The History of Leather Part 23 – Greasers

Posted on 01/08/14

The glory days of greasers (1950s)

It would remiss of us to go to the trouble of discussing the impact of “The Wild One” (1953) and its unforgettable antihero without acknowledging the subculture that Johnny Strabler and his band of merry men were a part of – the greasers.

Known for their slicked-back hairstyles, love of all things automotive and black leather clad look, there is little that characterises 1950s Americana quite like the greaser. The greasers were more than just walking endorsements of leather, denim and petrol, the greasers were a union of similar-minded young men and women advocating values of standing out on their own, rather than submitting to society’s whims and ideas of what a person should be and how they should behave.

Johnny Strabler’s Black Rebels Motorcycle Club in “The Wild One” lived their lives somewhat nihilistically. They were non-committal, disenchanted and unaffected – drifting from town to town in the pursuit of thrills and excitement. In this sense they were absolutely carrying out a textbook form of the greaser lifestyle. They certainly looked like them too. But one has the ask how a group that fiercely advocates a refusal to conform can reconcile that advocacy with their willingness to physically conform to the fashion standards set by their peers.

It’s a little hypocritical, no? It’s the 1950s equivalent of being anti-establishment and anti-capitalism, and yet feverishly typing your rants on an £1,000 laptop from a certain fruit-based technology company.

The greaser movement wasn’t a strictly American affair, though. The ‘greaser’ filtered through to British culture, albeit 15 years later and with a rebrand somewhere along the way. When the ‘greaser’ arrived in Britain, they were known as ‘rockers’ instead –a slightly anti-climactic term when the Japanese equivalent was called the “thunder tribe”, a name so perfect that I can’t believe I’m not making it up.

Then again, given the British national past time of self-deprecation, we probably would have arrived at “drizzle dudes” if we were trying to replicate the Japanese rather than the Americans…

Still, it was a slick leather look that all factions and offshoots of the greasers had in common, making their members instantly recognisable. Leather was an unspoken calling card of their subculture that immediately communicated a kindred spirit to fellow devotees, and a warning sign to their opposition.

Recent articles