Harley-Davidson Museum Puts on Jackets

This sculpture of a leather motorcycle jacket welcomes riders to a new Harley-Davidson exhibit.

John Scott Lewinskiby John Scott Lewinski

There’s a whole lot of well-worn leather in one spot in Milwaukee – and it’s got nothing to do with some kind of domme convention.

The Harley-Davidson Museum in Beer Town is home to the history of America’s biggest and oldest motorcycle manufacturer. From a replica of the first bike circa 1903 to the development of the 21st Century V-Rod, the museum gives enthusiasts and casual visitors a chance to interact tactilely with the world of motorcycles.

Across the motorcycle-filled parking lot, Harley-Davidson built a smaller, special exhibit space where the museum rotates short term special exhibits. Last year at this time, the Exhibit X show was on display – featuring a mixed collection of the stranger items in the Harley-Davidson archives. There were bikes that set land speed records and choppers wrapped entirely in leather.

Now, that extra space is filled to the proverbial brim with black leather as the Worn to Be Wild Exhibit is on display now through Sept. 2, 2012.

The zipped up show examines the origins of the traditional biker jacket from its military origins up to its strong fashion presence in 2012. The waste-length, snug cut of what we now recognize as the classic motorcycle jacket owes its creation to the aviator jackets of the early 20th Century. Look at a bomber jacket. If you remove the fur collar, you’ll get the idea.

Two World Wars unfolded while Harley and other manufacturers around the world were developing the motorcycle. Riding picked up in popularity during that time, leading to improvement in design. For example, it took army messengers to figure out leather jackets shouldn’t extend to the knees as the material bunched up in the “G.I. crotch.” (That was my my favorite Elvis movie, by the way.)

In the celebratory, rebellious culture of the 1950s, the leather biker jacket took on a new personae that would stick with it throughout history. From Marlon Brando to James Dean and back to Presley (as all roads lead back to Elvis), the the black leather jacket became a symbol for defiance and freedom. The emergence of rock n’ roll only served to further cement that reputation to the present day.

The exhibit concludes with a look at how the once exclusively masculine leather jacket evolved into a fashion industry staple in various experimental cuts and colors.

Worn to be Wild: The Black Leather Jacket features more than 50 jackets gathered from the Harley-Davidson Archives, Hollywood storehouses and private collections. From Tinseltown, visitors can get a look a Arnold Schwartzeneger’s leather from Terminator 2, complete with the squib holes blasted into it to simulate gunfire. There’s also a biker jacket worn by Elvis Presley on his own Harley-Davidson.

The artistic centerpiece of the exhibit might be the collection of genuine punk rock jackets featured in and around the movie pieces. Each was creatively and intricately personalized by its own, creating a one of a kind creation every time.

Worn to be Wild: The Black Leather Jacket is open during standard museum hours. Adult admission for the museum is $18, while additional admission to the jacket display is $20.