Marlon Brando as Johnny Strabler, outlaw motorcycle club leader
Central California, Summer 1953
Film: The Wild One
Release Date: December 30, 1953
Director: László Benedek
“Hey, Johnny, what are you rebelling against?”
This famous exchange originated among the actual biker gangs that producer Stanley Kramer had brought on set to play themselves. When Kramer asked what it was they were “rebelling” against, a member cracked back to him, “Well, whaddaya got?” The line so encapsulated the culture and attitude of bikers during the era that it was incorporated into The Wild One, though the question is posed by Mildred, the platinum blonde beauty salon operator that one of Johnny’s boys picked up in a bar.
Inspired by actual events over a rambunctious fourth of July weekend in Hollister, California, in 1947, The Wild One was based on Frank Rooney’s short story “The Cyclists’ Raid” that appeared in Harper’s magazine in January 1951. It was swiftly adapted for the screen, though the locations involved were changed to the fictional California burgs of Carbondale and Wrightsville, the latter being the “screwball town”—according to Dextro (Jerry Paris)—where most of the action takes place.
The credits are a bit misleading, introducing Marlon Brando to us as The Wild One, though his character Johnny Strabler turns out to be the most restrained of his hell-raising confederates, particularly when compared to the obnoxious pipsqueak Mouse (Gil Stratton), the larcenous, simple-minded Pigeon (Alvy Moore), or rival gang leader Chino (Lee Marvin).
It begins here for me on this road. How the whole mess happened I don’t know, but I know it couldn’t happen again in a million years. Maybe I could have stopped it early, but once the trouble was on its way, I was just goin’ with it. Mostly I remember the girl. I can’t explain it – a sad chick like that, but somethin’ changed in me. She got to me, but that’s later anyway. This is where it begins for me right on this road.
Despite his anomalous introduction, Johnny is full of swagger, and this “bad boy” charm is not lost on repressed counter girl Kathie (Mary Murphy). While the rest of his gang is tearing up the town, Johnny is focused on making a date with the small-town gal, though the disaffected biker struggles to fight through his repressed emotions to forge a genuine connection with the woman who, her emotions worn on her sleeve, tries to get through by asking:
You’re still fighting, aren’t you? You’re always fighting. Why do you hate everybody?
In light of the sensationalistic media coverage of the 1947 events which the San Francisco Chronicle had called “the worst 40 hours in the history of Hollister”, The Wild One goes a few steps further with its dramatization, expanding on the relatively mild drinking and street stunts during the actual weekend by adding more violence, rioting, and death. In fact, many of the original cyclists from the American Motorcycle Association were invited back to Hollister by the Oakland Hells Angels over the weekend of July 4, 1997, for a 50th anniversary commemoration of the now-famous events.
What’d He Wear?
Although this 1953 film features one of the most iconic men’s movie outfits of all time, The Wild One had no credited costume designer. In fact, according to IMDB, it was Marlon Brando himself who selected Johnny Strabler’s famous costume from items in his own wardrobe, renewing his real-life passion for motorcycles to get into character, establishing a persona that would live long past the fabulous fifties to become emblematic of the decade’s counterculture.
No doubt a result of Brando’s swaggering persona, Johnny’s Perfecto-style motorcycle jacket became an overnight symbol of biker culture to the population that had yet been unexposed to the motorcycle clubs being established across the country. After The Wild Ones, the Schott Perfecto® jacket became a staple of countercultural style from contemporary figures like James Dean and Elvis Presley to a late ’70s punk revival thanks to rockers from Joan Jett to the Ramones.
“The Perfecto motorcycle jacket was already a quarter century old when Marlon Brando immortalized it in the 1954 biker flick The Wild One,” Esquire‘s The Handbook of Style introduces it, though a few days off regarding the film’s release date. “The original dates from 1928, when a Harley-Davidson distributor asked Schott Bros., a Staten Island outerwear manufacturer, to create a leather motorcycle jacket. (The brothers had long branded their raincoats under the name Perfecto, after one of the founders’ favorite cigar.)”
