A few days ago I ventured out to The Navy Yard for dinner with my friend Jahn Hall of Brooklyn Dry Goods. Over the course of the meal he mentioned a recent stockpile of vintage surplus that he and his business partner Kurt Uhlendorf had just acquired. I was intrigued so after dinner Jahn took me out to his stockroom where he showed me what was probably one of the most impressive hauls of military garb I’ve ever seen. Amongst some phenomenal pieces that I’m sure Jahn and Kurt will be putting out over the next month or so was a military issue cotton motorcycle jacket from the early twentieth century. The jacket’s four bellow pockets and pinched waist led Jahn and I to conclude that it was probably an early version of a motorcycle jacket as the secured waist allowed the jacket to fan out over the rider’s legs while seated. It instantly reminded me of Barbour and Belstaff, two companies who’s jackets seemed to be refined versions of this primitive military model.
The military jacket that I took a look at was pretty rough, but for that time it’s to be expected, the jacket wasn’t intended to really look good, and manufacturing wasn’t exactly consistent back then. Although back in the civilian world, the motorcycle continued to gain popularity, and as it did, the necessity for a readily available dedicated motorcycle jacket increased. To answer this demand Belstaff and Barbour elaborated on these early designs to make their own jacket’s, both of which remain not only iconic, but also a touch controversial today.
Belstaff was the first to make a move in 1924 when Eli Belovitch and his son in law Harry Grosberg opened up shop in Staffordshire, England, creating jackets specifically tailored for the new crop of motorcyclists that wearing popping up across the United Kingdom. The two men were the first to use waxed cotton, creating a waterproof jacket that wouldn’t weigh down the riders. Their early designs were these large, robe-like pieces with flap collars and big belts across the middle, which certainly didn’t look great but could withstand anything a rider might face on the muddy road of the English countryside. Throughout the thirties Belstaff began to adapt their designs, creating shorter, more lightweight pieces, yet right around this time, Barbour arrived on the scene with their take on the moto jacket.
In 1936, Barbour came out with the International, a jacket dedicated to the International Six Day Trails, a grueling off road race through Carlisle, England. Over a decade later in 1948, Belstaff debuted the Trialmaster, a jacket that would eventually be worn by Che Guevera and championship riders across the world. But here’s the deal with the two jackets, barring the International’s patch on the right side, and the Trialmaster’s shoulder details, they’re practically identical. From the cropped body and the belted waist, to the four flap pockets, to the throat latch, and the large glove-friendly zipper, the number of characteristics that these two jackets share is pretty remarkable.
Over the years Barbour and Belstaff have gone back and forth on their status as the “most legendary” of motorcycle jackets. Steve McQueen had a well documented love for both Barbour and Belstaff (a fact that both companies equally brag about), riders across the globe have been sponsored by both brands at one time or another, and to this day arguments still arise about which jacket truly has the edge. There really isn’t any clear cut answer to this question. People have their own personal preference, but this much is certain, both brands are undoubtedly reaping the benefits of the recent resurgence of people returning to the classics. The fact that I’m even writing about two jacket’s that are over seventy years old, speaks volumes about the respective brand’s current success. Barbour, with their recent advertising and retail push and Steve McQueen collection are certainly trying to capitalize on this movement. And then there’s Belstaff, who’ve taken a different route by actually turning to the runway, moving the brand into the realm of high fashion. As evidenced by their Spring 2013 show that just occurred a couple weeks ago, Belstaff is riffing on their own moto-heritage, taking the belted jacket and somehow turning it into something luxurious.