The American Motorcycle Jacket

The American Motorcycle Jacket
Photography: Columbia Pictures, Vanson Leathers, Wikimedia Commons

Before we talk about the traditional American motorcycle jacket, we should agree on its design features. Unfortunately, that is a tough topic. While Schott NYC started the motif in 1928 by swapping buttons for zippers, prior to 1953, there just wasn’t one predominant style that most American motorcyclists wore. Throughout the ‘20s and ‘30s, motorcycling attire in the U.S. could have been anything from a sweater to a formal suit and tie. We can see this in the photographs of the period. However, immediately after WWII, jacket manufacturers returned to peacetime work, and they fired up new designs and civilian production. Schott NYC, a major supplier for the U.S. Army Air Corps, fashioned their post-war products after military flight jackets. Their designs caught on, and they quickly showed up in films. Once in the movies, the Schott NYC motorcycle jacket led the pack, and the American motorcyclist took on an archetypal look.

One reason there wasn’t an “official” American motorcycle jacket before WWII was that in 1923, the price of the Ford Model T dropped through the floorboard. The price crash made cars more affordable, which ran most of America’s motorcycle companies pretty much right off the road. After that, if Ford didn’t siphon off all their gas, the Great Depression drained the last drop from just about everybody except Indian and Harley-Davidson. Fewer companies making fewer motorcycles meant fewer motorcyclists in jackets. The WWI-era knee-length fighter pilot’s leather coat and the thick wool racing jersey seen on the board tracks both soon went the way of the steam engine. During the ‘20s and ‘30s, there were some riders in leather, but motorcyclists on American roads after 1933 tended to be very wealthy and they often liked showing off their tailor-made suits.

The Birth of a Look

It wasn’t until soldiers returned state-side after WWII that a distinct style of jacket solidified the image of an American on a motorcycle. Before the war, Americans were still throwing on whatever was handy or what they thought made them look the part of a dapper motorcyclist. That all started to change around 1946 and 1947 when post-WWII motorcycle clubs were being formed.