The single most important piece of motorcycle gear that you can own is a helmet. The single coolest piece of motorcycle gear that you can own, however, is an awesome motorcycle jacket.
Humans differ greatly. Height, weight, hair color, individual proclivities for the Left or Right Twix; from the outside, you’d think the gap in the spectrum between us all was enormous! At the core, however, we all need protection from weather, impacts, and abrasion. A motorcycle jacket is a great place to start for all three.
Lucky for you, there’s never been a better time to be a motorcyclist in the market for a jacket. In the decades since the first motorcycle-specific jackets were developed, the resulting market has become a smorgasbord of options. Odds are, somebody somewhere makes the jacket you’re looking for. Narrowing down your options can be intimidating, but let’s take it one step at a time. The first question you need to answer: what type of motorcycle jacket best fits my needs and riding style?
In this Moto 101, we're breaking down the various motorcycle jacket types and styles, as well as the best uses for each.
Leather motorcycle jackets
In the Museum of Modern Art in New York, there’s a black leather jacket on display. It’s there because it’s an absolute icon of style and design. When you think of a biker jacket, there's a very specific image in your mind, right? Pioneered by Irving Schott in the 1920s, the first dedicated motorcycle jacket design combined motorcyclists’ needs with the latest garment technology of the time. Wool coats just weren’t cutting it for riders, so Schott originally used horsehide for a rugged outer shell that blocked the elements. The tech marvel? Well, that was the zipper. No joke. Moto-specific jackets had arrived, and they quickly became a symbol to motorcyclists, adventurers, and even rebels. The leather motorcycle jacket has such magnetism that people who didn’t even ride motorcycles started wearing them just to channel the cultural cool.
From Johnny Stabler to Mad Max's Max Rockatansky, the Ramones to Indiana Jones, and countless badasses in between, the rugged refinement and “outsider” aura that came with leather motorcycle jackets permeated pop culture, solidifying the style throughout the decades. Other styles followed, including sport leathers, touring jackets, and arguably the leather biker vest. Innovations like perforation (small holes in the jacket to flow air) and armor further improved the experience.
Leather ruled the street, but it also became the choice material at the track. The best riders in the world trusted their safety to leather suits, and they still do today. In fact, most track days require leather gear. Racing innovations made their way back to the street in the form of sport riding gear. Watch sport riders hustling the latest hyperbikes up Mulholland Drive, and you’ll spot plenty of high-performance leather jackets in the mix. Though new technologies and materials have since joined leather, the merits of high-quality hide still stand.
While textile and mesh jackets have advanced significantly in recent years, the toughness, feel, and longevity of quality leather jackets still sets them apart. From leather’s propensity to uniquely mold to the wearer over time, to the one-two combination of attitude and aesthetic inherent in their design, this type of motorcycle jacket remains the king of the road in the eyes of many.
Textile motorcycle jackets
While leather stood atop the podium undisputed for many years, textiles are increasingly popular for two main reasons: functionality and price.
Textiles in the early 20th century were pretty limited. Wool, one of the most popular materials available, turned out to be pretty crummy at blocking the wind and other elements that riders deal with on a daily basis. It’s also one step above arm hair for abrasion resistance. (Wool instead makes a prized base layer material.) Cotton wasn’t bad, but it could only do so much to keep weather out, and abrasion resistance was still an issue. Silk was out. No wonder leather was so popular.
A century or so later, we now have a multitude of textile options that provide outstanding defenses against the elements. Some new synthetic materials were ideal for making jackets, while others could be added to existing materials like cotton to make them perform better. In addition to weatherproofing solutions like Gore-Tex®, D-Dry®, H2Out, Drystar®, and others, innovations like Kevlar®, Cordura®, and SuperFabric® increased the protective capabilities of textiles to equal (or exceed!) those of leather. These materials, for the most part, allow for a comparable level of protection with better weight and airflow. Today, textile jackets are a solid choice for strenuous street or off-road riding.
Adding to the allure of textile over leather, there’s reason number two: price. Textile jackets are typically more affordable than their leather counterparts, especially when considering multi-season textile jackets that use removable layers to transition from one riding season to another. Some multi-season options are like three jackets in one! Manufacturers have an easier time sourcing textiles, making jackets with them, and adding special coatings or other materials in their construction, all of which are reflected in lower average prices than leather. Now, get into the really technical textiles, and you can certainly spend the equivalent of a fine leather jacket. In exchange, you’ll be zipping into a torso fortress engineered to keep you safe and comfortable through any journey.
Mesh motorcycle jackets
On truly hot days, there is not a solid leather, perforated leather, or vented textile jacket on the planet that will move enough air to keep sweat at bay. It is as simple as that. For all of the style and class of leather, and all of the waterproofing and durability of full textile shells, they are little more than your own personal sauna if you don’t have a mesh option to really get airflow to the body.
Mesh jackets tend to be a hybrid, combining mesh with either leather (rarely) or more protective forms of textile (often). Large mesh panels in strategic areas allow air to reach the rider without compromising protection at common points of contact. For example, a good mesh jacket doesn’t rely on just mesh at the shoulders or elbows. Instead, they’ll be reinforced by leather or textile. There’s probably some armor hidden in there, as well. Think of mesh motorcycle jackets as modern-day chainmail; lighter and more breathable than the full version, yet still built to last and be protective in the long run.
