staple that isn’t relegated to a certain subset of society,” he says. “Anyone can wear it and feel at home in it.”
Glenbow Museum, 130 – 9 Ave SE, 403-268-4100, glenbow.org