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Cult of Cool: Café Racer Style

In the US's early post-war decades, bikers were seen as outlaws. Ever since the wildly exaggerated Hollister riots of 1947 and the birth of the self-proclaimed 'one percenters' - following a statement by the respectable American Motorcycle Association that 99 per cent of motorcycle riders were law-abiding citizens - to be clad in black leather, astride an engine and two wheels, was to mark yourself as an outsider. Hollywood - thanks to films such as The Wild One, Live Fast, Die Young and High School Hellcats - served only to drive the stereotype home.

Cult of Cool

Yet in the UK, as with so many things, biking was a more genteel affair - the newspapers' hysterical stereotyping of its fans being in some perpetual gang warfare with scooterists aside. Come the mid-century, riders tended to like this avant-garde new American music called 'rock', which soon got them dubbed 'rockers'. But not for nothing was the 59 Club - one of the most 'notorious' of London's biker groups - co-founded by Bill Shergold, habitué by night of Ace Cafe, the city's racer mecca, and a vicar by day. Biking had, after all, been a perfectly normal and popular pursuit since the Twenties.

If biking in the US came to a peak in the late 1950s and 1960s, particularly as an outlet for dispossessed and disaffected GIs returning from World War II, it endured as more of a shared passion in the UK, especially when it came to the lightweight 'cafe racer' machines, which facilitated a stupendous speed on the roads that only more expensive, customised machines were capable of. Certainly, despite the popular characterisation of bikers as scruffy, anti-social layabouts, it took the income of a steady job and a grasp of mechanical wizardry to be one at all.

1964 Rockers at the Ace Cafe
1964 Rockers at the Ace Cafe

Indeed, older rockers might be a little perplexed by the fashion world's adoption of their style as being iconic, a fact to which Belstaff's latest collection, with its patch-covered, studded, sleeveless summer-weight leather tops and articulated trousers, coated linens, henleys and bandanas - in fact, everything but the engine oil - pays homage. For the bikers of the period, the clothes, frankly, were a passing thought, chosen for their affordability and functionality, the British climate, and lack of money, with only a lucky few able to acquire purpose-designed waxed cotton or leather jackets from the likes of Belstaff. These would be festooned with patches and pin-badges denoting rallies attended, and customised with chains, fringes and hand-painted decals to the extent that they amounted to pieces of folk art.

Eastgate Jacket
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Yet, of course, time and fiction have conspired to re-purpose the rocker's style - the matching gleam of leathers and of a Velocette Thruxton Venom or BSA Gold Star, cut by the grime of a smeared face, affords the rider a kudos equaled only by fighter pilots. It lends a decidedly dark, stark masculine cool at that: biker style is supra-fashion, not concerned with fey trends. In reality, come the end of the Sixties, the rockers had faded away - not because of society's disapproval, but chiefly because they had grown up, started families and now needed saloon cars. But their style lived on in mythology, which has kept it revving ever since.

Josh Sims is a fashion journalist and author of Icons Of Men's Style