Dennis Hopper as Billy, cowboy-styled biker and cocaine smuggler
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!
The late Dennis Hopper was born 86 years ago today on May 17, 1936. The iconoclastic filmmaker had been acting on screen since the ’50s before he made his directorial debut with the groundbreaking Easy Rider.
Filmed early in 1968 but not released until the tumultuous summer of ’69, Easy Rider had been conceptualized by Hopper with screenwriter Terry Southern and fellow actor Peter Fonda, who would join Hopper on screen as the pair of freedom-loving bikers we follow across the country following a lucrative cocaine sale. There’s plenty more drug use along the way, from a few LSD tabs scored from a fellow traveler to introducing the wild-eyed lawyer George Hanson (Jack Nicholson) to marijuana, but the substances are secondary as Easy Rider allegorizes the death—or, perhaps, the contemporary redefinition—of the American dream.
Their illicit trade notwithstanding, our two protagonists are established as outlaws from the outset, their names borrowed from seminal “wild west” figures like Wyatt Earp and Billy the Kid, charging through the countryside not on horses but on Harleys. The music scoring their journey also had some influence on their appearance, with Wyatt—or “Captain America”, if you will—reportedly modeled after Roger McGuinn while Hopper’s mustachioed Billy bears an undeniable resemblance to David Crosby, a founding member of The Byrds.
Indeed, The Byrds and McGuinn, as well as the likes of The Band, Jimi Hendrix, and Steppenwolf, provided the movie’s now-iconic soundtrack that serves as a celebratory dirge to freedom as our riders’ journey takes them from the vast, accepting lands of the southwest and into the dangerously reactionary deep South.
What’d He Wear?
Wyatt and Billy represent two interpretations of American representation in their dress, with Wyatt sporting patriotic red, white, and blue iconography among his more contemporary black leather while Billy’s buckskins suggest a Native American provenance, his earthy tones ranging from sand to umber to present a more “heritage hippie” image.
A 2016 blog entry at The Dedicated Follower of Fashion thoughtfully posits that “Billy’s Southwestern influenced outfit could have been dug up at a flea market, emphasizing the rejection of mass market clothing and embracing individuality.”
Our heroes wear sunglasses to protect their eyes from the sun while also communicating their counterculture sense of cool. As opposed to Wyatt’s sleeker gold-framed AO Eyewear shades, Billy wears a pair of chunkier black rectangular-framed sunglasses with darker lenses.
I believe the original manufacturer of Billy’s shades has been lost to time, though Hollywood-based designer Jacques Marie Mage has paid tribute to the style and Hopper’s legacy with their squared “Taos” frame, available from Seen and MR PORTER.
Billy and Wyatt insist that George strap on a helmet before agreeing to take him, but Billy himself foregoes any headgear more protective than his signature slouch hat. Also known as an “Australian bush hat”, “digger hat”, “Kossuth hat”, or “Outback hat”, this style was reportedly pioneered during the 1640s King Charles I’s royalist Cavaliers during the English Civil War. Though it has been used widely by military forces and guerrillas around the world in the centuries since, the hat has maintained a particularly strong as an Australian national symbol, emerging after these khaki hats were authorized for Australian military uniforms during the Victorian era.
Though the moniker may sound like it denigrates its wearers’ work ethics, the term “slouch hat” actually refers to the common practice of fastening one side of brim against the crown—allowing the other side to “slouch” down—so that its martial wearer could more efficiently shoulder a rifle. This side was often fastened with clips or pins, though it was modernized during the 20th century with snaps.
In Easy Rider, Billy wears a slouch hat constructed from a stiff but malleable khaki cotton canvas. The wide brim has a silver-finished snap on each side, which Billy often does wear accordingly with the left side upturned and snapped to the crown. These snap studs are positioned on the center of the right and left sides of the crown, flanked on each side by one of two silver-finished grommets that allow air to pass through and ventilate the wearer’s head. When riding, he makes use of a brown rawhide chinstrap that keeps the hat positioned on his head.
Billy dresses his slouch hat’s soft crown with a pair of bands: a two-toned animal pelt around the base with a multi-color woven band above it that he occasionally slips off the hat and wears as a headband. The brown leather sweatband and ivory satin-finished lining reveal that the hat has traveled far with Billy, and those more experienced in mid-century milliners may be able to identify the specific hatmaker based on the green-printed logo flashed toward the camera while settling in with a highball at a Big Easy bordello.
Billy wears a shirt and jacket made from matching buckskin, the durable deerhide leather that’s been tanned and smoked to a napped, honey-tinted tan finish. After frontiersmen observed the deerskin clothing worn by Native Americans, buckskin became a frontier favorite among all from mountain men to military leaders. A century later, perhaps due to its prominent appearance in Easy Rider, buckskin again trended during the Western wear fads of the ’70s, though modern outfitters occasionally create inauthentic buckskin-like fabric by tanning and dying non-deer hides.
Billy’s hip-length jacket appears to be genuine buckskin, detailed with a widely notched ulster-style collar and three gunmetal snaps positioned from the waist up to mid-chest. Two pouch pockets are positioned at the waist, with gaping open tops and long fringe detailing hanging below each pocket’s yoke. The sleeves are left plain with no vents, snaps, or other form of closure.
