The history of the biker jacket
The biker jacket. A garment that oozes so much charisma, that you might decide it’s easier to avoid it completely. I haven’t got the shoulders for it, you tell yourself. It’s making too much of a statement, I’m not that sort of person. As if by wearing it you’ll be sticking a Post-it note on your forehead and labelling yourself as…something. As if this type of jacket was only worn by members of certain social groups, or rock stars, or movie stars, and as if society was still not ready to accept the biker jacket for what it is. Here at French Truckers we totally love the biker jacket – but we have to admit it also scares the living daylights out of us. And for that reason, ladies and gentlemen, we hereby present to you the story of the Perfecto:
The story started in 1913 with Irving and Jack Schott in the US. These brothers, sons of Russian immigrants, founded a waterproof clothing company. The first garments they created ware waxed coats in the basement of their apartment in Lower East Side, New York.
It wasn’t until the 1920s that the Schott Bros began to specialise in motorbike jackets. The period following the First World War had seen a huge surge in motorbike transport, particularly in North America. It was generally men who began taking up the two-wheelers, and they tended to wear military jackets for the occasion. These mid-thigh-lengthed buttoned coats, sometimes with mandarin collars, were fitted at the waist, sometimes belted. Because of the war, the government had made farmers hand over horse skins that could be used to make uniforms. Several of these skins were tanned and made into aviator jackets, which were then available in excess once the war had ended.
Business was booming for the Schott brothers, who had begun to outgrow their New York flat. In 1928 they moved to new, bigger premises in New Jersey. It was that same year, the story goes, that the Long Island store Harley Davidson asked Irving Schott to make a sturdy, durable jacket that would protect from the cold and rain. So Irving sourced some thick cow skin and, with a cigar stuck to his lips, set to work designing a motorcycle jacket with a zip fastener just like the ones that had featured on Lee jeans since the start of the previous decade. The leather jacket he produced would be the first ever to feature a zip. It was also of a much higher quality than those that had been worn by soldiers during the First World War. Irving named the new jacket after his favourite cigar: the Perfecto.
From that moment onwards, leather companies began to produce jackets on a larger scale. Schott, Indian and Harley Davidson created jackets called Cycle Champ, Cycle Queen, Ranger and Rangerette, and sold them in their stores. This was the 1930s, and the practical side of these garments meant they quickly became a must-have for motorcyclists. The most fashionable design of all featured the D-pocket, the asymmetric front pocket in the shape of a D which almost all the brands adopted: Buco, Hercules, Langlitz Leathers and Lewis Leathers.
The Perfecto remained relatively unknown during the Second World War, upstaged by the aviator jackets which were very much in the limelight. In post-war US, young people continued to idolise rock ‘n’ roll stars and joyriders. And, having witnessed war atrocities first-hand and toyed with death once too many times, some aviators and tank crews formed motorcycle clubs which would provide an outlet for all the pent-up negativity inside them, a means of letting off steam.
One such club was to become more notorious than the others. The Boozefighters Motorcycle Club (BFMC), from California, started a brawl in the small town of Hollister one day. The fight – over a trivial matter which naturally became a bigger issue because of the amount of alcohol that had been consumed – was picked up by the famous Life Magazine. It is claimed this fight went on to inspire the film The Wild One, which changed the cultural face of America and of the rest of the world too – thanks to a young, unknown actor who would later become the most mythical characters in the history of cinema, Marlon Brando. It also meant a certain type of jacket would become a permanent fixture on the dress code of the country’s youth.
Schott brought out the first of the models which would later become legendary. The 613 One Star first appeared towards the end of the 1940s. Made of horse leather, this jacket had a number of features which purists would use to distinguish it from other models, such as a star on each epaulette and an absence of buttons on the end of its collar.
The 1950s saw the birth of the 618. This model was almost identical to the 613 but without the stars on the shoulders, and with logoed buttons on the collar. It was this model which would launch the Perfecto into popular culture – and the one Marlon Brando wears in the film. As his fans will know, the jacket worn by Brando is supposed to be a 618 but actually features stars on the epaulettes. Legend has it his jacket was custom-made to look like the 613, the model worn by the Boozefighters. Another legend has it that retailers of the time had problems with people stealing the stars off the 613 following the film’s success. One thing we know for sure is that the Perfecto, the ultimate biker’s jacket, the symbol of rebellious and delinquent youth, had been born. Such was its symbolism, a number of schools in the UK and US banned the jackets completely in the 1950s.
Marlon Brando in The Wild One
In the 1950s, it was rare to see James Dean without his Perfecto biker jacket on. Here he wears a 613, which featured buttons to attach a fur collar to
Elvis was another member of the Perfecto club
From 1960 onwards, the biker jacket underwent a few more changes. It would now be made from beef leather, with certain characteristics on its labelling and cut, plus the angle of its pockets. The 613 and 618 became less popular while racing jackets personified by Steve McQueen were all the rage. Then came the 1970s. In this period of rebellion, hordes of young people turned against a society that was so idealistic, it had stopped being realistic. The punk movement was born. And it was the punk icons of this period that put the biker jacket once more right at centre stage, if you’ll excuse the pun. In the States, The Ramones sported the 613 One Star while in the UK, Sex Pistol bassist Sid Vicious insulted the Queen while wearing Schott’s new model, the 118.
The 118, which came out in 1977, was similar to the other models save a few minor differences. It was made from calfskin, which is much softer and therefore less protective – and less suitable for motorbike riding. It also had a slightly different cut.
Punk band The Ramones are probably the biggest biker jacket wearers of the last 50 years – or perhaps of all time
Sid Vicous, another big Perfecto fan
In France, singer-songwriter Renaud was perhaps the most famous wearer of the biker jacket
BIKER JACKETS TODAY
In today’s world, the biker jacket or Perfecto is still a highly popular garment. From 2000 onwards it image began to mellow out a lot and wearing it became more of a fashion statement. The work of many designers had steered it away from its original function and therefore the ‘hooligan’ connotations that always came with it. But wearing a biker jacket still makes a statement of being on the margins of society. In many people’s eyes this jacket has kept its image as something worn by the bad boys of this world – with many opting not to wear it at all simply because they’re a bit scared.
So no, bikers don’t always wear a leather jacket, and yes, the Perfecto can be worn by anyone – no matter what social group they class themselves as. But biker jackets still convey a certain mysticism, which remains terrifying for some. As Schott celebrates 100 years of existence, he who deigns to wear a biker jacket continues to exude a certain…je ne sais quoi.
To celebrate 100 years of the biker jacket, we’ll publish a special shopping selection all about motorcycle jackets.