It’s been a symbol of rebellion since the Fifties, when Marlon Brando and James Dean revved their way onto the silver screen and straight into cultural icon status, dressed in a black leather jacket – with zips.
Seventy years has done nothing to dent its bad boy reputation – shrug one on and there you’ve found an instant route to classic non-conformity, frequently with a serious rock ’n’ roll vibe that’s been channelled from Debbie Harry to Harry Styles.
Fashion houses and designers never seem to fall out of love with the leather jacket, but this season has seen an exceptional revival, with Isabel Marant, Alaia, Balmain, Burberry, Chanel and Gucci among the many names featuring their own biker jacket designs.
It’s making its mark especially in eveningwear this autumn. First women borrowed the tuxedo from men as the perfect jacket to wear for special occasions. Now, on the catwalk and the red carpet, the biker jacket is rivalling, and replacing, the tux, with its snug, sleek lines and luxe, rich shine, plus utility zipping, making it the perfect accompaniment from maxi gowns to sequin mini skirts, with wide lapels that handily balance and minimise the hips.
Now for the history bit. The first biker jacket was in brown, not black, leather. It was invented in 1928 by Irving Schott in New York, whose company made outerwear. He decided that the button-down motorcycle jackets previously worn were not up to the job of shielding against the elements so created a leather zip-through version with asymmetric zip that allowed bikers to lean over while riding, without the fastenings digging in or being vulnerable to opening. Called the Perfecto, the original jacket featured lapels designed to press-stud down and fold over each and zip all the way up.
They were soon snapped up by a distributor of Harley Davidson and became an instant hit among the biking community. Other companies, including Sears, noted their stylishness and began making their own designs, inspired by the Perfecto. In 1953, the black biker jacket became a cult symbol thanks The Wild One, when Marlon Brando wore a Perfecto stamped with a skull and crossbones for his role as Johnny Strabler, leader of the Black Rebels Motorcycle Club. Two legends were born. James Dean and Steve McQueen cemented and enhanced its status and covetability.
These days, if it’s a retro look you’re going for, and you want a biker with a bit of battered history, you’ll find genuine pieces at vintage fairs collected from the 1950s to the 1980s. The early Madonna leather jacket look, with ripped fishnets and frothy black net mini skirt, works well this season for those who don’t remember it first time around, but can be reinterpreted even for those who do remember it, switching mini crini for a maxi (and losing the tights).
But it’s not all just about the black biker jacket, because classic zipped asymmetric detailing and pockets are also being used on tops, coats and dresses (check out Barbour), bringing a smart utility edge to many fabrics, including tweed, brocade and boucle.
The best thing about the biker jacket is that you don’t need a motorbike to wear one. So if you feel a mid-life crisis coming on, you can stick safely to the leather and step away from the machine.