The black leather motorcycle jacket "reads as cultural shorthand for cool," insists the EMP's press release for its Worn to Be Wild exhibition, happening now. But really, not many of us could pull one off, apart from Capitol Hill's Lather Daddy Laundry's mascot, anyway: the husky soap bubble with a mustache and S&M captain cap. But it has no actual body, and that presents some obvious obstacles. So let's go with the guy in the jeans, the heavy-metal concert tee, and the black tricornered leather hat encrusted with silver skull pins witnessed slow-dancing to Scorpions' "Wind of Change" in the poolroom of Greenwood's Yen Wor Garden a couple weeks ago. And I guess Lemmy can wear one, too, and grumpy aunts. But that's it.
Now let's get back to the exhibition, which begins with '20s-era utilitarian automobile wear, then the WWII bomber jackets, and then other vintage examples of the motorcycle jacket morphing into its classic shape. To accommodate the biking posture, the fit is bizarre: pitched-forward arms, longer sleeves and back, and extra room between the shoulder blades. And the snug chest, built-in waist belt, and snap closures everywhere cockblock unsavory road effects, such as the garment billowing, climbing up, or willy-nilly flapping in the wild, wild winds.
The next room is a pop-culture wonderland, with designs chosen less for their fashiony riches and more for their celebrity wearers. There's a black leather motorcycle jacket on display because Elvis once owned it. It looks like a black leather motorcycle jacket. Michael Jackson's has swingy Western fringe and lots of patches: a one-eyed pirate, a confederate flag (!), a set of hands choking an eagle. (The eagle appears confused and unhappy.) Fergie's is radically glitzy, crammed with studs and metal caps from disposable lighters, and was created by leatherwear designer to the stars Agatha Blois. (She makes other custom garments, too. Per Alec Wilkinson's New Yorker article, a client once sent Agatha "a photograph from a fashion magazine of Iggy Pop naked and wrote, 'I want a pair of pants just like that.'")
The final section tributes punk badassery and youthful turmoil, and the jackets' embellishments include padlocks, safety pins, carpet tacks, rips, chains, painted images (crossed-out swastikas, syringes puncturing skulls), scrawling text ("Aspirin Feast"), and macaroni noodles, glued on, to replicate barf. There's also a great high-fashion batch, including works of Jeremy Scott (with a gorgeously frantic Keith Haring print), Rei Kawakubo for Comme des Garçons (it's clear plastic), and Jean Paul Gaultier (with zippers, snaps, and buckles layered so delicately that they appear drip-dried in liquid leather, rendering them charmingly useless).
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This article has been updated since its original publication.