Easy Rider: Peter Fonda as “Captain America”

Peter Fonda as Wyatt in Easy Rider (1969)

Peter Fonda as “Captain America” in Easy Rider (1969)

Vitals

Peter Fonda as Wyatt, aka “Captain America”, freedom-loving biker

Across the southern United States from Los Angeles through Louisiana, February 1968

Film: Easy Rider
Release Date: July 14, 1969
Director: Dennis Hopper

WARNING! Spoilers ahead!

Background

When I learned the second Saturday of October is commemorated as National Motorcycle Ride Day, I realized I’d gone far too long without shining a sartorial lens on Dennis Hopper’s iconic cult classic, Easy Rider.

Conceptualized by Hopper, Fonda, and screenwriter Terry Southern, Easy Rider‘s chaotic production and controversial themes have been the product of considerable discussion since its release during that seminal summer of ’69. To some, it explores the death of the American dream through the concept of freedom, asking what it really means to be a free American.

Set to classic rock like The Byrds, Jimi Hendrix, Roger McGuinn, and Steppenwolf, we follow two bikers in their journey across the United States, from the open desert of the southwest into the close-knit conservative communities of the deep South. Hopper co-stars as the the mustached hippie rider Billy, but the arguable leader of the duo is the flag-bedecked Wyatt (Peter Fonda), celebrated by his pal as “Captain America”. After all, if a red, white, and blue-blooded Captain America can’t safely and freely ride across the nation, who can?

What’d He Wear?

Easy Rider has no credited costume designer, as it’s been chronicled that Peter Fonda himself had a significant hand in developing Wyatt’s “Captain America” look. Both of our protagonists take their cues from legends of the old west, with Hopper’s Billy—as in “Billy the Kid”—the more blatant outlaw in his fringed hippie buckskins, bushman’s hat, and drooping mustache. In accordance with the more lawful reputation of his namesake, Wyatt Earp, Fonda’s character can more easily “pass” with his shorter hair, clean-shaven countenance, and patriotic badging.

Peter Fonda and Dennis Hopper in Easy Rider (1969)

Wyatt and Billy embark on their epic ride.

Wyatt’s “Captain America” leather jacket was designed and made for Fonda by Clarice Amberg of the South Gate, California-based ABC Leathers, an outfitter “known for its innovative use of colored leather” (according to The Dedicated Follower of Fashion) that was purchased in 1971 by the company known today as Bates Custom Leathers. “She was praised as one of the first female owners of a racing jacket company (appropriate considering the progressive nature of the film), and it was she who made some of the first colourful biker jackets in an era where they were mostly black and riders were near impossible to tell apart,” Anna Prendergast described Amberg for The Rake.

Although Wyatt’s black cowhide jacket has been colorfully badged consistently with his patriotic pride, the foundation is a classic racer jacket, a simplified alternative to the asymmetric-zipped Schott Perfecto-style motorcycle jackets that had been developed in the 1920s. These zip-up jackets are characterized by a standing collar—often with a throat latch like the single-snap strap on Wyatt’s jacket—pleats behind each shoulder to allow greater freedom of movement, and zip-back gauntlets at the end of each sleeve. Pocket configurations vary, though Wyatt’s jacket seems to lack any external pockets in favor of red, white, and blue stripe detailing banded around his left arm and in a strip down the right side of his chest.

Peter Fonda in Easy Rider (1969)

Wyatt introduces a reluctant George to the wonders of marijuana.

Affixed to the left side of the jacket over his chest, Wyatt wears a mixed-metal identification badge from the Office of the Secretary of Defense (OSD). According to Medals of America, the badge was developed in 1949 and “is to be worn permanently for the remainder of an individual’s military career, provided that a service member served at least one year (two years for Reserve personnel not on active duty) in or in support of OSD.”

The badge has a two-inch circumference with a brass-toned round base of 33 spokes with two columns of raised squares between each. Against this base is a circular gold ring with 13 raised stars reflecting the original colonies across the top and a green dexter-and-olive laurel wreath relief across the bottom. Spread across the center is a gold right-facing American Eagle, with three right-facing crossed arrows gripped in its talons and a breast shield in red, white, and blue—or gules, argent, and azure, to use the proper heraldic terminology—though the colors appear to have mostly faded from the shield.

The screen-worn badge was also auctioned by Heritage Auctions, whose listing included detailed photos of the front and back, where three gold pins fastened it to Wyatt’s jacket leather.

Peter Fonda in Easy Rider (1969)

Wyatt’s OSD badge shines from the left side of his jacket. (Note that this image had been reversed in the finished film, but I re-reversed it to correctly depict where the badge was actually pinned.)

