DRAFT: This module has unpublished changes.
Reflections and Recollections on Black & the Black Leather Jacket
(pre-edited written material)
by Michael R. Wright

Published in
GARB: A Fashion and Cultural Reader (2008)
Edited by Parme Giuntini and Kathryn Hagen

My first thoughts of a black leather jacket go to the magic of covering oneself in an extra skin, the warmth of the skin as it was for early man in the throes of survival.  To some it’s the putting on power, either lawful or lawless, street ready tough. The smell is reminiscent of walking into a Wilson’s leather store at a discount outlet or rubbing shoulders with riders at the Harley weekend in Palm Springs. My next thoughts go to the color Black. The color has more to do with “the fashion statement” than the jacket itself. At issue are the colors that one feels comfortable in as one goes through public life. It’s how you want other people to see you. Many dress with others in mind, while others dress just to please themselves and their view of themselves. Black as a dominant color theme has ebbed and flowed throughout my life, often followed by the black leather jacket. The common associations of black are with authority, discipline, death, rebelliousness and power.  At one time in history Black was a symbol of wealth.  Black for me was a bit different.

BLACK, the early years

I grew up in a small farming community north of Seattle. The colors were intense, variations of green and gray for most of the year. You might picture Tim Burton’s version of “Sleepy Hollow”. That would change in late spring and summer when the fields danced with color. One of the major crops was tulips. Colors usually reminded me of the outdoors and nature. The colors of late spring and early summer also meant freedom to roam, play, and discover. This was contrasted by the remainder of the year and my first black fashion experience, Catholic School. I attended Catholic School grades k through 6. The nuns and priests of the church and its associated school were the first people, that I was aware of, who wore black.

Black to me, in those days, meanyt close to God. The nuns, priests and all of us at school were required to wear were black. We sat in straight rows, marched in lines and towed the line under the induced fear of not going to heaven. The nuns told us that only “good” Catholics” go to heaven and rest of the world would be damned to hell. When I dared to question, one of the black penguins would sternly assure me that it was true.  Nevertheless I wore color under my black sweater. The nuns were the teachers and they dressed from head to foot in black with a long set of beads that streamed up and down from their waist, shrouded in black, with a white habit that wrapped around and accentuated the face. The black of the garment was the same for all the nuns, yet the blackness seemed to shift depending on who was wearing it. There were extremes in the black-garbed sisterhood. Sister Carmel Joseph, the first grade teacher and principal of the school, towered over her students with a look that would rival Medusa seemed a cold black. Sister Ann Marie was an angel, young, beautiful, encouraging, was a warm black. Sister Columbia wielded a mean stick. She would stand you up in front of the classroom and hold out your hands and come down with full force. If you were really bad she would make you turn your hands over to do both sides. She taught by fear representing the wrath of God, Old Testament style, and seemed a deep dark black

The priests were always dressed in Black set off by a white collar around the neck. I had noted the priests dressed differently to say mass. They wore colored vestments over their black clothes. When I inquired as to meaning, I was told that Mass was a celebration. The colors represented the celebration and were put on over the black. The base color was always black, which set them apart from other folks. Again, I thought that wearing black put one closer to God.  All the clergy claimed that they were closer to God and as a Catholic you wanted to be closer to God. So my first wearing experience with black came with my school uniform and as an alter boy. In your school uniform you became one of the gang. Everyone dressed alike. You learned to fit in.  As an alter boy you only put white on over the black, much like the school uniform, while In training to be closer to God, as we were told. Being an alter boy put one behind the scenes at the church. You wore black like the priests and experienced the rituals up close; the Latin, the stained glass, the choir, standing apart from the rest of the congregation. As an alter boy I served at marriages and funerals as well as the Mass. At a marriage only the priest and I wore black. Marriages were also celebrations. They were about music, kissing, laughter, color, food and drinks. Funerals, on the other hand, were all about heaven. I was told this was a celebration of a life and the passing to the afterlife. Everyone wore black obviously to celebrate the sending of the soul of the lifeless person in the box to heaven. Yet I could not understand the lack of joy, all the crying. Funerals were creepy and I didn’t like gazing on the waxen face of the corpse. Although they were dressed in black for heaven, they didn’t look too glad about it. So at grade school I was part of God’s black brigade being schooled by the black clad penguins.  At home I was being schooled by the images that flickered across the screen of the family black and white television.  