Billy’s jacket is trimmed with plenty of long fringe, which originally served the dual function of dispersing rain while also breaking up the wearer’s appearance to serve as a rudimentary camouflage when hunting. The set-in shoulders are fringed continuously down to the front armpit, where the fringe continues along the chest yokes. A separate line of fringe extends across the back yoke—which slightly dips in the center, where a vertical seam extends down to the bottom of the jacket—and then continues along the back of each sleeve, ending a few inches short of each cuff. The waist hem is also entirely fringed.
Billy’s buckskin shirt matches the jacket but lacks any fringe trim. The style echoes a more modern polo or popover shirt with its collared V-neck detailed with four sets of silver-trimmed eyelets, presumably to take laces should Billy choose to close the shirt over his chest.
Despite this centuries-old system, the long-sleeved shirt shows signs of modern manufacture such as the twin gunmetal snaps on each squared barrel cuff. A horizontal yoke traverses the chest, aligning with the bottom of the four-eyelet “placket” and the tops of the twin flaps that cover the two set-in chest pockets. The pocket flaps have extended, rounded tabs to host the large gunmetal cap that closes each pocket.
Billy wears a trio of necklaces under his shirt collar, similar to the way a necktie is worn. The most prominent of the three is the chain of irregularly shaped, bone-colored shells, which Karen (Karen Black) grabs, asking “What are these things?” Under that, he wears a slim cord entirely decorated with small multi-colored beads in shades of blue, pink, purple, and green. Finally, he wears a light brown rawhide cord with a small brass bell suspended from it.
As Wyatt wears black leather gloves that match the rest of his riding gear, Wyatt sports wheat-colored work gloves made from a nubuck leather that echoes the napped finish of his buckskins.
Billy wears rich copper brown trousers from a soft sueded fabric that resembles his buckskin top half. These unique flat front pants have large patch pockets over the hips with curved top openings, similar to those on jeans, and flared bottoms. These trousers also have wide belt loops, through which Billy wears a wide black leather belt that closes through a dulled silver squared single-prong buckle and has a black leather snap-top sheath holstered on the right side, possibly for a folding knife.
Billy’s well-worn russet leather cowboy boots fit his Western-driven image while also offering practical protection while riding and spending most nights camped out. He keeps the shafts covered by the trousers’ flared legs.
Both of our heroes are dressed slightly differently when we meet them at the outset of Easy Rider, with Billy clad in the same boots, trousers, and hat, but with a sheepskin coat and pale-blue snap-up shirt. These pieces are a more conventional presentation of the same rugged Western tradition that drives his style choices.
The hip-length sheepskin coat has been tanned to a deep copper, almost the same shade as his trousers. The lighter beige piled fleece side shows on the wide flat collar, the jacket’s lining, and from the inside of the slanted, scalloped-entry side pockets. Like his buckskin jacket, this coat has three snaps to close over his torso—the top snap aligned with the coat’s Western-pointed chest yokes—but there’s also a socket on the left side of the neck that could snap onto one of two studs on the right, should Billy choose to close the coat over his chest.
Billy’s light-blue cotton long-sleeved shirt resembles a pale-washed denim, with the “W” stitched on each chest pocket informing us that it was made by Wrangler. The shirt has a narrow point collar and white-finished snaps that fasten up the front placket, close the pointed flaps over the two chest pockets, and fasten the barrel cuffs.
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). While Wyatt’s elongated 1952 Harley had been customized by Dan Haggery with a “Captain America” stars-and-stripes fuel tank, Billy’s Harley was painted with yellow flames against a red background.
- Cord and Kruse: 1952 Harley-Davidson Captain America Crash Bike Motorcycle
- IMDB: Easy Rider (1969) – Trivia
- Wikipedia: Easy Rider
What to Imbibe
Among the notable drug use in Easy Rider, Billy also drinks plenty of whiskey along the way. He isn’t shy in taking pulls from George Hanson’s pint bottle of Jim Beam Bourbon, and he settles into comfort at the New Orleans brothel with a highball that—if the nearby bottles are to be believed—consists of Johnnie Walker Red Label blended Scotch whisky, soda water, and ice.
How to Get the Look
Dennis Hopper’s Billy makes his not-so-easy ride across the country dressed in the spirit of the American frontier, clad in buckskins, boots, and bush hat with only his distinctive square-framed shades—and his Harley, rather than a horse—betraying his journey’s setting to the late 1960s and not the 1860s.
- Light brown buckskin fringed jacket with widely notched collar, triple-snap front, pouch hip pockets, and plain cuffs
- Light brown buckskin popover shirt with wide collar, four-eyelet V-neck top, two set-in chest pockets (with shaped snap-down flaps), and double-snap cuffs
- Copper brown sueded flat front trousers with wide belt loops, slanted-entry front patch pockets, and flared bottoms
- Black leather belt with large squared silver single-prong buckle
- Russet-brown leather cowboy boots
- Khaki cotton canvas slouch hat with animal pelt band, multicolor expanding band, rawhide chin-cord, and snap-up brim
- Yellow nubuck work gloves
- Shell necklace
- Multicolor-beaded necklace
- Rawhide necklace with brass bell pendant
Do Yourself a Favor and…
All we represent to them, man, is somebody who needs a haircut.