An early selection of motorcycle-specific headgear from Harley-Davidson included a pair of tight-fitting
An early selection of motorcycle-specific headgear from Harley-Davidson includ
My first helmet was a gold metalflake Christmas gift that my parents hoped might keep my teenage brains safely encased in my skull. The next day I used hardware-store spray paint and a roll of masking tape to enhance it with black, white and orange stripes. Turns out my effort at personalization has a long history, like back to the Romans. Since ancient times, a helmet has served not just to protect, but also as an opportunity for identification and self-expression. Which made it the perfect focal point for "The Helmet Project," a special exhibit at the Harley-Davidson Museum in Milwaukee, created in collaboration with the Milwaukee Institute of Art and Design (MIAD).
The exhibit, presented in late 2009, was executed by MIAD students of fine arts and industrial and interior design. The students were challenged to "deconstruct the conventional notion of a helmet," and their exhibits were presented alongside a selection of motorcycle headgear from the Harley-Davidson Archives. The Archives exhibit traced the history of motorcycle headwear, which began for Harley-Davidson in 1918 when the knit-wool "Aeroplane" cap appeared in the company's accessory catalog.
A soft, military style cap topped the matching uniforms worn by many motorcycle club members before World War II, but endured well into the 1960s even after the popularity of uniforms faded. This couple, Mr. and Mrs. Calvin Bishop of Cincinnati, Ohio, were winners of the Best Dressed Couple and Machine contest at the 1955 Windber Gypsy Tour. (H-D Archives image
A soft, military style cap topped the matching uniforms worn by many motorcycl
Through the 1930s, motorcycle headgear was styled after that worn by automobile drivers and pilots, and served a similar function for each. "This was an era when everything had an open cockpit," said Jim Fricke, Harley-Davidson Museum curatorial director. "The roads were mostly dirt, and engines had total-loss oiling systems. A key function of headwear was to keep dust and oil out of the rider's hair." Though often called a helmet, the headgear of this era did not offer crash protection. Fleece-lined leather and wool caps were intended for winter use, while cotton twill and colorful rayon fabric was used to fashion lighter-weight helmets for summer comfort.
Racers are depicted wearing protective leather helmets in the mid-Teens. Fricke notes that Harley racer Otto Walker returned to the track following World War I wearing a distinctive leather helmet with an intimidating ridge down the center, which he claimed to have taken from a downed German pilot. Racing organizations began to mandate helmet use in hill climb and other risky competition in the 1930s, and in 1938 Harley-Davidson offered its first protective helmet, the "Winner," which had a rigid fiber crown, leather sides and sponge-rubber padding. Many racers simply wore a football helmet. In Europe, racers adapted cork-lined polo helmets. Painted checkered flags and stripes personalized racing headgear.
At the same time, street riders were organizing motorcycle clubs that favored elaborate matching uniforms, often topped with a visored cap of the style associated with police and military officers. The popularity of this cap persisted long after the uniform fad faded, and it's become an icon of old-school biker cool. "The captain's style cap stayed in the Harley catalog into the 1960s," said Fricke. "I think one attraction was that the fabric made it a good place to display club pins, another form of personalization." The quick advance of military jet aircraft led to the 1953 invention by Northrop Aviation engineer Charles "Red" Lombard of a pilot's helmet with a fiberglass shell and a crushable foam liner, the basic design used today. The term "jet helmet" is still used to describe an open-face helmet in the U.K., according to Fricke.
A hard-shell "safety helmet" in several styles returned to the Harley-Davidson catalog in 1958, along with helmet accessories. (H-D Archives image)
A hard-shell "safety helmet" in several styles returned to the Harley-Davidson
Headgear displayed at the Helmet Project exhibit at the Harley-Davidson Museum included a leather 1930s-era football helmet, personalized with blue paint and a silver racing stripe. The white-and-blue helmet to the left was covered with vinyl and was offered in the 1960s. Motorcycle racing and publishing pioneer Floyd Clymer imported the white-and-black "crash helmet" from Europe in the 1950s.
(Charles Plueddeman photo)
Headgear displayed at the Helmet Project exhibit at the Harley-Davidson Museum
In her interpretation for The Helmet Project exhibit, Milwaukee Institute of Art and Design (MIAD) student Sarah Meadors created Backbone/Bass wood, steel, which she described as "a juxtaposition of freedom and fragility, and a study of life and our means to protect it." (Charles Plueddeman photo)
In her interpretation for The Helmet Project exhibit, Milwaukee Institute of A