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Beyond Rebellion

Posted by Maria
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Photo by Peter Lindbergh, Vogue, 1991.

One of the most satisfying moments in movie history comes at the end of 1978’s Grease. In an effort to win back her man, Sandy sheds her starched, prim poodle skirts and emerges a prowling pussycat. While the bouffant and dangling cigarette accessorize, it’s the biker jacket, collar irreverently flipped, that cues the electrifying transformation; the old Sandy is gone and her replacement is thrilling, mysterious, and irresistible.

 

Olivia Newton John and John Travolta in Grease, 1978.

 

In the lexicon of classic fashion design, the biker jacket stands out as the edgiest. To don one is to slip on an instant layer of cool. A new exhibit at the museum at FIT Beyond Rebellion: Fashioning the Biker Jacket charts the history of the jacket; from its genesis as utilitarian outwear, it evolved to a universal symbol of teenage rebellion, and serves today as an alluring high-fashion template for a designer’s ingenuity.

In 1928, Schott’s Brothers of New York City received a request from a Harley Davidson motorcycle distributor for an outwear garment that addressed the specific needs of the biker clientele. The resulting design was based on the jackets of German World War I aviators. So was born the Perfecto. These early days were dictated by functionality – black leather horsehide was durable and masked the dust of the open road, exposed zippers on the sleeves accommodated gloves and epaulettes on the shoulders provided a place to store them, the asymmetrical front closure allowed for mobility, snaps, zips, belts and straps kept out the cold. Unruly motorcycle clubs wholeheartedly accepted the design, and it was the spirit of biker culture that would imbue the garment with its powerful mystique subliminally tinged with danger, exhilaration and sex.

The archetype of the defiant, rowdy biker was embodied by a brooding Marlon Brando in 1953’s The Wild One. He was soon emulated by youth culture around the world. In France, a young Yves Saint Laurent, newly appointed at Christian Dior, drew inspiration from the dissident garb of beatniks and Left Bank students for his 1960 collection. His take on the street style? Black crocodile skin trimmed with mink. Vogue featured the jacket as the frontispiece for a feature titled “Leather: Great New Fashion Natural”. The piece itself is unfortunately not on view, but what we do see in the line up of high-fashion adaptations of the biker jacket is the legacy of one of the most important themes in 20th century fashion design, street style seeping onto the runway.

 

Vogue, Model wearing Dior by Yves Saint Laurent leather jacket, 1960.

 

The exhibition is like a midafternoon meal, a tasty morsel that is at once nourishing and easily digestible. The timeless pieces are attractively offset by walls painted in Pantone’s 2014 Color of the Year (Radiant Orchid, don’t cha know?). What is most striking in the long hallway that opens the show is the tenacity of design; the scant changes from the Perfecto to a Versace are by way of embellishments. The jacket’s skeleton is hardy, both materially and conceptually, a truth that may explain why designers eagerly revisit the item time and time again. All the usual suspects are there – deconstruction in a Rick Owens jacket (Fall 2008), a juxtaposition of gender norms in a Commes de Garçons jacket and skirt (spring 2005 Biker + Ballerina collection), sculpture flamboyance in a Jean Paul Gaultier (1987). And there are also a few surprises – namely a 1989 golden studded Carolina Herrera.

One of the great impediments of displaying fashion is that garments, items designed for three-dimensional experience, are isolated from the viewer. This feeling is particularly acute when highlighting a material that runs the gamut from grainy to buttery. Here, tactile satisfaction is achieved through a cleverly rigged interactive wall. Feel your way through the different weight and sheen of suede, patent, lambskin and cowhide, even imitation leather. The engaging feature is also an apt reminder of the organic nature of leather, a durable material that ages with grace and dignity. This final feature would have been a welcome addition to the show; although wear and tear is a conservator’s nightmare, its reality holds the story and spirit of any garment. In the end, the show succeeds in the way that the best exhibits do, investigating a topic that holds egalitarian appeal. What started as a symbol of counterculture has been adopted at the fringe of so many generations – greasers, beaks, punks, goths, fetishists – that it now appeals to every demographic, from a Midwestern teamster to a French Voguette. As for us, we take our cue’s from Vogue’s 1991 biker tour de force, the editorial “Wild at Heart”, shot Peter Lindberg, styled by Grace Coddington, and featuring a bevy of supers. Babes on bikes? Tell me about it, stud.

