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The very first motorcycle riders were wealthy gentlemen who rode in leisurely style. They wore tweed suits, full-length boots, and flat caps. When motorcycles became faster in the early years of the twentieth century, and motorcycles were more widely used, gauntlets entered the motorcyclist wardrobe. Among the first to protect their hands from wind and debris were motorcycle police and military folks.
Motorcycle racing had other needs. The Harley Davidson “wrecking crew” wore heavy knit pullover sweaters. This morphed into the competition sweater. It fit tightly and had the motorcycle brand or the club name in felt on its bright colored wool. But wool just wasn’t protective enough for racing use, or even for the faster speeds ordinary riders achieved. By 1910, special riding trousers, along with leather skull caps and goggles made to meet aircraft specifications were in widespread use.
Seeking more protection, in the 1920s, riders adopted the horsehide overcoats worn during the days of World War I.
Big changes happened in the late twenties. Irving Schott designed the first leather jacket for motorcyclists in 1928 in New York City. Irving and Jack Schott began their business making raincoats in their basement. Peddlers then went door-to-door selling the coats. Irving added leather jackets, which he named “Perfecto” after his favorite cigar. The Schott NYC company was the first to use a zipper on jackets. In 1928, Irving designed the very first motorcycle jacket. It retailed for $5.50 and was sold at a Harley Davidson dealership on Long Island. These first jackets were made of durable horsehide. They had a belted front, a D-pocket and a flapped change pocket. The sleeve cuffs had zippers. Epaulettes decorated the shoulders. One side of the front zipper was set in a couple of inches—making it a “double riders jacket”—to create a windproof seal when it was zipped up.
If you’ve seen the movie Lawrence of Arabia, you know that T. E. Lawrence was killed when his motorcycle hit a tree in 1935. He was hugely popular, and his death had a profound effect on motorcycle enthusiasts. Riders used crash helmets, which were made from cork or tin. The first full-face, cork-lined helmet wasn’t designed until the 1960s. Roy Richter designed it at Bell Auto Parts.
In the late 1940s Schott NYC introduced the 613, called the “One Star” because it had a star on each epaulette. As it turned out, people couldn’t seem to resist stealing the stars, and, in the 1950s the 618 jacket came out—with stars. The 618 is the jacket Marlon Brando wore in The Wild One. Banned from many high schools in the 1950s, they were a natural choice for punk rockers like The Ramones. The jacket Peter Fonda wore in Easy Rider is another Schott original: the Café racer, a single rider jacket with a stand-up collar.
Motorcycle enthusiasts still wear the classic jacket and high boots, though technology has brought so many changes to every aspect of motorcycle gear. Leathers have invaded the fashion world, but fashion has also entered the motorcycle realm. Nowadays riders might wear bright, reflective suits or streamlined-looking helmets that seem designed for space exploration.
What do you think the future will bring to motorcycle gear? Let’s talk about that on the Eagle Leather Facebook page!