Whether or not it was a genuine Schott Perfecto that Brando wore in The Wild One remains a matter of debate, but let’s start by looking at the jacket itself.
Johnny Strabler rides from Carbondale to Wrightsville in a black leather motorcycle jacket, likely made from stiff, hardy steerhide that had been softened over years of hard wear atop his Triumph Thunderbird 6T. The waist-length jacket has an asymmetrical “lancer front” that zips up from waist to neck with a long fabric zipper pull. When unzipped, the jacket’s front flaps present as two widely notched and snap-studded revers, though zipping up to the neck converts these to a spread collar with a single snap at the edge of each leaf for an optional fur collar to be added, while the snaps on the lower halves of the lapels would be to fasten them down onto the body of the jacket. These snaps were not a native feature of the Schott Perfecto 618, so they were either added for the production or an indicator that Brando was not wearing a Schott.
Over the course of The Wild One, Brando wears the jacket unzipped, partially zipped, and zipped to the neck as seen during his fight with Chino or his evening in the woods with Kathie.
Brando’s motorcycle jacket has a total of four external pockets. There are two slanted hand pockets, each with a ringed zipper pull, as well as a third slanted zip pocket, higher on the left side of the chest and—in an uphill direction—perpendicular to the hand pocket just beneath it. Also on the left side, in front of the lower hand pocket, is a small set-in coin pocket that closes with a pointed single-snap flap that Brando occasionally tucks into the pocket. Schott added this pocket as a custom option to the Perfecto One Star in the early ’50s, though it became standard by 1955.
The leather half-belt is another signature of the Perfecto-style motorcycle jacket, fastened around the front of the waist through wide loops just an inch below the bottom of the jacket and closing through a large steel single-prong buckle with mitred corners.
Brando’s character has customized his leather jacket with his name—”Johnny”—painted in cursive over the left chest in addition to a single star pinned to each epaulette (shoulder strap), indicating Johnny’s position of leadership similar to the insignia of an American brigadier general. While the Schott Perfecto 613 One Star had been introduced in the late 1940s with similar stars affixed to the shoulder straps, some have argued that Brando wore a Schott Perfecto 618 with stars added to resemble the 613 One Star.
Further character customization of Brando’s jacket includes a sunglasses-wearing skull and crossed pistons below a stenciled “B.R.M.C.”, standing for—as Mouse squeals—”Black Rebels Motor-siccle Club”. The name and logo have since been appropriated by the San Francisco rock band Black Rebel Motorcycle Club, which formed in 1998.
Aside from the customized logo, Johnny’s motorcycle jacket has the Perfecto’s customary pleated bi-swing “action back” and the zip-up sleeves that can be unzipped up the underside of the forearm to the elbow.
For obvious reasons, Schott NYC proudly takes credit for manufacturing the motorcycle jacket that Marlon Brando made famous in The Wild One, though there have been several discussions online that have advanced a theory that Brando actually wore a replica Perfecto-style jacket made by the lesser known brand Durable, suggested here in a forum on The Fedora Lounge and advanced via citation of Brando’s underarm gussets and sleeve zips by Rick Theriault’s exploration of his own 1950s Durable jacket here.
With the help of a timeline that Schott NYC published last year to celebrate the 90th anniversary of their Perfecto jacket, we can piece together the following:
- 1913: Schott is founded by brothers Irving and Jack Schott on Manhattan’s Lower East Side, specializing in fur-lined raincoats
- 1928: Schott introduces the Perfecto jacket, notable for being the first mass-produced American outerwear with zippers sewn on
- Late 1940s: Schott introduces the horsehide Perfecto 613 One Star
- Early 1950s: Schott introduces the Perfecto 618, identical to the 613 though it lacks the shoulder stars
Both the Perfecto 613 One Star and the Perfecto 618 (in steerhide and horsehide) are still available from Schott NYC, though the company now also offers customizable jackets, giving many fans the opportunity to order their own Brando-inspired Perfecto jackets as seen in this “You Call the Schotts” forum where users discuss (and interact with a Schott representative) the customizations that were seemingly made to the screen-worn jacket in The Wild One. For a few hundred bucks less, Magnoli Clothiers also offers a customizable “Brando Leather Jacket” that makes no secret of who inspired it.