 

Beyond Rebellion: Fashioning the Biker Jacket at FIT, Photo by Maria Echeverri.

 

Beyond Rebellion: Fashioning the Biker Jacket at FIT, Photo by Maria Echeverri.

 

Beyond Rebellion: Fashioning the Biker Jacket at FIT, Photo by Maria Echeverri.

 

Beyond Rebellion: Fashioning the Biker Jacket at FIT, Photo by Maria Echeverri.

 

 

(L) A 2005 Comme des Garçons ensemble from the bikerballerina collection. (R) Jean Paul Gaultier 1982.

 

(L) Biker Chick, 1949. (R) Anne Bancroft, 1950s.

 

(L) James Dean, 1950s. (R) Marlon Brando, 1954.

 

Elvis Presley, 1955.

 

(L) Rita Tushingham on the set of the iconic British film, “The Leather Boys”, 1963. (R) Rita Tushingham and Colin Campbell in the iconic British film, “The Leather Boys”, 1963.

 

(L) Steve McQueen, 1963. (R) "Big Barbara, Chicago" from The Bikeriders by Danny Lyon, 1965.

 

(L) “Memorial Day run, Milwaukee” from The Bikeriders by Danny Lyon, 1965. (R) Francoise Hardy, 1969.

 

(L) Debbie Harry, 1977. (R) Joan Jett, 1977.

 

(L) David Bowie. (R) Debbie Harry. (dates unknown)

 

(L) The Ramones, 1978. (R) The Clash with Al Fields, David Johansen and Debbie Harry, NYC, Image by Bob Gruen, 1979.

 

(L) Gwyneth Paltrow in High School. (R) Sid and Nancy.

 

(L) Tina Turner, 1984. (R) Grace Jones in the James Bond film A View to Kill, 1984.

 

Madonna, 1980s.

 

(L) Cher, 1987. (R) Johnny Depp, Traci Lords and Ricki Lake in Cry Babe, 1990.

 

Carolyn Bessette.

 

(L) Star Jackets for Fall, Photo by Steven Meisel, Model Linda Evangelista, Hair Oribe, Makeup François Nars, US Vogue August 1987. (L) Cindy Crawford, 1990.

 

(L) Courtney Love and Kurt Cobain, 1990s. (R) Winona Ryder, 1990s.

 

(L) Calvin Klein Ad, 1990s. (R) Chanel Ad with Christy Turlington and Linda Evangelista, Photo by Karl Lagerfeld, A/W 1991.

 

Versace, 1990s.

 

'Wild at Heart' Editorial, Photo by Peter Lindbergh, Styled by Grace Coddington, Vogue 1991.

 

'Wild at Heart' Editorial, Photos by Peter Lindbergh, Styled by Grace Coddington, Vogue 1991.

 

'Wild at Heart' Editorial, Photos by Peter Lindbergh, Styled by Grace Coddington, Vogue 1991.

 

(L) Liv Tyler, Photo by Myers Robertson, YM Magazine, April 1993. (R) Johnny Depp and Kate Moss, 1994.

 

(L) Kate Moss, Vogue Paris, September 2010. (R) Rooney Mara, W Magazine, 2011.

 

(L) Rihanna, Photo by Terry Richardson, 2013. (R) Anna Dello Russo, Paris Fashion Week 2012.

 

(L) Caroline de Maigret. (R) Daria Werbowy.

 

(L) Emma Watson. (R) Emmanuelle Alt, Photo by StyleDuMonde.

 

Mary-Kate and Ashley Olsen.

 

Naomi Campbell, Harper's Bazaar Singapore, Photo by Gan, January 2014.

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