A leather vest is probably the most ubiquitous piece of gear for a lot of guys — gay or straight, bikers or not. A leather vest contributes to a casual and comfortable appearance, as well as provides a little bit of warmth in coolish environments. As I say in my Guide to Leather Gear, “a good leather vest is a fundamental leather item that you should own.”
There are three types of leather vests. One of them I will not discuss here, as I don’t own any: that is, a dress vest worn with a three-piece suit. Most of those types of vests are made of cloth, anyway.
I will go into some detail about the two remaining styles of leather vests: 1) a bar vest, and 2) a biker vest. Each of these vests can have “colors” applied to them. And by that I mean patches, not dye. Any time patches representing membership or affiliation with a club, motorcycle riding chapter, or similar organization are applied (with glue and/or sewn on) to the back and/or front of a vest — that’s what’s called “club colors.” The vest is worn to illustrate affiliation with the group.
A “bar vest” gets its name because it is usually worn by guys who go to bars — that simple. It is usually rather plain and made of 2-3oz leather (rather thin.) Most bar vests do not have outside pockets, but may have a pocket on the inside flaps.
The front and back panels of a bar vest may be sewn together at a seam, or have adjustable lacing, or be connected with chains. It varies, and the choices are more stylistic preferences of the man wearing it than anything else. For example, just because a guy is wearing a vest that has front and back panels connected with silver chains doesn’t mean he wants to pick a fight. (This symbolism continues today from images held over from old “biker movies”).
Personally, I recommend getting a bar vest that has a way to adjust the fit at the side seams. Laces allow a little more room to be provided perhaps around the tummy area, get be tighter up closer to the arm pits. Chains allow that type of fit to occur naturally, where the chain may be extended at the bottom but hang in a loose u-shape at the top.
Bar vests do not have closures like snaps or buttons on the front. These vests are designed to hang open, revealing the chest. They look great on men who are in good physical shape. Bearish figures look, well — “bearish” — if a bar vest is worn alone. Often bar vests on bearish bodies hang funny and reveal a lot of the tummy, drawing attention to physical attributes that some guys would rather not have so accentuated.
Bar vests are often worn alone, but may also be worn over a t-shirt or a leather shirt. However, real bikers do not wear bar vests while operating a motorcycle, or risk being flogged by flapping leather.
Biker vests are usually made of thicker leather — 4-5oz is common, 6-7oz is better. That’s because most bikers actually use these vests as protective wear while operating a motorcycle. Thicker leather will resist rocks or other debris that may be kicked up by a tire of a vehicle in front of you. Think of it, in a way, as added “body armor.”
Biker vests also usually have rather thick seams across the back yoke — though it is possible (and preferable) to get a “plain back” biker vest if you wish to have patches (colors) applied. Often the patches on the back are large and cover a big area, and a large seam makes it difficult to apply a patch smoothly over the back. (the patches had to be blurred due to homophobia from the license holder of the patches.)
Biker vests also usually have pockets. Bikers like pockets. Outside pockets are great for keys, ride route maps, coins or bills for toll payments, and other light stuff that need to be reached quickly. Inside pockets — particularly deeper “gun pockets” — are terrific to hold a wallet, cell phone, and other bulkier items. Some vests have snap or zipper closures for inside pockets, which are a great feature to help hold valuables securely.
Biker vests also have various ways to deal with side seams like bar vests: some have lace fittings, which make it easy to adjust the fit to the body of the man wearing it. Some have chains, which work the same way that they do on bar vests, described above.
Finally, a major difference between a bar vest and biker vest is that biker vests have front closures. Some have buttons (bad, because buttons often get strained and pop off), or zippers (not so good, because a zip-closed vest restricts movement), or snaps. Most bikers choose vests with snaps on the front. He can snap the top two or three snaps to keep the vest from flying open in the wind while riding. However, closing a vest can restrict freedom of movement, particularly if the vest is tight on the body when closed.
To deal with that, many bikers choose vest extenders, which are usually 2″ to 3″ chains or leather straps that connect to the vest’s snaps on each side. A vest extender on the middle snap(s) may draw across tightly, while a vest extender on the top and bottom snaps may hang in a loose u-shape. That’s common, and actually preferable because as a biker moves his arms while operating a motorcycle, the vest will allow movement since it’s not physically drawn tight across the chest.
Vest extenders are easy to find at most motorcycle shops, leather stores, and on-line — even at places where you might not think of looking, such as auto parts dealers. They are inexpensive — usually US$2 – $6 for a set of two.
I have a variety of vest extenders. Some are chains. Some are plain leather. Some are made of leather and have a decoration, such as a Maltese Cross on the front.
By the way, I learned a lesson once. I was riding with a biker vest held closed in the front with vest extenders when I got caught in the rain. When the vest dried, the snap closures rusted. I was able to clean up the rust, but the snaps didn’t work well again. They became more loose and the vest extenders disconnected when I was riding my Harley. Thus, the lesson I learned is not to get the vest wet. If a rainstorm catches me by surprise again, I take the vest off and put on rain gear that I keep in my saddlebag.
I also want to point out that not all vests are cut to the same pattern. Some fit well and others do not — they “hang funny,” pucker at the shoulders, do not reach the waist, or have too much leather in front and not enough in back. It is important to try a vest on — try on several of them, actually. Some will fit better than others. If you’re buying on-line, then check the return and exchange policy of the vendor before shelling out the money to buy it. If it doesn’t fit or looks bad on you, you will need to be able to exchange it or return it.
Further: caveat emptor! Inexpensive leather vests are cheap for a reason. Often they are made from inferior hides and are not assembled well. I cannot recommend vests made in Pakistan. Every vest I have seen that is made in that country is cheap and of inferior quality. So watch what you may consider buying from the cheap on-line biker leather vendors. Other vendors like Biker’s Den and Johnson’s Leather for biker vests and Mr. S or 665 Leather for bar vests — all have very good stuff made in the USA. (A few examples; there are many more).
I hope you find this information helpful as you consider your next purchase of a leather vest.
Life is short: wear leather!