Why so formal? Part I
by Maria Schoeberl, Archivist
When viewing early images of Harley-Davidson riders, their clothing always stands out. Instead of the black leather, jeans, bandanas and safety helmets of today, riders in the first decades of the 20th century wore very different clothing: Three-piece suits, shirts with starched collars, flowing scarves, long skirts and no helmets. To our eyes, they look conventional and completely non-rebellious.
This image seems to clash with the spirit of Harley-Davidson motorcycle riders, who pride themselves on their individuality and spirit of rebellion–something that is reflected in their clothing. Why then, do early motorcycle riders seem to dress so conservatively and traditionally?
The reason has to do with the solid business sense of the early Harley-Davidson Motor Company. In any business, for a company to succeed, it must consistently appeal to the broadest segment of the population that it can. This is naturally even more important for a new and growing company, such as Harley-Davidson was in the 1910s and 1920s. And, because the early motorcycle companies were all marketing a relatively new and untried product (one that was not yet identified with the individualist, the rebel and the adventure seeker) Harley-Davidson and other motorcycle companies appealed to the needs and conventions of the majority of Americans.
To do so, they reached out to the business owner who needed a way to serve customers more quickly and efficiently, the city dweller who needed a quick and easy way to get away for the weekend, as well as the average worker who needed an affordable means of transportation that was faster and offered more freedom than the streetcar or sidewalk. And appealing to the interests of the “mainstream” meant presenting an image of the early rider that reflected the conventions of dress at the time. This meant the suit of the businessman and office worker, the neat and practical uniforms of the delivery workers, as well as the elegant, “Sunday-best” traveling outfits worn by vacationers and day-trippers.
This was, after all, an era where the conservative and impeccable was considered the only proper way to present oneself to the public. Indeed, at the turn of the century it was considered indecent for a women not to be wearing stockings or showing bare arms in anything but formal evening wear. So riders in the 1910s, 1920s, and early 1930s wore what was considered “proper” clothing: Suits (for both women and men), shirts with high-buttoned collars, neckties, fashionable hats and skirts for the women who were all too often relegated to the sidecar. But was the clothing really all that conventional?
The picture above shows riding gear from Harley-Davidson’s early years. Shown at right is Hap Jameson, then editor of The Enthusiast, in 1925.