In the nearly a century that has passed since Schott introduced the groundbreaking Perfecto, legions of menswear designers and manufacturers have developed their own motorcycle jackets, and my friend at Iconic Alternatives just published a definitive guide to finding modern (and affordable) motorcycle jackets in the spirit of Brando, Dean, and the decades of rebels to follow.
Honestly, the Schott vs. Durable discussion is considerably above my head and has been much argued by those more expert than myself, and it seems we’re at the mercy of internet detectives to determine the actual maker of Brando’s jacket as the screen-worn coat seems to have been lost to history. Whatever the true provenance of Brando’s screen-worn motorcycle jacket may be, Schott has claimed credit for it and their instrumental role in developing the original Perfecto in the 1920s makes them worthy of mention during any discussion of Johnny Strabler’s rebellious attire.
Johnny’s shirt is a simple ringer T-shirt, so named for the “ringed” piping around the crew neck and the ends of the short set-in sleeves. The shirt appears to be the same one that Brando is wearing in this 1954 portrait.
Contemporary color photography from the production of The Wild One depicts the shirt as light beige, similar to this “hummus” beige ringer T with dark navy accents from ASOS (for only $10, as of October 2019.) Like motorcycle jackets, ringer tees grew in popularity in the U.S. during the mid-’50s and enjoyed a revival among the 1970s hard rock subculture.
Johnny’s dark indigo blue jeans have been suggested to be Levi’s 501 jeans, at the time still only prominently marketed in Western states according to the online listing for the Levi’s® Vintage Clothing 1954 501® Jean, which introduced a zip-fly (thus the 501® Z designation) in lieu of the venerated button fly. As the zippered fly would debut on the 501 the year after The Wild One was produced and released, Brando’s 501s maintained the original button fly.
Brando’s jeans are constructed from selvedge denim, “woven so the fabric’s ‘edge’ can be used in garment construction” according to Todd Shelton’s definitive May 2019 exploration into this tightly woven heavy fabric. You can also read more about selvedge and raw denim in Mash Nedich’s article for Primer.
Although the brand has evolved the product in the decades since Brando wore them in The Wild One, Levi’s 501 Original jeans with a button-fly closure and “rigid dark wash” selvedge denim are still available in the 1947 pattern (from Amazon and Levi’s) as well as the “Original Fit” (from Amazon and Levi’s) and the “Original Shrink-to-fit” (from Amazon and Levi’s).
Johnny wears a dark leather belt, likely black to match the rest of his leather, with a tall single-prong buckle that echoes the buckle on his jacket’s half-belt. The belt is decorated with a series of “X”-shaped laces in contrasting light leather that weave in and out of double grommets around the back of the belt.
While lacking the contrasting lace and more substantial buckle of Brando’s screen-worn belt, there are a few relatively inexpensive X-laced black leather belts available on the Internet from Amazon, Bonanza, and other retailers.
Engineer boots trace their origins back to the Civil War era when Massachusetts-based shoemaker Frye introduced its harness boots that would soon be adopted by the U.S. cavalry. Decades later, it was on the dawn of yet another major war that the Chippewa and West Coast Shoe Company (Wesco) evolved these ankle-strapped boots in the late 1930s to have longer shafts in the spirit of English equestrian footwear with loose gussets at the top secured by a second buckled strap. These minimally designed, easy-to-remove “engineer boots” were meant to be worn by railway firemen but also caught on among shipyard welders in the Pacific Northwest and, after World War II, by motorcyclists who needed laceless boots with long shafts to protect against the heat of their bikes and to prevent further injury in the case of an accident.
Thanks to wearers like Brando in The Wild One and James Dean in Rebel Without a Cause, engineer boots have become inextricably linked with ’50s counterculture, alternatively known as “motorcycle boots” as the image tends to evoke Johnny Strabler and his fellow B.R.M.C. bikers before that of the railway engineer for whom the boots were developed. In 2011, Brando’s estate sued Harley-Davidson for using the actor’s likeness to sell engineer boots similar to the ones worn in The Wild One, though both parties reached a settlement.