Got it, now what?
You’ve got a jacket type picked out, so start looking at options in that category and get a feel for what you like. To help narrow your options, make a list of what you want from the jacket. What’s your budget? What seasons do you typically ride in? How about temperatures? Do you need protection from the weather? Are you planning on track days?
By considering how, when and where you ride, along with your personal style, you can get the right jacket for you. Here are some of the basic jacket styles to choose from.
ADV jackets are mostly textile, and sometimes mesh for warm weather. Some of the most technical textile and mesh jackets on the planet are designed for adventure riding, where riders place a premium on durability, flexibility, and utility. Expect lots of vents, zippers, pockets, liners, and waterproofing. Like the bikes they’re used with, ADV jackets accommodate both on- and off-road riding. They’ve got to be equally at home haulin’ down the highway, or toppling over on the trail. Think "Long Way Round." Hi-viz isn’t uncommon, and neither is the use of cutting-edge materials to help the jacket protect the wearer from the elements. It won’t pass for casual wear, though.
The original Perfecto is a prime example of this style of jacket. It’s not about flashy colors or high-speed performance. Cruiser jackets are about comfort. They are about simplicity. They are about the timeless philosophy of melding ruggedness with refinement that has entranced riders from the get-go.
Cruiser jackets tend to be generously cut with a roomier torso than their cafe or sport counterparts. Additionally, within the arms and shoulder they tend to feature a construction (often with expandable gussets) that allows for the rider to be more comfortable with the higher handlebars common to cruiser motorcycles. It’s also important to keep in mind that while many modern cruiser jackets will come with armor (or at least pockets for optional armor to be added), many do not, and fewer still allow riders the option of waterproofing.
Touring jackets are designed for long journeys on the open road in any weather. Exclusively fair weather riders need not apply. No matter what the road ahead looks like, the tour must go on, right? Long days in the saddle mean comfort is paramount, as well as protection from the elements at highway speeds.
Touring jackets come in two main varieties: three-quarter and waist cut. Three-quarter jackets provide greater coverage and more storage pockets. However, the longer length can make the jacket bunch up in the front as you're reaching for the bars, so a three-quarter-cut touring jacket is best on an upright bike. (Some touring jackets have a second main zipper that splits the front of the jacket open, reducing this issue.) A waist-cut touring jacket wears more like a traditional motorcycle jacket, but without the extra length there’s less protection against storms and wind. The shorter cut allows for a more forward reach, especially nice for sport-touring machines.
Regardless of jacket cut, touring jackets typically provide waterproof membranes and some kind of venting to adjust for changing weather, and in cold times of the year, it’s not uncommon for touring riders to add heated gear underneath their jackets.
Cafe or vintage-inspired leather jackets
As much as any group of motorcyclists in history, the cafe racers of 1950s England created an enduring legacy and style. Equal parts petrol and rock 'n’ roll, the impact of the cafe culture reaches well beyond the world of motorcycle jackets and permeates a plethora of contemporary avenues from the music we hear to the movies that we watch.
Modern cafe or vintage-inspired leather jackets combine contemporary material advancements, improved comfort, and added protection with the timeless thirst for speed, Bridging the gap between cruiser and sport jackets, leather cafe jackets tend to have a relatively aggressive cut and have been designed to be most comfortable in the forward-leaning riding position. Like the motorcycles that these jackets got their start on, cafe racer jackets are rooted at the intersection of swagger, speed, style, and refined simplicity. Often leather, you’ll see lots of neutral colors and clean detailing. Patches, quilting, accordion panels, and snap buttons are popular as well. These jackets are equally at home racing your buddies, wrenching, and sitting at the bar. They tend to be pretty photogenic, too.
As motorcycle performance advanced over the years, so too has jacket technology. Sport jackets are the epitome of modern material technology as they bring together the most advanced materials, protection, and design. An excellent sport jacket is close-fitting, yet flexible. Worn on the fastest motorcycles, protection is paramount. Some even feature integrated airbags! (You don't have to be riding a sport bike to consider a motorcycle jacket airbag, however. These systems tuck inside your jacket and deploy in a fraction of a second if you crash. While some are designed to fit specific jackets, others are universal.)
Speaking broadly, there are two types of sport jackets. The first is aggressive street style. These jackets are cut for a sporty fit, but not so tight that they can’t be pulled on and off with relative ease. They might also have functional features like pockets or waterproofing. Arms are precurved, but not too much. You’ll find some mesh and textile on the street, but leather is found in the high-performance sport jackets. The second style of jacket is a full-on race jacket, with looks straight from MotoGP. Leather rules the class. These jackets are all business, so you’ll spot hard sliders, metal plates, “speed humps” or "race humps," plus lots of pre-curve at the arms. Wearing these jackets while upright will be awkward, at best, but put them in their happy place behind the controls of a sport machine, and suddenly it all makes sense.
Whatever your style, there’s a jacket for your ride. Use the examples as a starting point, but branch out from there!
By identifying features that are important to you, and wielding your new jacket knowledge, you’ll be suiting up in no time.