My family sat around the TV nightly as though it were a fireplace in winter. I noted that my TV watching, during these formative years presented some other ideas around the color black. Early TV was watched in neutral colors. I loved watching Bishop Sheen who was always dynamic in elegant black. Yet I noticed that the Pope was always in white. The westerns always seemed to identify the bad guy with a black hat and the good guys with white hats. TV Westerns were not too entertaining until  “Have Gun Will Travel” introduced Paladin, a black draped gunfighter for hire who quoted poetry and would always come out on the side of justice no matter who paid him. I never missed a show. The schooling at home was always in competition with that at school. I loved the movies that TV brought into the home. I would rather sit at home in a darkened room watching movies on TV than being pursued by sister Columbia. I would fake sickness and skipped more than a few days of school.  I was introduced to Drama, Comedy, Horror, and Noir movies. The latter taught that things are not always what they seem and gave the impression that one should beware of women dressed in black. I experienced Shakespeare on television long before he was introduced in a class. Hamlet all dressed in black having a one-way conversation with a skull on black and white television. These were resonating images for a young kid. I began to see black as a form of self-expression setting one apart, much like the black worn by the priest, the authorities, the police, the assassin, the biker, the artist, the outsider, and the occasional vampire.

Enter the Black Leather Jacket

My first awareness of the black leather jacket occurred in the third grade when the Burfields, friends of my folks from Seattle, came to visit. There was grown up talk going on, with us kids running, around making way too much of a ruckus. So the adults in their wisdom gave all of us a quarter each and sent us to the movies. The town had only three movie theaters. So we choose the closest one, being that we were walking, which was showing a new movie called, “The Wild One,” starring Marlon Brando. The good guys and the bad guys in this movie wore black. Black Leather!!! The Brando character stunned me. He was the leader of the pack yet a loner with a conscience. Often misunderstood, a romantic, and on some level closer to God because in the end he made the right decision. Brando was the ultimate anti-hero; motorcycle hat tilted to one side, with a half grin, half sneer. Brando’s performance resonated with me in expressing an inner drama of conscience. The Leather Jacket, for me, represented that attitude, that performance, the drama of conscience. I began to dream of a Black Leather Motorcycle Jacket. The Sears catalog would arrive at our door every so often and pictured within its pages would be the Jacket, black, shiny, with all its zippers, but way to pricey for my little pocketbook.

About this time the black leather jacket became associated with Rock and Roll and juvenile delinquency. The Catholic morality that was drummed into me during my early years of schooling created a conflict. I loved the music, and the big guy on the block was Elvis. Not only did he wear black but also he reeked of that Brando attitude. I was also drawn to Jerry lee Lewis, Roy Orbinson and Johnny Cash. The latter two definitely dressed in black. Some of the music of the time paid tribute to the jacket and the lifestyle. “He wore black denim trousers and motorcycle boots and a black leather jacket with an eagle on the back. He had a hopped up cycle that took off like a gun. He was the terror of Highway 101.” It seemed all very romantic, busting out, wind in your hair, free from black authority. My hero’s began to be some of the older guys in town who wore the leather and rode motorcycles. They were tough, some carrying switchblades, and I noticed that lots of girls seemed to hang around them. There seemed to be an element of danger that was attractive to me yet underneath it all I was still a good Catholic boy serving Mass several days a week, with the black draped priest talking to me about the priesthood, fishing, and the life of a cleric.