Classic engineer boots were invariably made of sturdy black bullhide with shafts ranging from 7″ to 17″ in height and thick leather soles with substantial heels. The dual-strap design remained a trademark of engineer boots, with one across each instep and one around the gusseted top of each shaft.
As the original manufacturers of engineer boots, Chippewa and Wesco both benefited from their postwar popularity and both have been suggested to be the brand that Brando famously wore in The Wild One, though Vintage Engineer Boots—an expert in this style of footwear, as the blog name suggests—has deduced Johnny Strabler’s on-screen engineer boots to be vintage steel-toed Chippewas.
- Chippewa 11″ “Original Collection” engineer boots (Amazon)
- Chippewa 11″ steel-toed engineer boots (Amazon)
- Chippewa 17″ steel-toed engineer boots (Amazon)
- Wesco 11″ “Boss” engineer boots (Amazon)
For as much as fans have had to guess who made the staples of Johnny Strabler’s attire like his jacket and boots, a close-up of the movie leaves no doubt regarding the maker of his black leather riding gloves. As Johnny guzzles his bottle of Blatz inside Bleeker’s, white printing is seen along the inside: “SPEC…” “CLASS P – PIQUE” “SIZE 8:” “A&F STOCK”, all snippets of the gloves’ manufacture and provenance though the most telltale is the bottom line of print that identifies the maker: “BUSCARLET GLOVE CO.”
Online searches turn up varying results for Buscarlet Glove Company, including a French specialist of women’s gloves, though Johnny undoubtedly wears the American-made Buscarlet gloves that were headquartered in New York. Both companies seem to be defunct now, and simple leather gloves seem to have been supplanted among motorcyclists by more protective gloves.
When Johnny removes his gloves, he reveals a large ring gleaming from the third finger of his left hand with a dark stone.
Also dressing his left hand is a bulky curb-chain bracelet, highlighted in some shots from Phil Stern’s archive of behind-the-scenes photography.
When on the road, Johnny sports a pair of metal-framed aviator sunglasses, an indication of crossover style between the worlds of motorcycling and aviation. Bausch & Lomb had originally developed these tinted pilot’s glasses in 1936 as an elegant update of the existing military flight goggles. Over the course of World War II, they had been popularized by young men seeking to emulate American war heroes of the skies and became firmly entrenched in pop culture after eccentric General Douglas MacArthur was photographed in his peaked cap, aviators, and signature corncob pipe after landing in the Philippines in 1944.
Ten years later, Marlon Brando rode through the opening credits of The Wild One with his eyes shielded by a pair of aviators, and the world had a new iconoclast from whom to take their eyewear cues. When not wearing his aviators, Johnny tended to clip them to the belt of his leather jacket.
Given its association with Bausch & Lomb, Ray-Ban has essentially cornered the market on the classic aviator frame (available from Amazon and Ray-Ban), though most eyewear companies—and quite a few clothiers—offer their own variation of the frame as well, with the J+S Premium Classic Aviator (Amazon) emerging as a popular, low-priced alternative.
Johnny’s signature headgear was a mariner’s cap (also known as a “fiddler cap” for its association with Fiddler on the Roof) with an eight-paneled, tightly woven cloth cover in khaki—as established by contemporary color photography—with two ventilation holes on each side and a flat gold-toned linked chain across the front. The cap has a short black leather visor.
“Wild One caps” are a signature product of San Diego’s Village Hat Shop, particularly the “Brando Cotton Canvas Cap” from New York Hat Company which swaps out the gold-toned band for a black braided rope.
What to Imbibe
After the Black Rebels Motorcycle Club arrives in Wrightsville, Johnny Strabler becomes the first of many in the club to patronize Bleeker’s Cafe, the diner owned by Frank Bleeker (Ray Teal) whose daughter Kathie works the register, first making Johnny’s acquaintance over the bottle of beer that she serves him.
The beer that fuels Johnny and the rest of the BRMC’s exploits in Wrightsville appears to be Blatz, a Milwaukee brew that was enjoying considerable popularity across the nation at the time.
