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How the Rebel Style of The Bikeriders Tells a Tale of Unity

— Credit: Bryan Schutmaat/Focus Features © 2024 Focus Features, LLC. All Rights Reserved.

Early in The Bikeriders, headstrong Chicagoan Kathy (Jodie Comer) meets her friend at a rough-and-tumble motorcycle bar and surveys the scene. A sea of sweaty, mud-splattered men clad in distressed denim and beat-up leather jackets leer menacingly while pounding their drinks. Readying to leave, Kathy’s anxious gaze lands on an intriguing young biker, Benny (Austin Butler). Or rather, on his tattooed arms, extending from his black sleeveless t-shirt, as he leans on the pool table. Benny, with gloriously tousled hair, looks up and locks eyes with Kathy, who lets out an audible gasp and decides to stay. “He doesn’t look like the rest of these animals,” she says.

Writer and director Jeff Nichols recreated that Benny moment based on an image in Danny Lyon’s 1968 book, The Bikeriders, which inspired the film. The American photojournalist (played by Mike Faist) chronicled his time embedded with a real biker gang, The Chicago Outlaws Motorcycle Club, from 1963 to 1967. Via Lyon’s evocative black-and-white photography and recorded transcripts from the players dramatized in the film, Nichols developed a visually stunning and moving narrative about a group of outsiders who find companionship within the fictionalized Chicago Vandals Motorcycle Club.

“Jeff saw that [Lyon’s pool table] image encapsulated and exemplified so much of Benny’s character and who he was,” says Nichols’s go-to costume designer Erin Benach, who based the Vandals’s road-worn ensembles on Lyon’s documentation of the Outlaws.

She studied his photo of the real 19-year-old Benny like a “forensic journalist or scientist,” then determined what materials and treatments would evoke Butler’s portrayal of Benny’s absolute dedication to the Vandals’s renegade existence. She cut the arms off a thick black sweatshirt and aged, overdyed, and spray-painted it—along with nearly every item the cast wore. “The bike riders were trying to go against social norms and one of their efforts was to stay dirty,” Benach says about the counterculture American motorcycle club movement that took off post-World War II.

She ornamented the bikers’ jackets and vests, or “cuts,” with patches, referred to as “colors” that signify club loyalty and disregard for the establishment. Benach created a Vandals version of an existing design that flagrantly defies the official American Motorcyclist Association. A patch on Benny’s left shoulder features a middle finger framed by the initials “AMA”—also as captured in the glossy new photobook, Vandals: The Photography of The Bikeriders, by Bryan Schutmaat and Kyle Bono Kaplan, documenting the making of Nichols’s film.

Benach also refers to the “Vandals 1%er” diamond-shaped insignia, which denotes the club as “outlaws,” proudly flouting a reported 1947 claim by the AMA that 99% of motorcyclists are law-abiding. “It was essentially saying, ‘fuck you,’ we make our own rules,” Benach says. In biker culture, the Maltese or iron cross patch, as seen on Corky’s (Karl Glusman) studded denim cut, signifies defiance, brotherhood, and loyalty. (The symbol was also appropriated by the Nazis in 1930.)

The Vandals’s unifying jackets, cuts, and colors visually illustrate their connection and, during filming, helped the actors immerse themselves in the close team environment. “That’s a hard thing to create out of the thin blue skies: the sense of camaraderie that these people had,” says Michael Shannon who plays Zipco, over Zoom. “It’s ironic because they were so close to one another, and yet you think of them as violent or aggressive or threatening. They actually had a tremendous intimacy.”

Here, Benach breaks down the film’s looks.


In his no-nonsense, weathered jacket and filthy t-shirt, Zipco takes minimal effort in his look. “Maybe more than any of the other guys, he truly did not bathe or take his clothing to laundromats,” Benach says. “I wanted you to feel the grime, grease, smell, and road dust when you watched him.” The battle-scarred wardrobe helped Shannon get into the revolutionary mindset of a Vandal. “[The costumes are] pretty critical because that’s not my milieu,” he says. “I’m not a real macho or rebellious type guy. I had scruffy hair and that silly patchy beard. That’s the best I can do,” he continues. “I just knew that, in a group of tough SOBs, Zipco was the one that even they were intimidated by.”


Stoic but with a hair-trigger temper, Benny exerts scant effort into his aesthetic. “His whole psychology and personality is that he was not overly trying to do anything,” says Benach about Benny’s straightforward uniform and precious colors that he refuses to remove, even to his detriment. “Like he was a hanger, and everything draped off of him. It was all about an attitude.”

In the book, we see the real Benny’s bare arms as he’s astride his bike—but never his face. “Every once in a while during filming, Danny Lyon would email us a secret outtake, and we would all be like, ‘Whaaaat?’” says Benach, especially excited over a full-length photo of Benny that she referenced to custom-design all of Butler’s denim. “That was so helpful because it showed me the rise and fit of his jeans.”


“In a lot of the source material, the real Johnny wears this incredible red shirt,” Benach says of Tom Hardy’s character Johnny, the Vandals MC founder and president. He forgoes the uniform of his foot soldiers for standalone leather and denim outerwear, both ornamented in his Vandals colors. “Because Johnny’s a) the leader, b) he’s a generation older and c) he had the money, the time and the effort to make his own pieces stand out.” His wardrobe nods to Marlon Brando’s 1953 film The Wild One, which, per Nichols’s script, inspired the erstwhile truck driver to form the Vandals. Lyon’s book features a page from the real Johnny’s scrapbook, and shows the iconic movie poster of Brando’s maverick Johnny Strabler in his biker cap.


Kathy marries into the biker life but rebels, ironically, through her conservative sweaters. “I had white Levi’s on. I had a sweater on,” she’s quoted as saying in the book, describing her moto-club meeting with Benny. For Comer, Benach established a consistent knitwear theme to illustrate Kathy maintaining her strength within her volatile relationship with Benny and the Vandals.

The other biker wives and girlfriends dress as counterparts to their men in black leather motos and feminine headwear, ripped from the pages of Lyon’s book. Instead, Kathy attends biker meet-ups in a more beatnik-style brown suede coat.

“It was important that we maintained her look outside of being a bike rider,” says Benach. The motif also conveys Kathy’s hopes for Benny to move on from club life—and escalating violence as the powerful Vandals begin to fracture into the ’70s. “[She wants] to change him,” adds Benach.

Although, as Benny declares at the top of the film, “You’d have to kill me to get this jacket off.”

The Bikeriders is now playing in theaters.

Source: W Magazine

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