I left Catholic school at the end of the sixth grade, enrolled in public school, broke out the color and wore black only once a week. I quit serving mass, but continued to attend the weekly services for my black clad lecture from the pulpit and some singing in the choir, which I found more to my liking at the time.  So there I was, out of Catholic school into public school, running with some cool cats who were on the edge of getting into trouble, according to my mom. Several of the older guys wore the feared black leather jacket. They were from across town and had a clubhouse over one of the guy’s garages. When my mom got wind of our meeting place and all the trouble that was brewing, she hauled me down to the local police station for a meeting with the Chief. We had a “this is what could happen to you’” chat. There he stood in a darkened office dressed in his black uniform, showing me the perils of the black leather jacket crowd. The switchblades, blackjacks, the recovered stolen property, and of course the evil black leather jacket that led to all the mayhem. That was a pretty scary discussion especially when the black clad chief showed me the cage.  Well, this put the fear of God right in me and I stopped hanging out with the leather jacket crew. So I stood at the crossroads of black authority vs. the dream of black leather rebellion and for that moment the years of black authority had won out.

Black in Seattle

My family left the small town for the burbs of Seattle during the summer between my sophomore and junior years. I attended a high school that was in its second year of existence. Its colors were black with red trim. Black became associated with pain and loss as we went down to defeat game after game. For all the black and blue received on the sports fields I received my first black jacket. A letterman’s jacket with a big red letter “S” containing the symbols of the sports I played within its boundaries. It was a very cool jacket and was ripped off a year after receiving it. I had fantasies of the jacket being burned in effigy at some opposing school’s homecoming.

Black as a dominant theme did not show up again until late in the art school part of my University years. I was studying history with a focus on Europe between the French Revolution and the end of World War I. It had become clear to me that history was the story of culture and that visual art was the mirror to the culture. So in the last quarter of my history degree, to satisfy a curiosity, I took my first studio art class. I fell in love with the process, even though my work was very rough. The students in these classes were very different than the students I experienced elsewhere on campus. Long hair, paint splattered clothes, driven by a passion that I had never really seen at the University The somewhat preppie ex-frat boy, ROTC look I had cultivated from my last two years of high school and for the first four years of college was really out of step in this environment. I noted that I was looked at with suspicion, the outsider in a den of outsiders.

What was funny was how comfortable I felt as my hair grew long and the black jeans developed holes in the knees covered by the obligatory charcoal smears, hidden by the black of the cloth.  I loved to draw with heavy black lines. I discovered the German expressionists, Max Beckmann, Picasso’s late work and one of my favorite Picasso sayings, “When in doubt, use Black”. I vacillated between bright psychedelic colors always accented by something black, be it a black leather vest, black riding boots, black jeans or a black T. What I noticed was when I dressed in total black people seemed to give me plenty of space.  Black had presence and seemed to have the power to move me through crowds. I felt a sense of confidence in the black stance.

I had developed a fondness for vampire movies over the years. I loved Bella Lugosi in the part and was always drawn to the Hammer all black clad Christopher Lee. I’m sure on some level I was dealing with the funerals of my alter boy years and the idea of immortality on an earthly level. There were sexual overtones and control issues that I found interesting. The vampire seemed Machiavellian, exhibiting no pity or sympathy for his victims, only a selfish desire for his survival. I began to use the vampire as a symbol in my art representing government, big business, in some cases men/women who sucked the life out of things, most always drawn in Charcoal.

My Dad died the fall of my third year of art school. I was in school in my usual black attire when I had a call informing me that my Dad had passed on.  My dad wrote poetry before being drug down by the hammering of everyday life. He was a good man. The black was a tribute to him and the others who sacrificed for someone else’s dreams in a Johnny Cash sort of way. “ I wear the black for the poor and beaten down…just so we’re reminded of the ones that are held back….for the reckless ones whose bad trip left them cold”.

