Notes on the Leather Jacket: The Uniform of a Freewheeling Punk
“Hey, I have been cryptic. But I wrote a TV show and it's gonna be on Amazon Prime. [...] @luisangelcancel this is based on our twenties.”
Recently I was tagged by an old friend in the post above on Instagram. I read it with a mix of confusion and disbelief. I was waiting for my delivery order of spaghetti and meatballs from a very nice Italian restaurant, a personal ritual when my wife is out of town, and I’d just returned from a leisurely stroll around Lake Merritt with my 8-month-old puppy. These details are here to illustrate that my life is quite ordinary. Things are calm. My days have a comforting cadence. I always know what’s going on, what’s around the corner, and I'm in control. But this is all by design. I’ve craved normalcy. I’d been hungry for routine and stability. It wasn’t always this way.
“There I am, climbing a DJ booth, screaming, in a dark Philly club. There I am, very hungover, smoking a cigarette in some desert, somewhere in the American Southwest... I look like a man with no obligations.”
My twenties were chaotic and apparently dramatic enough to sell a show based on them to Amazon. Receiving this news sent me down a rabbit hole, plumbing the depths of my memory, and because it’s 2019, Facebook Memories for kernels of what my life was like in that time. There I am, climbing a DJ booth, screaming, in a dark Philly club. There I am, very hungover, smoking a cigarette in some desert, somewhere in the American Southwest, not a building or road in sight for miles behind me. I look like a man with no obligations. In both photos, I’m wearing a leather jacket. Further back, in high school, the leather moto jacket had been something of a holy grail for me. I’d endlessly search the local Goodwill, praying one would turn up. No luck. Look, I’m not that old, but this was a time where clothing’s power as a cultural signifier felt a bit stronger. Your wardrobe telegraphed your taste in music, your politics, your worldview. We hadn’t yet reached the days of Kendall Jenner wearing a tattered Slayer t-shirt en route to the Woodland Hills Equinox.
“Back then, I saw myself as nothing but a punk. Naturally, the leather jacket was a necessity.”
Back then, I saw myself as nothing but a punk. Naturally, the leather jacket was a necessity. For any budding fashion historians out there, here’s a brief history of how the style became the apparel equivalent of a middle finger raised to the world. Back in 1913, a manufacturer named Schott developed the moto jacket as we know it today. It wasn’t a smashing success from the get-go, but they found some traction wholesaling to Harley Davidson dealers. Then in 1953, with the release of Marlon Brando's leather-clad turn in “The Wild One,” the moto jacket’s popularity and association with badassery exploded. From there, its connection to youth culture was cemented by the likes of James Dean, and later, The Ramones along with the early punk scene of downtown New York. It’s been iconic from then on, inseparable from the idea that its wearers gleefully reject the dominant cultural norms of their day.
It wasn’t until around age 19 that I finally hit the moto jacket jackpot at a thrift store. It became my uniform. The jacket accompanied me on my band’s freewheeling cross-country tours, playing DIY venues and squat houses in bustling cities like Murfreesboro, Tennessee and Macon, Georgia. It was with me when our transmission blew in Chicago and we slept on the concrete floor of a printing plant. When I re-planted myself back in Philly, the jacket bore the scars of my travels.
I fell into DJing as the era of blogs and Sparks ascended (for the real young’ns, Sparks was a malt liquor/energy drink hybrid and predecessor to Four Loko.) I lived in a rented room with no furniture, no bed, not even a mattress, for $200 a month. It was a wild time that felt completely lawless. Everything was happening all the time. Where in the years prior, clothing signaled one’s cultural niche, the internet was breaking down barriers and providing everyone access to everything. The crowds at the clubs reflected this new reality—roughneck dudes from the block with teardrop tattoos and Sarah Lawrence grads dipped in American Apparel ecstatically shared the dance floor, writhing around to French electronic dance music. For years, I spent every second I could embedded in this world of excess. And I never abandoned my leather jacket. After all, what’s more punk than the destruction of a previous generation’s boundaries?
A lot has changed. I’m in my early thirties. The last time I did anything truly irresponsible was in 2013. I packed my life into a small sedan and drove out to San Francisco from Philly with Ashlyn, a girl I’d been dating for a few months. We had no plan for work or shelter. But things worked out. We landed good jobs. We got married. We go camping and eat at nice restaurants. We have people over and drink wine. We’ve got a really spoiled dog. Somewhere in there, I lost the leather jacket as my priorities shifted. In 2016, Ashlyn gifted me a beautiful brand-new Schott leather jacket with matte black hardware. I love it well past the point of being able to explain it. It is quite literally my second skin (sorry, vegans). I love that it makes me stand out like a sore thumb amongst the sea of startup-branded puffy jackets found here in the tech capital of the world. My wild days in clubs and anarchist warehouses around the country may be long gone but wearing my leather still feels like raising a defiant middle finger. It’s just now, I’m subverting the expectations of those that knew me way back when. Yes, this is my life now. I love every minute of it. And if I ever wanna re-live my reckless youth, soon I’ll turn on the TV and watch someone else act out my past while I kick back from the quiet comfort of my couch.