I was recently asked by a young man into leather about a story: he had heard that the “Muir Cap” or the “biker’s cap” was no longer made by the Muir company. This young man claimed that after learning that their limo driver’s cap was being worn by Leatherman, they discontinued the cap. According to the Muir Hat Company, this is not true and they actually sell this particular cap on their website.
Like all stories passed down through the ages, some stories seem to morph over time, including the story of the Muir Cap. Many of these stories were regional legends born from men who desired some kind of ritual, ceremonial process or a rite of passage. There are many terms used for the biker’s cap including, master’s cap, old guard cap, Leatherman’s cover, top’s cap, Dom cap and a few others.
Before we discuss the evolution of the biker cap, let’s dispense with the stories in our community that we have not traced back to its origins. Let’s begin with the often maligned used term of “old guard.” The term did not exist in the 50’s, 60’s or even for that matter most of the 70’s. In my discussion with “The Leatherman’s Handbook” author, Larry Townsend, in 2004, I asked him about the use of the term “old guard” in our leather community. Larry “explained that while his book does cover much about our history and some rituals we have developed over the last few decades. But the Leatherman in the first few decades post World War II/Korean War hardly saw themselves as “old guards” at a time when the rules of the community were still being written. First, by the Satyrs Motorcycle Club, then after the age of McCarthyism, other clubs and Leatherman wrote their own rules.
Even in Jack Rinella’s writings about the “Myths of the Old Guard”, despite expressing that it is just his opinion, Jack clearly makes an observational point that these men were living in the here and now of the time and didn’t think of themselves in terms of “old guard” since they were living the moment and the rules were being written with them. While I don’t always agree with Jack’s writings and conclusions, his observation is in alignment with those I have interviewed that lived in those leather community formative decades.
More importantly is the historical context in which the term “old guard” actually refers to. The actual first use of the term “old guard” refers from the early use of muskets in military combat from that of using the sword to do battle. In the 1600’s the flintlock rifle used a 10 pound musket that was cumbersome to load with powder. The accuracy of the shot varied as much as 18 inches within even 50 feet of the intended target. The smoke produced in the battlefield obscured the targets and often required the use of the bayonet removed during shooting, or required hand to hand combat using the sword. Hence the term “old guard” style used in battle using a sword versus a musket. 1
In the United States, the military created in 1784 the First American Regiment, The Old Guard was established after the Paris Peace Treaty of 1783, which stipulated that the United States maintain a military presence to protect land west of the Appalachian Mountains. After the First American Regiment participated in the War of 1812, COL. John Miller designates the unit as the 3rd U.S. Infantry, in keeping with his status. Miller was ranked the third most-senior officer in the Army at the time.
In the War of 1812, Napoleon used the term “old guard” as a system of ranking and standing within his military cavalry that he revered because of their skills, ability and knowledge in combat.
Napoleon’s Imperial Guard Grenadiers were his bodyguard, veterans of his best campaigns and kept in reserve; committed to battle only when things military skirmishes seemed their darkest. Originally established in November 1799 as the Consular Guard the name was changed May 18, 1804. The Imperial Guard Grenadiers were physically larger in stature and their Bearskin fur hats added to that image. They were required to be proficient in reading and writing, ten years of service and good conduct records, a rule that was seldom broken. A line soldier could also join the guard if he had proven himself with bravery and recommendation from his commander
The Imperial Guard often missed out on Napoleon’s greater victories in battle because they were reserves and used as propaganda, but they also became Napoleon’s cherished sons. They were commonly referred to the nickname of Les Grognards, or the Grumblers, because they missed out on some great battles and were the only men known to complain in the presence of the Emperor himself. Regardless, they received better pay, rations and equipment then regular soldiers. Their ranks were also graded one slot higher than all non-Imperial Guard soldiers.
The Old Guard was decimated in the Russian campaign and Napoleon was exiled. But his regard for his Imperial Guard Grenadiers remained steadfast. And when Napoleon returned, the ranks of the Imperial Guard swelled but the requirements to join were loosened due to the losses in previous campaigns.
At Waterloo, the Old Guard played their role, holding back in reserve as they always done previously. When Napoleon’s Middle Guard, a unit that comprised of veterans not quite the age and experience of the Old Guard, launched the final attack, the 1st and 2nd Battalions of Grenadiers formed a reserve line and when the Middle Guard broke upon the British line, they eventually fell back. It was the “Old Guard” that held to their form as the final reserves and when it was called upon them to surrender, the resounding retort was “La Garde meurt, elle ne se rend pas.” or “The Guard dies, but does not surrender.” The Old Guard played a pivotal role in the battle. When Napoleon was exiled for the second time, the Guard was considered a hotbed of Imperialists and was promptly disbanded by the new government. The term was often used in military battle between those who fought with a sword and those who fought with a musket.
So those are the facts about “old guard” as a use of terminology in history. One can argue that over time it developed in the leather community as a euphemism much like “elders”, “forefathers” and “pioneers” as a term of endearment. However, this is rarely how the leather community use the term. It has taken on connotations of inflexibility and an unwillingness to change.
