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'Worn to be Wild': Celebrating the black leather jacket

Courtesy of the Harley-Davidson Museum

The Harley-Davidson Museum in Milwaukee, Wis., is exhibiting more than 50 leather jackets, including this one that belonged to Elvis Presley. The exhibit opens this weekend.

Today it’s an icon in pop culture and fashion, but the black leather jacket was originally a utilitarian piece of clothing designed to protect travelers.

“In the early part of the 20th century, whether you were flying a plane or driving a motorcycle or a horseless carriage, everything had an open cockpit. So the idea of leather being an appropriate material for transportation gear emerged early on,” said Jim Fricke, curatorial director at the Harley-Davidson Museum in Milwaukee, Wis.

On Saturday, the museum kicks off “Worn to be Wild: The Black Leather Jacket,” which runs through Sept. 3. More than 100 artifacts are on display, including dozens of jackets worn by celebrities and pop culture icons as well as leather jackets from fashion houses such as Jean Paul Gaultier and Gianni Versace. The exhibit also uses a wide variety of motorcycles, photographs, film footage, literature, advertisements and music to explore how this single article of clothing became such an iconic object in popular culture.

During World War I and II, pilots were photographed looking dashing in their leather bomber jackets, but the public’s fascination with the zippered, wind-protecting garment soared in the 1950s, when Hollywood got hold of it.

“It happened because of the movie ‘The Wild One,’ when Marlon Brando played a motorcycle gang member and wore one of our black leather jackets,” said Jason Schott, COO of Schott Bros. clothing manufacturer and great-grandson of Irving Schott, who is credited with making the first zippered leather motorcycle jacket in 1928. 

Brando’s bad-boy image seemed cool, so people wanted that jacket. But because the jacket was associated with hoodlums and juvenile delinquency, many schools tried to ban it.  

At the time, leather jackets were considered one way to identify juvenile delinquents, said Fricke, who included memos from an Ohio school district in the new exhibit.  

“That made people want it even more,” said Schott. “The jacket just became synonymous with the rugged bravado that Americans seemed to embody.”

Despite a lull during the hippie era in the 1960s,  Fricke said, the black leather jacket has maintained its role as the uniform of youthful rebellion and has been seen on everyone from James Dean and Elvis Presley to the Ramones and Bruce Springsteen.

A leather outfit worn by Arnold Schwarzenegger in “Terminator 2” and leather jackets worn by musicians and celebrities such as Fergie, Gene Vincent and Michael Jackson are among items on display. The exhibit also reunites the Harley Davidson motorcycle bought by a 21-year-old  Elvis Presley in 1956 with the motorcycle jacket he bought a few years later, from J.C. Penney. 

After leaving Milwaukee, "Worn to be Wild" will move to Seattle’s EMP Museum, home of some of the music and science-fiction artifacts included in the show, and will run from October 2012 through February 2013.

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Find more by Harriet Baskas on StuckatTheAirport.com and follow her on Twitter. 

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