A Walk on the Wild Side: Biker Boots

The biker boot has long been Hollywood’s cinematic shorthand for rebels treading their own path, says Mansel Fletcher

In 1953, on the release of The Wild One, Johnson Motors, US importers of Triumph motorcycles, protested at its product being linked with Marlon Brando and his Black Rebels. However, the association has served them well – 62 years after it was released, the film is iconic and continues to encapsulate the image of rebellion. From the opening asphalt-level shot of the road to the palpable ennui of Brando’s character Johnny Strabler, it captures a strand of cool that has lost none of its power in the intervening six decades.

Motorbikes remain cool, Triumph bikes remain cool, aviator shades remain cool, blue jeans remain cool, black leather jackets remain cool and, crucially, biker boots remain cool. But, of these elements, it’s the bikes and the boots that remain immune to the dilution that affects most of youth culture’s totemic items. Both bikes and boots require a level of commitment that separates the men from the boys: any man can wear jeans at the weekend; it takes a bit more to ride a bike. The boots that Brando wore in The Wild One, and which formed the blueprint for biker boots, are the classic American engineer model, with stacked heels and long straps.

The Wild One, Marlon Brando, 1954. Photographer - Everett Collection/REX.
The Wild One, Marlon Brando, 1954. Photographer - Everett Collection/REX.

Only two elements in the film have dated. The first, and most obvious, is the music. The jazzy score by Leith Stevens and Shorty Rogers seems jarring now jazz has been largely drained of its rebellious connotations – the American composer Elmer Bernstein once observed that jazz was only employed in movies ‘when someone steals a car’. Motorbike gangs, and the biker boots they wear, are now indelibly associated with rock’n’roll, and it’s an association that runs both ways. Over the years, rock musicians, including Iggy Pop, have taken as much credibility from biker boots as they’ve given back. The second element that has dated is the cut of the clothes. To our contemporary eyes, Strabler’s denim looks rather loose – and biker boots look best with slim jeans.

This is partly down to the way the bikes have developed over the years. While big American motorbikes (and it always comes back to the bike) lend themselves to big chunky boots, lightweight European bikes call for something sleeker. As a result, classic British boots work particularly well with slim jeans, as is frequently demonstrated by rock musician and Kate Moss’s husband Jamie Hince. By pairing the boots with slim jeans, a tight T-shirt and a battered leather jacket, he follows in the footsteps of musicians going back to the punk era. One of the appealing things about biker boots is that, unlike sneakers, they cannot be co-opted into a formal outfit. The image of biker boots is too potent to be watered down.

The world Johnny Strabler rebelled against is fading in the collective memory, even if his image persists, but a half-century after The Wild One instigated one epoch of youthful rebellion, the 2006 film V For Vendetta captured the new mood of post-millennial protest and activism. Its dark backdrop owes nothing to Johnny’s America, yet some of the symbols used to indicate the central character’s outsider status are the same – Hugo Weaving’s iconic character, V, wears Belstaff’s Trailmasters, proving that biker boots still retain their currency as signifiers of cool.

Mansel Fletcher is features editor of mrporter.com

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