The Dedicated Follower of Fashion published a thoughtful analysis on clothing in Easy Rider, in which the writer observed that “the flag on his back plays with ideals of patriotism and irony, as if to say that he, too, can love his country while also opposing the government and its involvement in the Vietnam War. It’s a concept that aligned with the protest movement who adopted military gear and combat fatigues while demonstrating on the streets.”

While it may conflict with the image one would expect of a countercultural hero, Wyatt’s earnest expression of American motifs illustrates the divide between patriotism and nationalism. Freewheeling in his red, white, and blue, Wyatt patriotically celebrates the country that grants his constitutional right to freedom, right up through the tragic reveal of how widely this right is misinterpreted by his fellow countrymen. (Indeed, art imitated life in the weeks leading up to production when Peter Fonda was breaking in his costume and bike on the streets of Los Angeles, and he found himself frequently being pulled over by police.)

Fonda continued wearing the jacket after production wrapped on Easy Rider, keeping the large flag patch from the back even after the rest of the jacket wore out. In October 2007, Fonda’s screen-worn stars and stripes was auctioned by Heritage Auctions, yielding more than $90,000.

Peter Fonda in Easy Rider (1969)

A hitchhiking highway hippie (Luke Askew) fills Wyatt’s tank with gasoline… triggering Billy’s paranoia regarding their cash stashed in the tank.

For most of their multi-day ride up through the beatings they encounter in a small Louisiana parish, Wyatt wears a creamy off-white cotton popover shirt with distinctive embroidery flanking the front bib and encircling each barrel cuff. The shirt has a standing collar and a long placket to mid-torso with two bone-like toggles fastening the shirt over the chest in lieu of traditional buttons. Two embroidered strips are arranged vertically, one on each side of this bib-like front extending down to the waist line a few inches below the bottom of the placket, where a shorter embroidery strip is overlaid the connect them.

Echoing traditional Mexican embroidery, the design consists of a repeating pattern of squares that contain an eight-pointed shape; the pattern alternates between rust-toned squares with a white shape (and a slate-blue square center) and white squares with a slate-colored shape that has a larger taupe center. The squares are arranged like a film strip with a slate-shaded border, itself bordered on each side by a rust-hued squiggle line.

Knotted around his neck, Wyatt wears a navy cotton bandana, patterned with a traditional white paisley print. The neckerchief serves the practical purpose of catching sweat during long days on the road, though it also reinforces his outlaw image as these paisley bandanas have long been associated with cowboys, bandits, and other long riders of the wild west.

Peter Fonda in Easy Rider (1969)

Lisa (Luana Anders) shares a meal with Wyatt at the New Mexico commune.

As the duo rides into New Orleans, Wyatt has changed into a considerably more colorful shirt covered in an all-over psychedelic floral print with shades of hot pink, electric blue, and lime green against its golden yellow ground. This shirt is totally collarless, instead cut with a henley-like rounded crew-neck that snaps to close at the top.

The placket is embroidered in yellow, with a red-embroidered yoke straight across the back with yellow and red fringe triumphantly waving from each side as Wyatt rides. The full-fitting shirt allows considerable air to pass through while riding, though the banded cuffs prevent the baggy, blousoned set-in sleeves from interfering with his controlling the bike.

Peter Fonda in Easy Rider (1969)

The natural majesty of the southwest has been largely replaced by rundown attempts at development as Wyatt and Billy’s journey takes them farther east.

Though both of his shirts are consistent with late ’60s hippie styles, this vividly printed shirt departs from its relatively subdued predecessor by instantly marking Wyatt as a countercultural “enemy” in the land of crew-cuts, white short-sleeved shirts, and shotguns.

Wyatt swaps out the outlaw-like blue paisley bandana for a sage-green neck scarf with a blue and violet floral print that he ties in a short four-in-hand knot.

Peter Fonda in Easy Rider (1969)

In addition to the two jackets they made for Easy Rider, ABC Leathers also made Wyatt’s tight black leather pants that he wears throughout his journey with Billy. Finished with narrow cuffs on the bottoms, these flat front trousers have no visible external pockets, though there may be a hidden change pocket as featured on some classic moto trousers like the “Touring Pants” currently offered in the Bates Leathers catalog; whether there are pockets or not, Wyatt opts instead to just tuck his black leather gloves into his waistband, though this may also just be easier for him than managing the traction of pulling leather gloves in and out of tight leather pockets.

Peter Fonda in Easy Rider (1969)

As observed by The Dedicated Follower of Fashion, “when Wyatt covers Billy with his jacket after he is shot off his motorcycle, it echoes the draping the flag over a fallen soldier’s coffin.”

