The Pre-Dawn and Sport Jacket Eras of Motorcycle Jackets

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Fueling my growing interest in leather jackets, I recently picked up a copy of Rin Tanaka’s Motorcycle Jackets: A Century of Leather Design. Rin Tanaka, as I’m sure everyone knows, is the man behind the book series My Freedamn! and the vintage show Inspiration LA. He’s a giant figure in the vintage Americana scene - the kind of stuff related to early rock-and-roll, surf, rockabilly, workwear, and hot rod subcultures. 

The writing in Motorcycle Jackets often a bit awkward, but is otherwise chock full of great information. There’s a very short introduction (only a couple of pages long) before the book jumps into the different periods of motorcycle jacket design. I thought I’d throw up some images from my three favorite sections - the “Before Dawn” and “Sport Jacket” eras today, and then “The Golden Age of Motorcycle Jackets” later this week. 

There weren’t any real “motorcycle jackets” in the early 20th century, as there weren’t that many men who actually rode motorcycles. Those that did often wore a coat and tie (surprisingly), although some would have leather jackets custom made for them. Since no designs were specially made for motorcycle riding at the time, custom clothiers relied on sport coats or military garments for inspiration.

The earliest jackets - worn in the 1910s and 1920s - mostly took their cues from the A-1 flight jacket. There was a simple buttoned front, two-pockets at the hips, and fold-down rounded collar. Like flight jackets, these were often made from horsehide or goatskin. You can see some examples here. 


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The first jacket you see above, originally made by Simmons Bilt of Oakland, actually reminds me a bit of the Himel Brothers’ Heron model

Later in the century, we see motorcycle jackets become a bit more refined. As motorcycles were improving in their performance, and more men rode them, there became a need for tougher garments (no more coat and ties, no more borrowed designs). This period - from 1930 to about 1945 - is what Rin Tanaka calls “The Sport Jacket Era.” It’s when Harley Davidson started producing a variety of “genuine” motorcycle jackets, and big retailers such as Sears, Robuck & Co., Montgomery Ward, and JC Penney added a section of “sport leather jackets” to their catalogs. 

Here we see jackets with “W” style collars, diagonal zippers, and bi-swing backs. Jackets continued to be mainly produced from horsehide or goatskin, although a few cheaper jackets were made from cowhide. 


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Just for fun, here are some leather kidney belts that would be worn in conjunction with a motorcycle jacket. These were used to help support the body on long, extended trips. The Indian one is from Rin Tanaka’s own private collection, and was originally made in the 1930s. 


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Moving back to motorcycle jackets, you can see the continuation of aviation influence from the very early 20th century all the way up to this day. Here are some examples of the sewn on patches and painted backs on classic fight jackets, and examples of how these styles have been borrowed for motorcycle use. 


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Moving back to the 1930s and ’40s, here’s another great style: the grizzly jacket. Made with fur or horsehair, these were worn by outdoorsmen who wanted the styling and appearance of some of their other coats, but made appropriate for motorcycle riding. It was a popular style, but disappeared by the 1950s. Don’t tell anybody, but I kind of want one. Just to keep in the closet, of course.


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Here are examples of a great pioneer brand in this era. Leathertogs made coats from the highest quality vegetable-tanned horsehide (just marvel at how that material has aged) and incorporated a number of excellent details (belted waists, unique pockets, and zippered sleeves). Again, on some of these, you can still see the influence of aviation jackets.


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Also in the 1930s, a number of California sportswear companies emerged, many of them using cheap labor from Mexico and China. All of these would emphasize California in some way or another, whether it be some line about how the jacket was “styled in California” or “created in California.” There was, of course, also the California Sportswear Company, which just used the image of Californian mountains and a rising sun as their logo. You can almost hear the Mamas and Papas’ “California Dreamin’” when you see it (the logo, that is). 


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After the Gold Rush, San Francisco had a large pool of good, but cheap, Chinese labor, which made it easier for apparel companies to offer leather jackets. The most famous of these was probably Levis, who made leather jackets for policemen and outdoorsmen. 


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I’ll continue later this week with some photos from “The Golden Era,” but thought I’d end today with images of these two great looking guys in their much beloved Star jackets. The first one, Clif Majhor, is sitting on a 1937 Indian Sport Scout. That picture was taken in 1941, and he’s wearing a Block Bilt “Star” motorcycle jacket that his parents gifted him on his birthday. 


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