Before anyone born after, say, 1970 watches the Wild One, the outlaw biker film that premiered in New York City on this day in 1954, they need to come armed with a bit of background. Because social mores about teenagers have changed so much from then that today the behavior of the film’s characters—billed as the baddest, scariest band of outlaws seen since Nosferatu’s minions stalked Transylvania—seems more annoying than threatening. The film is based on a true story about a couple of motorcycle gangs that roll into a small California town, tear up the place and terrorize the residents for the next 12 or so hours. It’s a theme we’ve seen in movies since, but the Wild One was one of the first to portray young people as anything but perfectly obedient to adults. The imagery stuck, because the style of Marlon Brando’s outlaws and the gang’s beatnik, jazzy lingo has been immortalized in years since. In one oft-copied exchange, a girl pouts, “What are you rebelling against, Johnny,” to which he pauses and sniffs, “What have you got?” The film’s content was considered so shocking and violent that the British Board of Film banned it from being screened there until the late 1960s, proclaiming, “We simply dare not risk passing this film at the present time. …The behavior of Brando and the two gangs to authority and adults generally is of the kind that provides a dangerous example to those wretched young people who take every opportunity of throwing their weight about.” By 21st-century standards, the members of the Black Rebels Motorcycle Club—yes, that’s where that band got its name—and its rivals, the Beatles—and yep, that’s where that band got its name—try so hard to be cool they come off as dorks. But in 1954 the New York Times didn’t think so, calling the film an “ugly, debauched and frightening view of a small but peculiarly significant and menacing element of modern youth.” And for this reason, and to gander at the raw biker style coupled with a kind of playful, unexpected irony, the Wild Ones is worth revisiting.
As far as that “menacing element” goes, let’s just say it caught on. Kids were enthralled with images of young people thumbing their nose at convention. And what better way to announce your new-found rebellion than to dress the part? Sales of Levi jeans (worn with an oversized rolled cuff, like Brando did), T-shirts of all kinds and, especially, black leather motorcycle jackets in the Perfecto style reportedly skyrocketed after the movie came out. An ironic style of dressing—googles, goofy hats and vintage caps of the style worn by men the military or other types of uniform—accompanied the look. Reports of youth gangs increased (New Zealand seemed hard-hit by “milk-bar cowboys,” “bodgies” and “teddy boys) as teenagers began testing the limits with authority figures, and Triumph motorcycles earned millions of dollars in free advertising (the company initially tried to distance itself from the film but changed its tune as the dollars rolled in).
Suddenly, leather was a must-have for musicians. The Wild One look was adopted from the get-go, by such rhythmic rebels as Eddie Cochran, Gene Vincent and the Beatles in head-to-toe black leather. By the 1980s, you could not rock in a metal band without at least one pair of leather pants, which had already morphed into a rainbow of colors to reflect the Day-Glo palette of the era.
Leather had long been fetishized in gay culture, and now it became forever associated with tough and cool. We could fill pages listing all the bands—from Joan Jett to Jesus and Mary Chain—celebrities and actors who’ve adopted biker style. Who are some of your favorites?
Cinemode is OTDIF’s ongoing compilation of the world’s most stylish films, a must-see list for fans of fashion. From Klute to Breakfast at Tiffany’s to Shaft, some of the greatest style inspiration comes from the characters and costumes in film. Bookmark Cinemode and check back often to read the growing list. The reviews, written with an eye specifically toward fashion, are added to On This Day In Fashion on the anniversary of the film’s release date.