Battle jackets and vests are now a very common sight at metal shows, or even just on the street. They are an iconic and instantly recognizable aspect of rock n roll culture. However, how they were invented is, surprisingly, not common knowledge. Even people who have them may be surprised that they have more of a story than just looking cool.
Battle jackets were initially invented in WW2, when Air Force pilots would decorate their flight jackets with squadron insignia patches, and later pop culture icons. After the war ended, many pilots got into motorcycling for the excitement and speed. They kept their flight jackets to use as motorcycle jackets, since they offered protection against crashes, but sometimes sawed the sleeves off, as they could be restricting.
They continued to decorate their jackets with logos of clubs, gangs, and rapidly developing subcultures as they began to evolve in the 50s. Since paint flakes off of leather easily under rigorous use, they began to sew patches onto their jackets instead. Sewing denim is a lot easier and faster than leather, so denim jackets were used as well alongside leather.
These clubs and gangs did not usually get along, which caused them to be affiliated with street fights, mass brawls, extreme devotion to their club, and a violent appearance to the general public. Take the two most widespread British subcultures for example: the rockers with their Triumphs and Harley-Davidsons and gangster attitudes naturally opposed the mods with their hideous Italian scooters and an alarming obsession with lights and mirrors.
As the 60s arrived and rock n roll made its mainstream breakthrough, it fit the picture perfectly. There were two very different types of music-inspired jackets that came together to spark the rise of the modern battle jacket.
The first was that the gangsters found the rebelliousness of the new genre and it defying societal norms appealing, leading them to decorate their jackets with the bands’ logos and album art. The other was the Woodstock era hippie culture, who had a radically different ideology but with surprisingly similar motivations: mostly, free self-expression and defying the expected norms.
The two branches came together as the hippie music era dawned into a new wave of rock n roll: the various genres and subgenres of the 70s. Classic rock, punk, and heavy metal appeared almost out of nowhere, and as a result of the sudden change a lot of the new bands kept the fashion, which was naturally copied by the fans.
Punks were the first non-gangster group who started customizing their jackets with band logos, and they were quick to invent the addition of metal studs to their outfit as well. The existence of modern metal jackets is largely the unintentional consequences of punk fashion in the late 70s–an influence that some metalheads try to forget.
There are two people who brought denim and leather, respectively, over from the punks to heavy metal. Judas Priest is one of the greatest metal bands of all time, but next to the sound, they also invented a now-classic new look by bringing head-to-toe leather into the genre. Rob Halford’s signature move of riding a motorcycle onto the stage may also have something to do with it. The denim was brought over by none other than Lemmy, who smashed his way into metal somewhat unintentionally and very drunkenly toward the end of the 70s.
With battle jackets in punk and metal, it inevitably seeped into the middle ground, traditional hard rock, as well, and eventually covered the entire musical spectrum of rock n roll. Design aspects from specific genres mixed into one. Modern battle jackets are common among any genre related to rock n roll, from grunge to black metal.
Making your own won’t take too long either–just get a cheap denim jacket, optionally hack the sleeves off, and sew patches on in whatever order you get them in.