This article was originally published in the September 1997 issue of Cycle World.

It was an embarrassing moment for me. A couple of years ago, I went out to lunch with a bunch of employees at the rock-and-roll station where my brother used to work. One of the younger DJs came with us, wearing a black leather motorcycle jacket of The Wild One variety. Without thinking, I asked what kind of motorcycle he had.

“Motorcycle?” he said, looking at me, blinking. “I don’t have any motorcycle. Why?”

Foolish question on my part.

Non-motorcyclists take the black leather jacket for granted now, as a mere fashion accessory. Everyone from the Ramones to Madonna has appeared publicly in some version of the Brando-style “Eric von Zipper” motorcycle jacket, so that it has become as harmless a cultural cliche as carhops on roller skates or the ‘57 Chevy.

We live in the age of pre-fab charisma, where mere money can buy you an artificially aged (right at the factory) Fender Stratocaster or a pre-stressed 50-mission flight jacket. Buy the stuff, share the life. And with a black leather jacket, the spurious risk-image of motorcycling can rub off on you without the inconvenience of learning which is the clutch lever or ever getting wet. Or crashing. Everyone wants a piece of the danger, but no one wants to get hurt. We want authenticity to come easy, without too much stress or conflict.

It was not always so.

There was a time in America when symbols had real meaning, and the black leather jacket was a potent one. No one dreamed of wearing a motorcycle jacket without owning a motorcycle.

Why?

Well, for one thing, wearing a black leather motorcycle jacket into the wrong bar could get you beaten up. It could also get you kicked out of school, shunned by "nice" girls, turned down for jobs and stared at by cops with mirrored sunglasses. Style choices used to come with unpredictable and amazing consequences. Sadly, I am just old enough to have lived through this strange era.

Where did it all start? And why?

Logic certainly had a role. Leather has traditionally been—and remains—the best anti-abrasion material for motorcycle clothing. The uniquely intertwined corkscrew cells in leather will not tear or rip along a faultline as most fabrics do. Also, leather is windproof and, when lined, warm. And its long-wearing and good-looking.

Okay, but why black leather?

That’s easy. It’s the same color as dirty chain lube, seeping Harley gear oil, old Indian wheel-bearing grease, the underside of your Triumph and the blacktop upon which you knelt to examine the gaping connecting-rod hole in your BSA engine cases. Doesn’t show the dirt, as Mom used to say. If we could breed dies and junebugs without yellow-green innards, it would be perfect.

I’ve looked through a lot of my old motorcycle books for the first appearance of the black leather jacket, but it's hard to tell where the tradition begins. From the earliest days of motoring and flying, people realized leathers advantages in fighting off this new form of machine-generated wind, and I have photos from the 1911 Isle of Man TT showing riders in full black leathers—often with neckties worn underneath. American racers, for the most part, wore wool jerseys and looked like rugby players.

Non-racing riders seem to have gone for natty woolen-and-tweed suits, with the occasional use of sheepskin-lined leather coats with big wool collars.

But the first photo of a street rider in the classic black leather motorcycle jacket doesn’t appear—in my files—until just after WWII: the age of the restless, existential rebel hopped up on Bop music and bongo drums. Or just someone who needed a warm, practical jacket.

Typically, this was the short, “Cycle Champ”-style jacket, usually of horsehide, with a bottom belt, overlapping front, snap-down collar and countless zippers-some with rabbits feet attached. Sort of a leather Eisenhower jacket, with good-luck features.

Racers and sport riders generally shunned all of the self-snagging appurtenances and stuck with an unadorned black leather jacket with a mandarin collar, tight-fitting sleeves and two simple zippered chest pockets. A racing-striped version of same may be seen on Peter Fonda in Easy Rider. This has always been my favorite type of motorcycle jacket. I still have my original Buco version, and just had a less-battered replica of it made by Bates.

Both styles were around in the ‘50s, and they soon became emblematic of British Rockers, serious American riders and various brands of rebel in the motorcycling sub-strata. Elvis had one. So did James Dean, Eddie Cochran, Gene Vincent and Marlon Brando. (How’s that for unpaid star endorsement?) And before the Beatles were cleaned up by Brian Epstein, they had ‘em, too.

It didn't take Middle America long to connect these jackets with rock-and-roll, overstimulated hormones, greasy ducktails, big sideburns, loud pipes and the sort of trouble that rode into Hollister, California, one fine day and tore up the town. Ordinary citizens had seen the photos in Life magazine and they were Not Happy.

You could almost say they were violently, homicidally unhappy. A wave of revulsion for all things motorcycle swept over the country, and the black leather jacket was its arch symbol.

By the time I was a freshman in high school in the early ‘60s, wearing a black leather jacket was an invitation to be ostracized by all but the toughest elements in your hometown. Even the hoods in my high school quit wearing black leather jackets. They were afraid some older, unemployed biker with three teeth would kill them with the broken-off neck of a beer bottle, just on principle.

Anyway, where would they go? No cafe would let them in the front door, nor would anyone’s parents. Nor the school. All they could do was stand on the street and draw contempt. Black leather was powerful medicine.

The country slowly got over that phobia as things loosened up in the ‘60s, but when I took my first cross-country motorcycle trip in 1967, I still had to park half a block from a motel and leave that black leather Buco roadracing jacket on my bike each time I tried to get a room. Otherwise the No Vacancy light came on.

I usually took it off and folded it before I walked into restaurants, to prevent icy stares, stalled conversation and very slow service. Or none. The movie Easy Rider in no way exaggerates the anti-biker/hippie/beatnik/longhair mood of the era. It could be very chilly out there. Dangerous, even.

For the most part, we don’t even have to think about this stuff anymore. It would surprise a black-clad motorcyclist to be discriminated against now—at least in any non-formal setting.

America has learned to live and let live a little better than it used to, and we can probably thank the Ramones and Madonna—and my brother’s DJ friend at the radio station—for turning motorcycle jackets into a relatively benign, standard fashion item, so the rest of us can wear this practical gear in its intended place without drawing flak.

I think it has also helped that Harley-Davidson, with its charity rides and fundraisers, has managed to portray even leather-clad bikers as basically nice people. Who'd have thought you'd ever meet the nicest people on a Low Rider?

But that’s a fairly easy message to get across these days, especially to a generation of aging Rockers. Society has learned to be remarkably tolerant, now that we are them and they are us.

And Brando is 73.