[dropcap]F[/dropcap]or nearly two years I’ve been planning a cross-country event for women riders called the Sisters’ Centennial Motorcycle Ride. Aside from the contact I’ve had with other riders, the deepest pleasure for me has been learning about the early days of motorcycling. The Van Buren sisters, my inspiration for the ride, rode state-of-the-art motorcycles (for the time) and the customary motor clothes of the age. Legend has it that they were arrested several times for wearing “men’s clothing” (pants) on their cross-country journey.
Early motorcycle clothing was adopted from the apparel worn in aviation. Leather caps, bomber jackets and leather breeches were the norm; venting, armor and wicking materials were several decades to come. Horsehide was the common leather then, with horses still in use as farm animals and transportation, horse leather hides were a common byproduct. Schott NYC still makes horsehide jackets, if you’re willing to spend $1,300 for a CHIPs-style riding jacket. Hillside USA makes a modern horsehide jacket as well, and the modern-day Buco replicas fetch nearly twice the $1,000 originals you can find in the vintage stores.
The leather motorcycle jacket was the best of the vintage motorcycle apparel, and has stood the test of time. The leather cap, based upon the original aviation headgear, was luckily superseded by ever more protective alternatives. Increasing advancements in the speeds of the motorcycles led to more accidents and injuries, thereby creating the need for more protective headgear. In 1954, Roy Richter, founder of Bell Helmets, came out with the first helmet that was comprised of a composite outer shell, the 500.
Richter was part of the California hot rod scene and was frustrated seeing his friends get injured and killed. He owned a speed shop in Bell, California, hence the name of his long-standing helmet company. “A lot of motorcycle gear was repurposed equestrian and military stuff. And if you traced auto racing protective gear, that set motorcycle precedents. Not much real protective gear was motorcycle centric; I’d estimate until the 1930s boots were “lineman” designs, what utility workers wore,” said Mark Mederski, special projects director at the National Motorcycle Museum.
Modern day motorcycle apparel developers pull the best ideas from all sports. Gore-Tex came from the camping industry. Products like Moto Skiveez are inspired from the bicycling industry. The steel shanks in motorcycle boots were first found in workmen’s boots. All materials can be adapted, changed and updated to fit the special needs of motorcyclists.
From the Omni-Directional Suspension (ODS) in 6D helmets, inspired in part from football head injuries, to the now-ubiquitous riding jeans inspired by military body armor made from DuPont Kevlar, the race is on by all apparel companies to capture the latest and greatest materials to protect motorcycle riders and find a way to put them into production. It will be interesting to see the advancements that come in the next few decades when we are the ones inspiring future generations.