Regardless of how one uses the term “old guard’, without the historical context by which the term was historically used, the perpetuation of such stories proliferate in our community without regard to the fact that most of the ritualistic aspects borne out of the gay leather sub-culture is regional, personal and community-based. Most of these developed ritual processes are of recent and mostly a public procession seen mostly through the leather-immersed community at leather contests that allow for transient rituals to be passed from one community to another.
A great example of this is the recent procession of the “fallen Leatherman” ritual observed at many contests with boots, the leather biker cap and gloves. It is a ritual that is either accompanied by observance in silence, an anthem or a poetic reading. This procession did not exist prior to 1999 and was not performed at leather contests or ceremonies. This is an example of how the leather community creates or adopts a ritual. New Leathermen, unaware of the origins of the newly adopted ritual often assume this ritual has been going on for decades.
This is not an indictment against the development of such rituals in the leather community. It is merely a statement that some events are taken as a matter of fact without regard to its origins. The use of the term “old guard” very much evolved in the same manner. No one in the peak of the leather sub-culture boom of the 1970’s or prior would have used the term “Old Guard”: it is not how these men saw themselves. This is not to say that some masculine identified men did not take on a ‘leather-community authoritarian’ role as the person who indoctrinates new leather boys or subs into a ritual of his own creation. The self-anointing role as Master, Dom or Top or the mentor who bestows the “rite of passage” to his student who has earned his leathers is mostly a self-empowered process. There are no elders or community leaders who grant such recognition, but rather it is self-declared through an evolutionary public process through dress and behavior. The leather biker cap may have evolved to this level today in some communities, but it is not how the leather cap came into our leather community historically.
Kate Kraft, a Yale journalist, writing her master thesis “Los Angeles Motorcycle Club, 1954-1980: Creating a Masculine Identity and Community.” wrote, “Leather apparel became an important part of motorcycle culture during World War II”.
The evolution of the “Master Cap” as it is commonly referred to today, allowed some gay men to form their hyper-masculinity through leather identity. But it is often mistakenly identified as a rite of passage or historical ritual passed down. The truth is actually somewhere in the middle. Kraft continues, “Prior to helmets, many officers in the Nazi army wore motorcycle caps made of leather as well or simply pulled the straps on top of their officer caps down for use as chin straps. The Gestapo wore black leather, perhaps setting the trend for the transition from brown leather to black leather in motorcycle gear during WWII.”
Tom of Finland drawings evolved to reflect the hyper-masculine look that black leather seemed to embody over brown leather. Gay men copied that look in their public wearing of black leather. According to Durk Dehner, Tom of Finland’s business partner, Tom’s experience of being in a position of power and loving another man made him want to “give homosexuals an identity that was fully man.”
The men, home after WWII and the Korean War, continued to reflect in their leather wear, the ever- evolving looks as drawn by Tom and conversely, his drawings reflected the evolving looks adopted by the masculine men identity. This symbiotic relationship helped feed the sub-culture and the fill the gap that masculine-identified men needed to counter flamboyant, effeminate gay male images they didn’t identify with.
After the death of disgraced, Senator, Joe McCarthy, the floodgates for the early social-clubs of the era, motorcycle clubs, continued to perpetuate this look. Not only was it practical as safety gear, but it also worked well to differentiate these men from other gay males.
As men became more comfortable in publicly socializing in social club/groups, men were able to connect and self-select with those of like sexual kinks. BDSM (bondage, domination and sadomasochism) exploration became more open. BDSM practices are thousands of years old, but not until the adoption of leather and leather roles, did gay men make a tangible association to Gestapo-like role playing during sex. Mind you, these men were fully aware of the horrific acts against humanity during WWII, but that was not the point during sexual role-playing. It could perhaps be compared to the young boys role-playing superheroes.
As the leather community evolved, roles became defined and leather became an extension of this hyper-masculine role. The “Master Cap”, and all that was associated with it, was part of the traditions of particular pockets of leathermen. Regardless, the traditions were developed as a personal journey, in-community and with regional influence. There is no single, unified leather culture. Rather, a huge number of different communities developed rituals to satisfy their physical, emotional needs and desires, creating part of the diversity of leather cultures we see today.
1. Why Did They Do That? 18th Century Military Tactics by Donald N. Moran 1997
2. Iron Men and Boundless Land Napoleon’s Old Guard Grenadiers by Lost Soldier , August 2011
3. Kate Kraft’s, Los Angeles Gay Motorcycle Clubs, 1954-1980: Creating a Masculine Identity and Community. Silliman College, Senior Essay Advisor: George Chauncey, History Department, Yale University April 5, 20102.
4. Interview of John Laird, in the documentary film “Original Pride” 2004.
5. Durk Dehner, interview. Tom of Finland, a gay Finnish artist, saw Marlon Brando’s film The Wild One in the early 1950s and switched from drawing brown leather to drawing black leather, causing many of his European fans to buy black leather outfits to match his drawings.
6. Allan Berube, Coming Out Under Fire: The History of Gay Men and Women in World War Two (New York: The Free Press A Division of Macmillan, Inc., 1990).