I graduated from university art school in 1970. Seattle was in a somewhat depressed economic state and I needed work.  So dressed in the black garb of a rocker I searched out some northwest guitar slingers. We evolved into a power trio called “Sin City”. For a couple of years in the early 70’s the band was the heaviest on the Seattle music scene, playing dive bars, state prisons, and northwest rock concerts. We scratched out a living and in the process got an unhealthy dose of the lifestyle.  Rock was theatre. Hanging with Alice Cooper, the Iketts and seeing the Doors up close from back stage was an education. Not bad for an ex-Catholic alter boy who got to style his own holy outfit of black wet cloth pants, see-through black cowboy shirts and a full-on motorcycle jacket for stage presence. This was my first leather motorcycle jacket.  It was given to me by a fan that wore it into my life, thought I looked good in it, and left it as a souvenir. It was dark brown and a bit tight, yet had all the zippers and a well-worn look. It became part of the stage presence. Cool, but not black. Rock seemed tongue in cheek to me. Every time I had the chance to be bad in black, like inciting large crowds to riot or attack the police when they would shut our music down, I would turn back to the black as holy, Catholic and encourage peaceful solutions.  Yet over several years I caved into the black side of the image with black clothes, black makeup, black nail polish, and a basement room right out of Poe’s Mask of the red Death minus the ebony clock. Black on the outside became to mean the macabre, the unknown, sexually potent, violence, the outlaw. On the inside it still meant close to God.  Things got dark indeed. A spiral into a black hole of excess of about anything possible. It all came crashing down with an end to the band and me being on the edge of the abyss.  I attributed my sickness to my black conflict.    

Black, the northern California years

So I left the dankness of Seattle for the coast of sunny California. I was headed for LA, but stopped at Santa Cruz for what I thought would be about six months. It ended up being over ten years. Santa Cruz was all about nature. Living half a block form the blue of the ocean, the year-round roses in my yard, the birds of paradise, and the calla lilies became what felt like midlife retirement. Surrounded by the incredible nature of Santa Cruz, black re-appeared in the form of a series of large charcoal drawings that I made and started to exhibit around northern California. They dealt with the personal search that an artist pursues in life. The black of the charcoal allowed me to express an internal energy that had always surged through my system, giving power to the large white sheets of paper. It was like magic to me.  The major black fashion experience of this period was my wedding, which occurred in the middle of the Santa Cruz years. I dressed all in black, accented by a red rose in my lapel. The black dress was a solemn commitment that I took to mean as faithful and true, yet by the end of the Santa Cruz years the wife had run off with my best friend and I was singing the blues in another black clad rock outfit called John Rock. I relocated to Silicon Valley for several years continuing the large charcoal drawing, paintings, and creating audio performance art that came in the form of an experience I called Iconoclast. Iconoclast consisted of a synthesizer I had built, sound gear from the rocker days, and eight column speakers spread around a darkened room with beanbags in the middle. Much like Oz, I would sit behind a curtain with the room being blackened and create a landscape of sound for the listener who would be in the middle of the black room. No two performances were the same. The idea of the black room was key to the experience so the spectator would be devoid of any external visual stimulus. The images were to be created in the mind driven by the external sound source.  I did these performances in gallery spaces throughout northern California.

Black in LA

In 1984 I decided to complete my original California plan and move on to the city of angels.  I didn’t know anyone, didn’t have a job, but was ready to reinvent myself and move forward. I moved into a downtown Los Angeles building that at one time served a Masonic Temple. My studio was a stage that had been walled off from an auditorium. It had all the old backdrops, ropes and catwalks. On some level this seemed ironic, a stage with no audience, in a building that had heavy spiritual vibrations. A stage to live my life with no one watching.  It seemed perfect. So I became established with the necessary jobs, exhibitions, relationships and a brief encounter with another band or two. My first Black leather jacket was given to me by a young woman friend who thought I looked good in the leather. The jacket was not the typical motorcycle jacket but rather a European looking racing type of jacket. A tight fit with only one zipper up the front. We dated on and off for several years before she disappeared into the ocean of Orange County. At this time the leather seemed about the sexual power that it seemed to conjure up. It seemed that I received lot of attention when sporting this leather jacket. I still wear it on occasions.

