Has Motorcycling Turned Into A Fashion Show?

Are motorcycles making a transition from practical to playthings?

Has Motorcycling become a fashion show?
Whether you think motorcycling has turned into too much of a fashion show or not I am sure we can all agree that we are all on two-wheels for the experience.Cruiser

A good friend of mine works down at the local BMW/Ducati/MV Augusta dealership. As you may have guessed from the brands they carry, this is no ordinary, greasy-floored shop. It's one of those upscale joints that cater to what we working stiffs might call the financially comfortable, or maybe less charitably, RUBs (Rich Urban Bikers). I drop in from time to time to catch up with my buddy and because it's always fun to see how the other half lives. Besides, there's generally some interesting machinery inside, even though it's usually priced far beyond my means.

On my last visit to this bastion of conspicuous consumerism, I noticed a well-worn, mid-’70s, airhead BMW parked on the lift. Finding the old crock there wasn’t a huge surprise; the shop does a fair amount of work on vintage bikes, particularly those flying the blue-and-white roundel. But what caught my attention was a sticker on one side cover that read: “When did it turn into a freaking fashion show?” Actually, it didn’t say “freaking,” but that’s close enough for this magazine.

My reaction was to agree with the sentiments of the sticker, at least at first glance. But the more I thought about it, the more I began to appreciate how off base it was. For starters, I thought the sticker, though entertaining in a curmudgeonly sort of way, was disingenuous. After all, isn’t a sticker commenting on fashion a fashion statement of its own?

To my way of thinking, fashion has always been part of the American motorcycle experience. At least it’s been that way since the Model T Ford came along. The Tin Lizzie was cheap, reliable and able to haul a lot more than any motorcycle. It revolutionized the way Americans lived and traveled, and because it was so much better as a “sensible” form of transportation, it soon began to displace motorcycles from that role.

By the 1930s motorcycles in the U.S. were transitioning, at least in the public’s mind, from utilitarian devices to ones with more sporting pretensions. Since then, motorcycles here have generally been considered more of a plaything than a practical device.

Now, you can dispute the point all you want, but I think history is on my side. Just for fun I dug up an old motor­cycle-accessories catalog from the 1920s. Among the ads for practical items like the Mesinger sprung-leaf saddle or universal reed-bodied sidecar (finished in Baronial stain, shellacked and varnished) were the same sort of geegaws and gimcracks we buy today. For instance, there was the

S-C-R-E-A-M motorcycle whistle, “which will surely attract attention when attached to your exhaust.” Or for the sartorially conscious, Halco leggings offered “over 150 styles available in either leather or canvas.” Later catalogs list things like handlebar streamers, cat’s-eye studs to insert in your seat or saddlebags and, of course, the ever-popular riding cap, complete with chinstrap and winged-wheel emblem. I’m also particularly fond of manufacturers’ ads of the era (especially from Harley-Davidson) that portrayed smiling riders dressed in riding breeches, boots and neckties. If those weren’t fashion statements, I don’t know what is.

I'm not really sure what had the Beemer pilot's knickers in a twist. Certainly the current crop of riders is better dressed and rides more exotic bikes than it did when his airhead was new. But that doesn't make them bad people, does it? When I started riding, most bikes needed major overhauls every 40,000 miles, helmets were open-faced and of dubious quality, and good riding gear was practically nonexistent. What dedicated clothing was available was basically limited to leather or waxed cotton (like the Model T, available in any color you wanted so long as it was black).

It wasn’t much of a fashion show back then, though I’ll admit that on occasion it was certainly a dog and pony show. Was it fun? Hell yes. Do I want to go back there on a full-time basis? Absolutely not.

I suppose that some people are attracted to motorcycles for what you or I consider to be the wrong motives. But my fervent hope is that while they may have come to the party for the costume or for the ego boost, they’ll stay once they discover how much fun we’re all having. Besides, who really cares? If someone has enough dough to indulge his every motorcycling fancy, more power to him. There’s no law that says you have to buy into it or even be cordial to someone if you don’t like it.

The bottom line is that everyone rides for their own reasons. In some cases, yes, it’s to make a fashion statement. Now if that’s your only reason for riding, I feel sorry for you. We all know there’s more to it than that. But c’mon, tell the truth, how many of you can honestly say you can ride past a plate-glass window without admiring your own reflection?