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David and Victoria Beckham - Leather Jackets 01
Photography Dave Hogan / Getty Images

Exploring the sweaty sensuality of the oil-slicked motorcycle jacket

The leather biker jacket has long had a chokehold on popular culture – this new exhibition explores why

It could be hypothesised, that when David and Victoria Beckham turned up to a Versace event in 1999, dressed in full matching leather looks by another designer [a considerable faux pas in high fashion circles], they were asserting their own, unique brand of rebellion: a riff on the punk reputation of biker leathers, by way of wearing Tom Ford’s Gucci to honour Donatella. Just a small act of disobedience perhaps, but a nod to the vast lineage of contemporary counterculture all the same. 

For Mick Farren, the late musician, writer and author of 1985’s The Black Leather Jacket – a detailed history of the garment in question, with chapter titles such as ‘Smut by Numbers’ and ‘Savage Skins’ – “part of the attraction was that the leather jacket was frowned upon, proscribed and legislated against.” He bought his first jacket at age 15, explicitly because it was a signifier of the Marlon Brando-type big screen bad boys, and because he wanted to emulate the older guys at his school, “the ones who looked cool.” 

The list of individuals who’ve adopted the jacket and the ways it’s become embedded in popular culture is large and varied – from Kathy Acker to Hedi Slimane; Tom of Finland’s iconic homoerotic illustrations to Claire Barrow’s early painted pieces; and countless musicians – but for artist-photographer, printmaker and researcher Jade Sweeting, whose new exhibition explores motorcycle culture with a series of photographs, sounds and, notably, the smell of oil, the garment is first and foremost a safety device. “If you fall off your bike wearing denim it’s gonna tear,” clarifies the long-term chopper enthusiast. 

Open now through January 21 at the Northern Gallery of Contemporary Art, 900 Miles [from Home] is Sweeting’s debut solo exhibition, and marries her two primary worlds: “I've realised, this is how I can get my motorbike culture and my art together, in a way that is unique to myself, and I'm happy with,” she explains. Elsewhere featuring archival pictures, copies of the first female-specific riders’ magazine, Harley Women, and Sweeting’s actual motorcycle, the focal point of the show, as the artist explains below, is a series of 8x10 photographs depicting the intimate details that make each leather jacket unique. 

Hi Jade! When did you first become interested in motorcycle culture?

Jade Sweeting: My best friend Louie and I were joined at the hip as children, and his father, Norman Hartley, was a regional rep for a thing called Motorcycle Action Group, so I've always messed about with motorbikes. Every birthday and Christmas I asked for one, but it wasn’t till my 20s I got my first, a 125.

And how did 900 Miles [from Home] initially come about? 

Jade Sweeting: The photographs are part of a wider body of work – these zips studies I showed with Workplace Foundation in Newcastle [this summer]. It’s about my interest in motorcycles and motorcycle culture, also subcultures and fashion within subcultures. I was looking at these different jackets, how chunky they can be, how they’re sexy, and I wanted to bring together what I focused on within motorcycle culture that isn't so obvious – it's not a picture of a motorbike – and pick out all these elements from my experiences. There's a sound collage, which is a collection of kickstart sounds [it's called idling, when the motorcycle chops over, and it’s a certain sound within Harley Davidson chopper culture], also the smell of the oil. So all these elements, almost creating a portrait without a face. Each jacket’s like a second skin to someone who rides. They're all different but they look similar if you don't know, so I wanted the viewer to really look, take some time.

Traditionally motorcycles have been quite a boys club, but the exhibition notes describe 900 Miles as representing the “strong, confident women who ride motorbikes”. How, if at all, is this changing, and what’s your immediate community like in Newcastle? 

Jade Sweeting: It is a masculine dominated scene, but there’s different genres of motorcycles. I'm interested in bobbers and choppers, like the Easy Rider films where you’re getting something that’s stock and customising it. That scene is quite small, and within Newcastle I’m just one of the boys, which doesn't matter, you know? There is a small group of us women, who try to get together once a year, just to be together and hang out. America has quite a big scene for women, and it is getting bigger.

“[A leather jacket] is a uniform, but also it’s for safety” - Jade Sweeting

The fashion industry has frequently lifted from motorcycle culture and the jacket in particular has been adopted by various other subcultures. Can you speak on the significance of this idea of it as a uniform?

Jade Sweeting: I guess it is a uniform, but also it’s for safety. If you fall off your bike wearing denim it’s gonna tear, but leather’s thicker, stronger. It's warm, waterproof, breathable… I can look at a jacket and tell if it's for fashion or actually purposed for bikes. There’s something about back in the day too, the one-piece leather and male queer history and cruising, which is quite interesting because of the one zip. But again, [there’s links] with policemen too. The uniform aspect is like motorbike clubs and Hell’s Angels – the patches on the back, that sort of thing, and punk as well. It's like wearing your band’s t-shirt, you’re showing what you're into and there’s all these little details, that’s what I love. Also, with leathers, there was a time when they wouldn't serve you because you were on your motorcycle, so again that uniform-club thing. 

How would you describe your relationship with your own jacket, and what it feels like to wear it as part of the community? 

Jade Sweeting: My jacket I got from a good friend. He bought a new one but it was too small, so he passed it down to me. When you put it on, it’s clichéd but you do feel a bit tough, you've got this skin. People look at you and think ‘why’re you wearing that jacket? Are you into motorbikes? Punk?’ People can see you differently, I think. It's the weight as well, and the smell. Clothing’s important, you get to choose what you wear – or most people do – and you wear what you feel comfortable with, or you should. If you feel comfortable it can make you stand taller, make you comfortable in your actual skin.

How many jackets did you shoot for this project and whose are they? 

Jade Sweeting: I don't even know how many! A lot are people I know, so there’s an intimate connection, but I've not named them. It's more about naming the jacket, where it's from etc. Usually it’s when someone’s kickstarting their motorbike, it's boiling hot and they throw their jacket down – just the natural way it lays was important [for my photographs], focusing on the closeness and the texture. 

And how have your friends and the wider community responded to the project? 

Jade Sweeting: They’re just keen to tell stories. I was chatting to my friend’s friend about it and he’s like ‘I’ve got one for you’ – he’d had his jacket since the 70s and it’s tried to fall apart, but he's weaved it together with string and safety pins, which I think is pretty cool. 

In addition to your images, you’ve also collected back issues of Harley Women, right? 

Jade Sweeting: I’m a printmaker, and I love magazines and layouts. There’s always magazines with women with their tops off on motorbikes, aimed at men. Which, if that woman wants to do that, class, but when I came across Harley Women I was like ‘what is this is?!’. I’d never seen a magazine like it before. It's a bit lame to be honest, but it was aimed at women and I respected that. I was originally looking for photos of women and motorcycles for a zine called Hell Cats. Certain images only, because I know the body language – whether they’re an object on a motorcycle, or the person on an object – it’s the posture. So I was looking on eBay, where I found Harley Women.

Amazing. So finally, this is your first solo exhibition, what have been your highlights so far?

Jade Sweeting: The conversations I've had with people when I’ve been installing – one guy was telling me about his first bike for half an hour. And showing how a gallery and art is for everybody, it's accessible. This other guy, for example, was talking to me about racing, about the smell and the sound. I said how everyone thinks leather jackets are the same, and he’s like ‘they’re not though’. He got it.

900 Miles [from Home] runs from September 16 to January 21 at Northern Gallery of Contemporary Art – find more details here.