Sunday, October 25, 2015

Harleys, Leather Jackets, and Grandpas

I was in a thrift shop. Most of the shoppers were there to look for Halloween costumes. Two men in their thirties were shopping for more practical items. One commented that he wanted to take a minute to look for a leather jacket.

The other man chuckled at the stylistic choice. “Why? Are you a grandpa?” The way he saw it, a leather jacket was something you would wear if you wanted people to think of you as an old man.

Of course, this is probably not the way most people who wear leather jackets think of their look. The protective qualities of leather mean you’re ready for what happens when things start flying. That can translate to a sense of adventure. But that connotation doesn’t come across when you are just standing around, or worse, sitting on the sofa.

As a rock musician, I wear leather jackets sometimes, not just for their historical association with rock, but also because it’s a style I can easily afford. Most of my leather jackets cost me between $3 and $8 in places like the thrift shop where I was, even if it didn’t have any on the racks on this particular day. I feel sure I look a little more natural in a cotton fleece sweat jacket, but those cost more and don’t last nearly as long.

The price I pay for a leather jacket ought to tell me something. Something that costs more than $50 to make and sells for $6 is something that has fallen out of favor, even if it is something as durable as a leather jacket. You won’t see much leather on today’s rock musicians. When you do see a rocker wearing leather, the wearer is likely to be a heavy metal musician, an actual motorcycle rider, or a musician old enough to be working on his 15th album. In my case, I fall into that last group.

Leather sneaked into heavy metal mainly because Judas Priest singer Rob Halford saw an opportunity to introduce elements of S&M fashion into the band’s look, but it was also helped by the Easy Rider film from a decade before, which featured Harley-Davidson motorcycles, leather jackets, and the Steppenwolf song “Born to Be Wild.” Of course, the black leather jacket was a staple of rock ’n’ roll style from a decade before that. This jacket in turn was based on the bomber jacket pilots wore in the early decades of aviation. While the links are easy to trace, it is easy to see how the leather jacket has come to mean so many different things to different people.

If leather is out of fashion these days, Harley-Davidson, the motorcycle manufacturer, is dealing with the same issue. Benjamin Preston quotes Kelley Blue Book analyst Michelle Krebs in The Guardian:

The younger generation has no interest in Harley-Davidson as far as I can tell. Unless you ride a motorcycle or scooter in a city as your transportation, motorcycles are a splurge millennials can’t afford and have no interest in – especially Harley-Davidson, which seems like a old white-guy brand.

The “old white guy” is almost the same as the “grandpa” I started out with. The rest of the story in The Guardian’s business section is worth a look:

Leather jackets and Harley-Davidson are caught up in the inherent impracticality of the aging rebel persona. In the eastern United States in particular, they tie into stereotypes we’ve seen too much of. We have all seen people who seem to sincerely believe that ratty clothes, the “rebel flag,” dodging responsibility, beer, firearms, being ready to fight, and being as loud as humanly possible are the solutions to the world’s problems. That point of view might be laughable, but it is just common enough to be taken seriously. If you want to be cool, you can’t be seen as buying in to that point of view. The impractical side of the aging rebel is especially uncool these days.

Impracticality is, I must admit, a drawback of leather jackets. They’re good only in a narrow range of weather. I don’t like the sweaty, clammy feeling that goes with a leather jacket in warm weather, like September. I look foolish shivering in a leather jacket in freezing weather in December. Leather won’t last long if I wear it out in the rain. That leaves only about 30 days in the fall season on which a leather jacket makes any sense, basically in November. That’s too restrictive a season to allow a garment to be a staple of a wardrobe.

If leather jackets are not so practical, Harley-Davidson has worse problems. A Harley-Davidson motorcycle burns through just as much fossil fuel as a Toyota Prius. That’s not because it’s designed badly, but more an inherent limitation of the technology. The internal combustion engine loses efficiency when you scale it down to the level needed for a car or a motorcycle. That in itself is a hard sell to those of us who may be young enough to see the coastlines submerged by the sea level rise caused by burning fossil fuels. What makes it embarrassing is that the Harley costs about the same as the Prius. Seriously? You could have bought a car, but it wasn’t loud enough for you?

Adding to the practical difficulties, there are the stylistic difficulties, which also are hard to get around. Motorcycle safety requires the kind of leather jacket that is no longer cool as soon as you’re parked.

Harley-Davidson, I think, will have to come up with a new, more practical story to win over the under-45 crowd. As for the leather jacket, its run might be over. With modern materials that offer more design flexibility, it’s hard to make a case for making clothing out of leather except as a nod to another era.