Through the pointed Western-style trouser belt loops, Wyatt wears a silver-toned motorcycle chain belt. As its name implies, this consists of a double-layered length of the primary roller chain that makes up part of a motorcycle’s drive train, transmitting power to the rear wheel.

His large belt buckle hearkens to “easy riders” of a century earlier, featuring the gilt relief of a horseback rider against a curlicue-etched silver base. The rider is flanked by gilt scrolls above and below, and the oval buckle is entirely bordered in gold.

Peter Fonda in Easy Rider (1969)

Wyatt’s belt buckle shines as he sits down with Billy and George for an aborted attempt at ordering dinner in a rural Louisiana parish.

Wyatt’s brown napped leather motorcycle boots appropriately present the worn patina of frequent travel on open roads. The plain-toed, pull-on boots have tall, cowboy-style shafts worn under the legs of his leather pants, providing full coverage that protect his feet and ankles from weather, exhaust, and road debris. The boot is styled with the dark brown buckled straps associated with traditional engineer boots, favored by motorcyclists to adjust the fit around the ankles and ensure that the boots fit snugly.

Peter Fonda in Easy Rider (1969)

Wyatt doesn’t always wear a helmet when he’s on the road, but when he does, he wears a black leather-lined, 3/4-shell open-face helmet that fully reinforces his Captain America image with a field of white five-pointed stars against a blue crown and the sides covered in red and white vertical awning stripes, all reflecting the iconography of the American flag.

Jack Nicholson and Peter Fonda in Easy Rider (1969)

“You got a helmet?” George (Jack Nicholson) does the best he can to protect his dome while riding with Wyatt, though at least he’s better-protected than Billy who takes to the road in no more than his bushman hat.

As one would expect of cool countercultural heroes, Wyatt and Billy hit the road wearing instantly memorable sunglasses that protect their eyes both from the sun as well as any debris kicked up on the road. Wyatt’s gold-framed shades were designed by American Optical (AO Eyewear), distinguished by the top bar’s subtle curve as it wraps around each lens into the arms. The tint of the brown lenses are light enough that they can also be effectively worn at night or indoors, with the elongated shape of each lens providing a touch of added protection.

AO Eyewear no longer manufactures what has been described as the original “Captain America” frame, but the classic Ray-Ban Olympian makes for an almost identical substitute. Introduced in 1965, the Olympian also boasts what Ray-Ban describes as “sophisticated, distinct top bar lines” and was recently featured as Don Draper’s preferred frame on later seasons of Mad Men. Ray-Ban continues to sell the Olympian, designated the RB3119, available for sale via Amazon or Ray-Ban.

Peter Fonda in Easy Rider (1969)

Steppenwolf’s “The Pusher” formally introduces us to Captain America as Wyatt hides the proceedings from his cocaine deal in the red, white, and blue fuel tank of his bike. Though its only briefly flashed during this vignette, horological enthusiasts can clearly spy a gold Rolex GMT Master on Wyatt’s left wrist.

According to the Heritage Auctions listing for the screen-worn watch, this was Peter Fonda’s own Rolex, a prototype GMT Master that he had purchased in 1968 to reward himself for finishing the first draft of Easy Rider‘s screenplay in less than three hours after inspiration struck while sitting on a French beach.

The 18-karat yellow gold Rolex boasts the GMT Master’s signature 24-hour rotating bezel, with a brown insert to match the brown dial. The dial features luminous hands and gold non-numeric hour markers, save for the 3 o’clock position where the hour marker has been replaced by an off-white date window. The 40mm case is affixed to a yellow gold three-piece Oyster-style link bracelet with a folding clasp.

Peter Fonda in Easy Rider (1969)

Wyatt’s Rolex flashes as he stores the cash in his fuel tank. (Inset photo of Fonda’s screen-worn watch sourced from Heritage Auctions.)

Rather than risk damaging his new watch, the Rolex has been clearly swapped out for a different watch that he pulls from his wrist and drops in the California desert a the start of their trip, representing his abandonment of time in favor of freedom.

This almost entirely different watch shares almost no visual characteristics with the GMT Master, save for the fact that its bracelet is finished in gold. The case is stainless steel with a large, plain off-white dial that has the 12, 3, 6, and 9 o’clock hours marked numerically and the others with a simple line. The bracelet is a gold-finished expanding band as was common on inexpensive wristwatches of the era.

Wyatt's discarded watch in Easy Rider (1969)

To be fair to Fonda, I wouldn’t toss a brand-new Rolex (or any Rolex) into the desert, either.

Wyatt is dressed with considerably less panache at the start of Easy Rider, still sporting his embroidered shirt, navy bandana, and black leather pants but with a considerably distressed and otherwise non-notable zip-up windbreaker made from sage-green cotton.

