Leather jacket an iconic, "shorthand" for cool

James Dean
James Dean in a leather jacket.
AP Photo

(CBS News) Black leather jackets caught on a century ago when men in newfangled automobiles and airplanes started wearing them to protect themselves from the weather.

The jacket quickly became a symbol for a certain kind of man, a fashion statement that says it all.

And this summer, that famous image is being celebrated for all it's become in popular culture.

One of the first iconic images that involved a black leather jacket is Marlon Brando's sitting atop a motorcycle in the 1953 movie, "The Wild One." What Brando had - and what generations have sought - is a kind of cool that comes with just wearing the iconic garment.

Jim Fricke, curtorial director of the Harley Davidson Museum, explained the jacket became a kind of uniform of "rebellious cool." He explained, "It's a little sexy, dangerous and rebellious - all that kind of rolled into one garment."

At the Harley Davidson Museum in Milwaukee, they're exploring what the jacket means and its impact on America as it intersects with the motorcycle. The exhibit hosted this summer at the museum is "Worn to Be Wild: The Black Leather Jacket."

The exhibit charts the rise of the jacket from the pilots of World War II to the models of today's runways. Fricke showed CBS News the jackets made famous by all kinds of movies, from "Grease," to "Terminator 2," to "Girl with the Dragon Tattoo."

"This has become cultural shorthand, Fricke said. "So if you're writing a screenplay and you have a character you want to immediately signal when they walk on stage that they are potentially dangerous and tough and cool, you put them in a leather jacket."

There are also jackets made famous from all kinds of musicians, including Elvis Presley. The museum has Presley's JCPenney motorcycle jacket from just before he became a big star.

Fricke says the statement has become louder than the jacket itself. In the case of punk jackets, for instance, leather jackets studded with spikes became divorced from the wind-resistance function originally intended for leather jackets.

Renowned costume designer and college professor Deborah Nadoolman Landis says the black leather jacket is sexually charged. Her expertise infuses the museum's exhibit.

She said, "(Black leather jackets) create an ideal male silhouette by extending the shoulder line, pinching in the waist. They're body hugging. They've got zippers. Zippers help conceal and reveal. So I think they extend the male silhouette into really a superhero shape."

To see if CBS News correspondent Dean Reynolds can create his own "superhero" image and achieve black leather jacket cool, watch the video in the player above.

  • Dean Reynolds
    Dean Reynolds

    Dean Reynolds is a CBS News National Correspondent based in Chicago.