Most of us have probably worn classic biker jackets at one point or another in our riding careers. Have we ever thought about the origins of those jackets? How they were developed, or who made the first one? Those are surprisingly easy questions to answer. The first dedicated leather motorcycle jacket came from the shop of one Irving Schott, in 1928.
Motorcycles as a form of transport took good hold early in the previous century, and surely as soon as people were riding motorcycles, they were also racing them and crashing them. Before the high-tech materials that comprise lots of today’s riding gear existed, there was leather, and what we have all come to know as the “motorcycle jacket.” You know the one—a black leather deal with a double-breasted asymmetrical zipper, snaps on the collar, and often the baffling presence of epaulettes.
That very biker jacket used to be shunned. It would keep you from getting a seat in a restaurant, or service at a gas station, or a hotel room for the night. Those scenes in Easy Rider weren’t exaggerations. How far we have come! Now it’s a fashion icon.
After the first World War, motorcycle riders wore button-up boiled wool jackets, or leather flight jackets. None of these were up to the task, or comfortable, for riding a motorcycle.The unique position in which one finds oneself while riding a motorcycle demands a distinct garment. Irving Schott, a rider himself, knew riders needed a specific fit and capitalized on that need. The Schott Perfecto became the style icon you and I know as the “biker jacket” or “motorcycle jacket.
His son, Melvin, born in 1925, enlisted in the military at 18, and was wounded in Iwo Jima. After a yearlong recovery, he returned to New York City and took over the business from his father. He spent his life improving the leather jacket production processes. He expanded the business over the years to police forces, army surplus stores, and internationally.
Irving Schott’s creation sold in limited numbers until, with the company under Mel’s direction, the 1953 release of the movie “The Wild One.” That movie saw Marlon Brando as a motorcycle gang leader clad in his Schott Perfecto. It catapulted this particular style into America’s social consciousness. For decades that jacket was a sign that the wearer was a gang member or a hoodlum, but after being adopted by beatniks in the 60s, punk rock in the 70s, and most rock bands in the 80s, the jacket holds no more meaning today than any other fashion statement. Heck, most of the people I have ever known to wear this classic motorcycle jacket, don’t ride motorcycles.
Our sincerest condolences go out to the entire Schott family on the news of Melvin Schott’s death, and also congratulations on a long life well lived.