Blatz beer dates back to 1846 when Johann Braun opened City Brewery, one of approximately 35 to open in the city in the two decades to follow the first Milwaukee brewery opening in 1840. Four years after Braun’s brewery opened at Main and Division streets (now N. Broadway and E. Juneau Avenue), Bavarian-born immigrant Valentin Blatz established his brewery next door. When Braun less than two years later, Blatz married Braun’s widow and merged the two breweries under his ownership. In 1852, the total output of Blatz’s newly expanded brewery was 350 barrels, a humble beginning for what would become the third best-selling Milwaukee brewery by the turn of the century.
As the taste for German-style lagers gained a foothold in the United States over traditional English ales, so too did interest in Blatz beer, which was producing 16,000 barrels annually by 1868. A fire in 1872 did little to halt the brewery’s upward momentum, as it provided Val Blatz the opportunity to reinvest in new technologies that better allowed for innovation and expansion. Three years later, Blatz became the first Milwaukee brewery to have an in-house bottling department to package its beer and ship nationally. By 1880, production was up to 125,000 barrels each year, shipped across the country as far as New York, Boston, Charleston, Savannah, and New Orleans, as well as nearer cities with booming beer markets like Chicago and Memphis.
In the two decades approaching the turn of the century, Blatz worked fiercely to continue innovating his product, installing an innovative pipeline between the brewery and bottling works in 1889, the same year that the works was incorporated as the Val Blatz Brewing Company with a capitalization of $2,000,000. In 1891, a new and expanded brewery complex was built while Blatz sold part of his interests to an English syndicate and, in 1894, the Blatz brewery became the first in the country to run on electric power, putting the brewery on an unstoppable track of progress that led to it becoming the third largest Milwaukee brewery by 1900. Unfortunately, Val Blatz did not live to see this achievement, as the visionary brewer died on May 26, 1894 at the age of 67.
Despite its continued growth, Blatz suffered the same blow as breweries across the nation when Prohibition was enacted in the United States. For 13 years, Blatz eked out non-alcoholic products such as malt soaps, near beer, and “Blatz Gold Star Ginger Ale” to stay afloat, finally resuming full production of beer as soon as Prohibition was repealed in 1933. Two years later, in the spirit of Val Blatz’s endless enthusiasm for innovation, Blatz became one of the first beers in the country to be sold in cans. Ownership shifted to whiskey producer Schenley Industries during the post-Prohibition era, but Blatz continued its upward track, becoming the 9th most produced American beer in 1950 with 1,756,000 barrels. Given this popularity, it’s little surprise that it would have been so ubiquitous in Bleeker’s Cafe when Johnny and his gang strolled in on one otherwise quiet summer day in 1953.
The once mighty Blatz brewery met a surprisingly quick demise not long after the B.R.M.C. drank Bleeker’s Cafe dry in 1953. Pabst Brewing Company acquired Blatz from Schenley in 1958, but the sale was voided when the government determined the acquisition in violation of the Clayton Act, and the brewery was forced to close within the year. The brand lived on as the assets and labels were sold to Pabst in 1960, changing hands multiple times over the decades from G. Heileman to Stroh’s to Pabst to Miller before once again being acquired by Pabst in 2007.
What to Ride
Johnny Strabler rides through California on a 1950 Triumph 6T Thunderbird motorcycle reported to be Marlon Brando’s own, with 1951 California registration plate #93832 (not #63632, as has been reported elsewhere.)
Triumph introduced the Thunderbird in 1949 to meet the increasing demand for motorcycles by recreational riders embracing the avocation in the years following World War II and the rise of biker culture. British motorcycles were lighter and more agile and, according to a January 2003 article in American Motorcyclist, “after 1950, more Triumphs were sold in America than in any other country.”
