dressing the part | easy rider
An ironic look at patriotism that still resonates today.
In the fantastic 2015 documentary Fresh Dressed, it’s revealed that one of the biggest stylistic influences over 1970s NYC street families was Easy Rider. The customized denim vests, hand-cut lettering, and leather jackets all drew from the film’s nomadic, desperado mood. “A lot of people won’t admit it, but it is the truth,” says Bronx resident and ex-gang member Lorine Padilla. “People saw that and that gave you the sense of outlaw.’
Even if you’ve never seen Easy Rider, you probably have an indelible image that pops into your head — Peter Fonda as Wyatt, riding his ‘Captain America’ chopper wearing a coordinating star spangled leather jacket. That jacket was created by Clarice Amberg of ABC Leathers, a southern California garment manufacturer known for its innovative use of colored leather. They made two jackets and one pair of leather pants and in the weeks leading up to filming, Fonda reportedly wore his skins and biked around LA to give them a more lived-in look.
But even though Wyatt and travel buddy Billy (Dennis Hopper) are two of the most recognized counterculture heroes in movie history, visually, Wyatt really doesn’t read as a typical hippie. He has short hair and wears a tight black leather suit, not bell-bottoms or love beads. He does add a little psychedelic sensibility with a kaleidoscopic print shirt, Mexican embroidery, and flowery neck scarves. It’s a gender-bending juxtaposition that, while tame by today’s standards, raised eyebrows back in 1969, as demonstrated by the bigots he encounters on the road to New Orleans.
Billy, by comparison, is all hippie. In Easy Rider, Hopper looks the spitting image of David Crosby, wearing bandanas, long-hair, a fringe jacket, and teeth necklace. Billy is head-to-toe brown suede contrasting Wyatt’s black leather. But while the two leading men look very different, they both highlight anti-establishment values. Billy’s Southwestern influenced outfit could have been dug up at a flea market, emphasizing the rejection of mass market clothing and embracing individuality. On the flip side, Wyatt’s leather gear is slick and modern, and undeniably sexy — he looks like a daredevil driving his bike through the dusty American south. The flag on his back plays with ideals of patriotism and irony, as if to say that he, too, can love his country while also opposing the government and its involvement in the Vietnam War. It’s a concept that aligned with the protest movement who adopted military gear and combat fatigues while demonstrating on the streets (note how the commune hippies in the Easy Rider also sport brass button coats with silk head scarves and denim). And in the end when Wyatt covers Billy with his jacket after he is shot off his motorcycle, it echoes the draping the flag over a fallen soldier’s coffin.
It’s interesting to note that that there is no official costume designer credit for Easy Rider. Fonda has taken credit for designing the jacket (and the bike) which just adds to the movie’s ragtag indie flick legend. After production, Fonda wore the jacket for years until it fell apart. He then kept the American flag patch on the back, framed on his wall. In 2007, he sold it at auction for nearly $90,000.