The late eighties to mid 90’s brought about profound changes that resulted in the Black uniform and a collection of leather jackets. My Stage was torn down in 1986 to make way for the Convention Center expansion. I moved to a new studio a bit south of Little Tokyo or otherwise known as the south end of LA’s downtown “art ghetto”.  The new studio was ideal, located in a building that was built like a fortress with indoor parking and great light. Two-thirds of the studio was in the light and the other third was dark and perfect for my first computer. I had bought the computer to expand my art making capabilities and got caught up in the “second wave” of computer art making.

As I got older and settled into the fact that I was getting older, I began to see more black slip back into my wardrobe. I went through several intense relationships during this time with one resulting in a second marriage. The marriage resulted in my daughter, from my first marriage, deciding to move out to Los Angeles from the east coast. The next several years were tremulous. I was dealing with my child’s first years of young adulthood and a marriage where neither partner’s needs were being met. During the marriage my wife gave me a half black leather jacket as a gift. It was one of those jackets that had leather sleeves and a cloth body. It looked like the kind of jacket that you might see worn on a movie set with the logo of the movie or the company making the movie. The marriage and the relationship with my daughter ended at about the same time. The marriage due to divergent careers, life goals, and a distance of half the United States. My daughter decided to move back to the east coast to be close to her mother. When she departed she left me her oversized black leather motorcycle jacket. Within several months of her absent rebellion, she broke off all communication. I had come full circle. The vision of a black leather Motorcycle jacket of Sears catalog days of my youth had come to fruition in the guise of the rebellious behavior of my daughter. Ironic!! By the mid 90’s the wardrobe had gone to total black. It’s a look that I have maintained to this day.

So what lead to this change and does it have meaning. To some it identifies one as a rocker. Some have suggested that the Black clothes were a reaction of the loss of my marriage and daughter. That may be true on some level, but I choose to see it more as a rebirth, reinvention of self. Clothes are like a shell; they make you feel good, at ease both internally and externally. Black emphasizes the paleness of the skin, the darkness under the eyes, and in conversation it forces the viewer to look at the face or the light emanating from the face.  Black seemed the perfect “uniform” with all the early connotations, authority, discipline, death, rebelliousness, power and being close to God.  Black suggests ethical values, in a Calvinistic sort of way. I have always felt that serious work gives meaning to life. Serious in this case would mean committed. Digital art is considered outsider art in most of the elitist art circles. Working on the outside in a rebellious medium seems to fit part of my idea of what an artist can be, willing to use new technologies to spread the vision. Three black leather jackets have been added to my wardrobe over the last several years.   A black leather trench coat, “spy” style, a shiny leather racing jacket, (both guilty pleasures) and a nifty warm black leather jacket given to me by my sweetheart. So at this point in this life black as a fashion statement has come to mean a series of personal attitudes and comfort around the color. As to discipline, black is a reminder to focus, something I constantly work on. Black reminds me to constantly question the nature of what we are asked to believe and to stand for what you do believe.  Black is a reminder that the reaper stands close to all of us. Black is an acknowledgement to this fact and has become a reminder to make the best use of the time I have on this planet. Black is a reminder that my life is rebellious and that knowledge is power. Black represents the seriousness and intensity of commitment to my personal artistic vision and to the work of my students. Black implies half of the balance in the universe. Black on the outside and white on the inside, like night and day, you can’t have one without the other. Yin and Yang, positive and negative, one and zero, male and female are all examples of the principles of duality in balance. Black has become a symbol of the man/womankind’s quest for that balance and enlightenment.  Black seems a fractal moment in a digital universe. The leather jacket is an extension of the color black. Black dye applied to animal skin with all the historical implications of magic, power, and survival. On one hand I empower the color/jacket, and, in return, the color/ jacket empowers me. Yes, black as a dominant color theme has ebbed and flowed throughout my life. I’ve settled into the color as both a symbolic / fashion statement.  All of this may be true, but the fact of the matter is, I feel the most comfort wearing the color black.  Black is elegant, striking, and makes me look slimmer. Getting dressed in black is easy, the look is always stylish, and I don’t have to think about it early in the morning.

DRAFT: This module has unpublished changes.