The Motorcycle Jacket: From Mussolini to knitwear and biker gangs to toddler styles?

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“Sportswear Knitted Fashions: Ski Coats Copy Mussolini’s Motorcycle Jacket Or Fan-Shaped Yokes.” 1933. Women’s Wear Daily, Sep 01, 12.

Sometimes I come across the strangest things while doing research. Many are aware of the more traditional elements of the history of the Motorcycle jacket, and its association with twentieth-century rebellion, youth, and masculinity.

Its history lies in World War I and aviation attire, but the standard asymmetrical motorcycle jacket style was defined in the late 1920s with a Schott Brothers design called the “Perfecto” (Schott 2019). They were the first to put a zipper on a jacket, and the look took hold. Hollywood films of the 1950s, combined with rock-and-roll style solidified the image of the tough, rebellious biker with slicked-back hair, spawning the greaser trend. By the 1970s the black leather jacket was being used by New York City Punk musicians and gay subcultures who added studs, chains, safety pins and other personalization’s. It is an iconic representation of twentieth-century American culture.

However, I recently unearthed two odd tidbits about the motorcycle jacket’s trajectory:

Did you know that Mussolini’s Motorcycle Jacket impacted knitwear styles in 1933? Or that you could clothe your 2-year-old in a Marlon-Brando-Perfecto-Style leather motorcycle jacket as early as 1955?

Apparently, after Benito Amilcare Andrea Mussolini (1883- 1945), Italy’s Fascist leader, appeared in American newspapers and newsreels inspecting and leading 10,000 of his troops in a celebratory parade from a motorcycle in late May of 1933, Bradley Knitting Company (of Delavan, Wisconsin) began producing skiwear inspired by his look. Mussolini motorcycle coats were made of beige and brown wool with metal buttons with a matching knit cap.

And then there’s this square-looking six-year-old in a tie-wearing the more recognizable version of an ‘authentic’ motorcycle jacket in 1955 by Los Angeles-based, California Sportswear. . .

“Children’s Wear —Toddlers through Teens: Motorcycle Jacket.” 1955. Women’s Wear Daily, Jul 20, 50.
Schott, Perfecto jacket, black leather, circa 1980, USA. Museum purchase, P89.29.1. (Museum at FIT)

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

*Mussolini is warmly applauded when he leads a rally at Rome driving his own motorcycle Date: May 1933

Further Information:

“Children’s Wear —Toddlers through Teens: Motorcycle Jacket.” 1955. Women’s Wear Daily, Jul 20, 50. Accessed April 1, 2019. http://ezproxy.montclair.edu:2048/login?url=https://search-proquest-com.ezproxy.montclair.edu/docview/1523286761?accountid=12536.

DeLong, Marilyn, and Juyeon Park. 2008. “From Cool to Hot to Cool: The Case for the Black Leather Jacket.” In The Men’s Fashion Reader, edited by Andrew Reilly and Sarah Cosbey, 166–179. New York: Fairchild Books.

Duffy, Keanan. 2009. Rebel, Rebel: Anti-Style. New York: Universe Publishing.

Podolsky, Jeffrey. 2014. “Cruising the History of Biker Jackets.” New York Times Magazine. March 4. Accessed April 1, 2019. https://tmagazine.blogs.nytimes.com/…/on-view-cruising-the-history-of-biker-jackets/

Schott. 2019. “The Classic American Success Story.” Accessed April 1, 2019. https://www.schottnyc.com/about.cfm


Heather Vaughan Lee  is the founding author of Fashion Historia. She is an author and historian, whose work focuses on the study of dress in the late 19th through the 20th century. Covering a range of topics and perspectives in dress history, she is primarily known for her research on designer Natacha Rambova, American fashion history, and the history of knitting in America and the UK. Her forthcoming book, Artifacts from American Fashion is forthcoming in 2020 from ABC-CLIO.  More posts by the Author »

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Kaffe Fassett: Dreaming in Colour (An Autobiography)

A Chenille and Lurex dress Fassett knitted with actual pearls, in front of one of his needlepoint tapestries. (1970s)

The new book, Dreaming in Colour, an autobiography by Kaffee Fassett, presents the story of this well-known, eclectic textile designer. Born in Big Sur, California, Fassett designed knitwear for Bill Gibb, the Missonis, and private clients (including Lauren Bacall and Barbara Streisand).

Though he trained briefly as a painter, his creative outlets have also included a wide-range of other textile arts, including needlepoint, rug-making, tapestries, costume design, yarn and fabric design, as well as quilting. He was also the subject of a rare, one-man retrospective show of his textile work at the Victoria & Albert Museum in 1988. Though one can’t exactly call him a California designer (he’s lived in England most of his adult life), it’s clear his work was often inspired by California.

Kaffee Fassett in front of the Jars Tapestry, with a couple of his knits from the 1980s (Chapter opener for "The Glorious Eighties", pg 130)

Dreaming in Colour is a full of brightly colored photographs and illustrations of not only Fassett’s textile work, and illustrations, but also historical photographs. The chapters are laid out historically, and begin with a discussion of his “Childhood in California (1937-1956)”. They continue on to discuss “England in the Swinging Sixties” and “The Glorious Eighties,” among others: often focusing on the dress and textile history of those periods.

One interesting aspect of the book is how the photo-collages in each chapter show his development as a designer. Family photographs and artwork by other family members are juxtaposed by representations of his own work – showing a direct line of influence (such as a painting by his sister Holly of the Big Sur coastline shown alongside a handwoven fabric of the 1990s inspired by the colors of the ocean at Big Sur).

Those looking for previously unpublished information on Fassett’s design inspiration, history and art are sure to find their answers in Dreaming in Colour. It’s also a marvelous book for those in need of inspiration for their own art and craft endeavors.

Camp chairs Fassett covered with needlepoint florals, he called them "Gibson Girls" (1985-87)
The Hollyhock Tapestry, commission for the Stamford Shakespeare Company (9 X 6 feet), a more recent project.
Bordered Diamonds from "Simple Shapes Spectacular Quilts" (2010) by Kaffe Fassett
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Yarn Bombs, Knitting and Gender

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A friend recently drew my attention to the 80 feet of new yarn in downtown Berkeley – suggesting that I was the culprit. I was not, but ever since reading The Culture of Knitting by Joanne Turney I’ve become fascinated with this particular iteration of street art / graffiti. Bansky’s Exit Through the Gift Shop was the first time I thought remotely about graffiti as art, but it wasn’t until I watched the trailer below that I began to think of yarn or knit bombs as a gendered pursuit – though I have to wonder about showing images of mothers ‘yarn-bombing’ with children in tow. This potential film brings up a number of questions for me: Does it have the same level of danger associated with it? Are there substantial legal troubles? Do businesses like it better than ‘traditional graffiti’ (now there’s an odd turn of phrase)? Do people consider it art, or merely decorative ?

I do hope that Sarah Gonzalez gets to make and release her documentary, I’d be curious to see the artists profiled and find out of they have the same legal troubles that standard graffiti artists face. In the Bay Area at least, it seems that knitted street art has more staying power and less of a stigma. It seems somehow more egalitarian, and that anyone (or any knitter) could participate. Does that also mean that the artists are less respected? How do male graffiti artists perceive this format – and will it eventually loose its cache once a museum does an exhibition of yarn bombs? I’m curious to see where this goes…

*Image via Berkeleyside

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