The 6T Thunderbird was powered by a four-stroke parallel-twin engine bored out to almost 650cc from the Speed Twin’s 500cc displacement for additional horsepower to satisfy the American market, offering 34 bhp (25 kW) at 6300 rpm, enough to push the 370-pound motorcycle to top speeds around 100 mph. While the “6T” in its name was a reference to the 650cc engine, it’s been suggested that Triumph managing director Edward Turner was inspired by an American motel for the “Thunderbird” part of the name. Triumph initially offered the 6T Thunderbird in blue only, until American dealers demanded a black model to take on the tough-looking competition from Harley-Davidson and Indian. In response, Triumph delivered the all-black “Blackbird” for the U.S. market only.
Johnny Strabler’s Triumph is consistent with his fellow Black Rebels Motorcycle Club members who all ride Triumphs or other British motorcycles made by BSA and Matchless. In turn, Chino and his rival club—the Beetles—ride into Wrightsville on predominantly American-made Harley-Davidson motorcycles. (Interestingly enough, just a decade later, a little band called the Beatles would kick off the “British invasion”.)
Triumph was indignant at the use of their motorcycles in The Wild One, to the point where Bill Johnson, the Triumph importer whose Johnson Motors was largely responsible for the brand’s success in the U.S., issued an objection:
It should be obvious that the film is calculated to do nothing but harm, particularly to do a minor group of business people—motorcycle dealers throughout the USA. Certainly there is nothing educational about this picture, but on the contrary it raises a most unfavorable presumption against the sport of motorcycling generally, and is a stigma to anyone who owns or rides a motor bike.
A longer excerpt of this objection can be found in Lindsay Brooke and David Gaylin’s comprehensive history Triumph Motorcycles in America. Eventually, Triumph would embrace its prominent role in such an iconic movie, even to the point of listing Marlon Brando next to Steve McQueen as a celebrity who “cemented the Triumph legend.” And indeed he did.
Marlon Brando wasn’t the only prominent cast member who owned a Triumph motorcycle. Having overcome his initial inability to ride a motorcycle Lee Marvin—who played the Harley-Davidson rider Chino—competed in real-life desert races on a Triumph 200cc Tiger Cub, evidently respecting Brando’s choice in bikers more than he did his style of method acting. Fellow ’50s rebel was so inspired by Brando’s Triumph that he bought himself a Triumph TR5 Trophy, the same 498cc motorcycle that would be popularly ridden by “the Fonz” (Henry Winkler) on Happy Days.
How to Get the Look
“Marlon Brando’s motorcycle gang leader in The Wild Ones… made jeans and leather a classic combination,” wrote Marion Maneker in Dressing in the Dark: Lessons in Men’s Style from the Movies. Indeed, Johnny Strabler’s personalized black leather Perfecto-style motorcycle jacket, selvedge Levi’s jeans, engineer boots, and canvas peaked cap has endured for more than half a century as emblematic of 1950s rebellious counterculture.
- Black steerhide leather Perfecto-style motorcycle jacket with widely notched lapels (with collar snaps), asymmetrical zip-up lancer front, snapped epaulettes/shoulder straps (each decorated with a single star), zip-up slanted hand pockets, zip-up slanted left chest pocket, left-side coin pocket (with pointed single-snap flap), half-belt (with mitred-corner steel single-prong buckle), zip-up sleeves, and bi-swing pleated “action back”
- Beige cotton “ringer” T-shirt with dark navy-piped crew neck and short sleeve ends
- Levi’s 501® Original jeans in dark indigo blue selvedge denim with belt loops, button fly, front pockets, right-side coin pocket, flapped back pockets, and self-cuffed plain-hemmed bottoms
- Black leather belt with contrasting “X”-lacing and tall single-prong buckle
- Black bullhide leather engineer boots with buckled straps and double leather outsoles (with stacked heels)
- Mariner’s cap with soft khaki eight-panel cloth cover, flat gold-linked front band, and black leather visor
- Black leather motorcycle gloves
- Silver curb-chain bracelet
- Gold ring with stone
- Aviator-style sunglasses
Do Yourself a Favor and…
Check out the movie.
You think you’re too good for me. Nobody’s too good for me! Anybody thinks they’re too good for me, I make sure I knock ’em over sometime. Right now, I could slap you around to show you how good you are and tomorrow, I’m someplace else and I don’t even know you or nothing.