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Che Guevara and Belstaff's Revolutionary Waxed Jackets
Words: Simon de Burton
Gael Garcia Bernal in Motorcycle Diaries
When the young Che Guevara set off to explore South America on two wheels, he carried few possessions, but undoubtedly one of the most important was the Belstaff waxed-cotton jacket that offered him protection from both road rash and the weather - and, very likely, served as an impromptu pillow during nights beneath the stars.
Che's adventures with his friend Alberto Granado aboard the faithful Norton motorcycle named La Poderosa II (The Mighty One) are well documented in the 2004 biopic The Motorcycle Diaries, starring Gael Garcia Bernal, but there's a fair bit of history, too, in the humble fabric that made up the future revolutionary's outerwear.
Waxed cotton, you see, dates back to the 19th century, when the weather-resistant properties of oil-soaked flax sails used for clipper ships showed the potential of 'proofing' cotton with linseed for use in the garment industry.
Che Guevara on a pushbike
However, it wasn't until the early Twenties that a few pioneering companies - Belstaff among them - perfected the art of 'waxing' cotton so it stayed waterproof for long periods, didn't discolour and remained soft and pliant in cold weather.
The discovery was especially welcomed by the growing army of motorcyclists, not least in rain-lashed countries such as Britain, where a snug-fitting Belstaff, belted at the waist and protective of the neck, became the default choice of gear for riders who were desirous of being both practical and stylish.
And it wasn't long before the ultimate specification that prevails today - two long breast pockets (one slanted for carrying maps); two deep side pockets; buttoned cuffs and a zipped and buttoned fastening - became what we have come to know and love as the 'Trialmaster' jacket.
Its name derives from its popularity with motorcycle 'trials' riders, whose sport took them across windswept moors, through swollen rivers and up desolate tracks - meaning they needed a jacket that was warm, water-resistant and thornproof but also supremely comfortable, with capacious pockets.
One such contest, the Exeter Trial, has been going since 1910 - and, being of a masochistic nature, I'm looking forward to taking part in the January (yes, freezing January) 2015 edition of this gruelling, long-distance event, which runs through the night and covers a 300-mile route using some of the West Country's most historic - and roughest - byways.
An important part of my preparation will involve the ritual 'rewaxing' of the Belstaff Trialmaster I bought second-hand back in 1982 - and have worn ever since. It's a strangely gratifying process, partly because it restores the Trialmaster's full protective powers and partly because every application of Belstaff's special 'reproofing' wax adds another layer of patina and, somehow, a little bit of history.
And for those who want to go the extra mile, Belstaff's latest leather garments are also designed to be maintained in the same way. Perhaps I'll treat myself to one - even if Che might have considered buying a new jacket every 33 years to be an act of bourgeois extravagance. Unless, of course, it was a Trialmaster.
Simon de Burton writes for The Financial Times, Brummell and The Quarterly
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