The waist-length jacket has a short, rounded standing collar, horizontal yokes across the chest and back, welted vertical-entry hand pockets, and set-in sleeves that end with short single-button squared semi-tab cuffs.

Peter Fonda in Easy Rider (1969)

The Bike

Wyatt and Billy make their famous ride across the country in Harley-Davidson Hydra-Glide motorcycles, customized to fit each rider’s respective image. As Harley-Davidson opted not to provide bikes for Easy Rider given that “the protagonists were outlaws” according to a June 2005 issue of History Channel Magazine, the four 1200cc bikes used during the production were ironically purchased from the Los Angeles Police Department, auctioned for $500.

Each rider had one primary bike and one backup, designed and built by Cliff Vaughs and Ben Hardy, whom Fonda had worked with after Hardy built his screen-ridden bike for The Wild Angels (1966). Given that Peter Fonda was a more experienced rider than Dennis Hopper, Captain America’s 1952 Harley was more dramatically stretched and raked into the chopper we see on screen with its tall “apehanger”-style handlebars and the “stars and stripes” fuel tank custom-built by Dan Haggerty, who also appeared uncredited during the commune sequence.

Dennis Hopper, Peter Fonda, and Jack Nicholson in Easy Rider (1969)

Born to be wild.

Of the four bikes purchased for Easy Rider, one of Captain America’s bikes was demolished and burnt for the finale while the other three were stolen. Fonda restored the burnt-out crash bike, which Haggerty restored and displayed at museums and state fairs until it went through a series of sales and auctions. Boasting a 74 cubic-inch panhead 45-degree V-twin engine generating 52 horsepower and mated to a four-speed manual transmission, the bike was auctioned again in June 2021 by Cord and Kruse, selling for $255,000.

Sources:

How to Get the Look

Peter Fonda as Wyatt in Easy Rider (1969)

Peter Fonda as Wyatt in Easy Rider (1969)

Peter Fonda’s enduring look as the freedom-loving biker built on the foundation of traditional motorcycle garb—leather racer jacket and matching pants, sweat-catching neckerchief, helmet, gloves, and engineer boots—and infused Captain America’s persona with enough red, white, and blue that you’d think he would have been celebrated rather than scorned as he rode through the country.

  • Black cowhide leather racer jacket with standing collar (with throat latch), zip-up front, zip-back gauntlet cuffs, red-and-blue-on-white striped chest strip and left sleeve band, and large American flag back patch
  • Off-white cotton pullover shirt with standing collar, Mexican embroidery-bordered front bib, two-toggle placket, and embroidery-banded cuffs
  • Navy (with white paisley print) cotton bandana/neckerchief
  • Black leather flat front pants with belt loops and narrowly cuffed bottoms
  • Silver-toned double-layer motorcycle primary-chain belt with large oval gold-on-silver horse-rider buckle
  • Brown napped leather plain-toe engineer-style motorcycle boots
  • Stars-and-stripes-emblazoned 3/4-shell open-face helmet with black leather lining
  • Gold-framed Olympian-style sunglasses with curved wraparound top bar and brown-tinted elongated lenses
  • Rolex GMT Master 18-karat yellow gold wristwatch with brown 24-hour rotating bezel, brown dial (with non-numeric hour markers, luminous hands, and 3 o’clock date window), and gold Oyster-style link bracelet
  • Black leather elastic-backed gloves

Fonda’s screen-worn look has become, perhaps ironically, one of the most replicated movie jackets in the more than half-century since its release, with recreations offered from outfitters of varying degrees of reputation. While the most recommended route would be to find your own worn-in leather racer jacket that suits your own personality, comfort, and sense of patriotism, I tried to mine through the abundant field of Easy Rider replica jackets to find a range of best-reviewed, highest-quality (e.g., real leather), or most affordable fits for those looking to directly crib from Captain America himself:

  • Hawk & Bull Peter Fonda Easy Rider Jacket (Hawk & Bull, $179)
  • Leather Madness Captain America Easy Rider Genuine Leather Jacket (Leather Madness, $199)
  • Outfit Craze Black Biker Easy Rider Lambskin Jacket (Walmart, $119.99)
  • UG Fashions Easy Rider Jacket (Amazon, $123)

All prices and availability as of October 8, 2021.

Do Yourself a Favor and…

Check out the movie and the classic rock soundtrack.

The Quote

You know, Billy… we blew it.

2 comments

  1. Rob

    Slight correction to the boots. The straps on them aren’t actually part of the boot but are spurs.
    After the get arrested and meet George (Jack) when they leave you can see the coo hand them over to him.

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