Published Dec 26, 2022 by Rick Cundiff
Custom patches have a long, distinctive history in the United States. From humble beginnings, they came to symbolize youthful rebellion, and a counterculture sensibility. From punk declarations of allegiance – or lack thereof – in the 1970s, they continued to evolve, becoming a Gucci-ized fashion statement in recent years.
How did something so simple as a piece of cloth come to represent so many different, even conflicting ideas over the years? Let’s take a look.
Patches began as a simple necessity. There was nothing custom about them. A patch was simply a piece of cloth used to cover a frayed spot or hole in a garment. For centuries, they were nothing more than a way to extend the life of an article of clothing.
By the 1920s, things began to change. Motorcycle clubs began to wear leather jackets with club logos sewn onto the back. That look quickly became a standard of bikers across the country. 1n 1953, Marlon Brando wore a leather jacket with a Black Rebel Motorcycle Club logo on the back in the classic movie “The Wild One.” An icon was born. (And decades later, so was the band named after the club.)
Motorcycle club patches evolved as several “outlaw” biker clubs such as the Hell’s Angels grew, into the recognizable three-piece patch we know today. This style features a main logo patch in the center of a leather or denim jacket, flanked top and bottom by two smaller curved “rocker” patches.
Typically, the center patch is the club logo, which usually includes the letters MC to indicate “motorcycle club.” The top rocker shows the name of the club, while the bottom rocker states the territory the club claims as home.
In the 1960s, change was in the air. The civil rights movement was peaking, a dynamic young president was in the White House, and folk musicians such as Joan Baez and Bob Dylan infused their music with a passion for social justice.
As the decade progressed, the atmosphere changed. Civil rights protests grew violent. JFK was assassinated, The Vietnam War drew both supporters and protesters to the streets. And among young people, patches became a widely accepted way to communicate.
Denim and leather, long the uniform of the motorcycle crowd, became mainstream wear, along with surplus military jackets. Custom patches gave wearers an opportunity to decorate otherwise utilitarian clothing with bright colors, innovative patterns and pointed political messages. Jeans, jackets, vests, and even sneakers became blank canvases for the wearer’s thoughts. Peace symbols were among the first popular customized patches.
The Vietnam War greatly expanded the popularity of custom morale patches in the military. Troops serving in harsh conditions sought ways to express themselves as they fought in the jungles. Morale patches gave them a way to voice their opinions, especially the sarcastic and cynical. Velcro® hook-and-loop fasteners enabled patches to be easily and quickly removed in the event of visiting higher-ups.
At the same time in the United States, growing numbers of young people renounced materialism – at least temporarily – and embraced the counterculture. For many, that meant wearing surplus Army jackets, which provided ample opportunities for self-expression with patches.
Aided by the enduring appeal of such jackets, and of denim jeans, jackets, vests and skirts, the reach of custom patches soared. Simply put, denim is almost never out of style. Consequently, neither are patches.
Bands soon discovered patches were a useful marketing tool. Custom band logo patches were an affordable way fans could declare their allegiance to their favorite artists. They’ve been a reliable merchandise item for bands ever since.
For a time in the mid to late 1970s, polyester challenged denim for supremacy, so in the disco era, patch usage waned a bit. But by the latter part of the decade, another style arose that brought patches back to prominence – punk rock.
Punk rock was a reaction against both disco and what many saw as the bloated excesses of contemporary rock music. Punk musicians embraced a philosophy of “less is more.” Guitar, bass and drums took the place of synthesizers, and stripped-down fast tempo music recalled the early days of rock and roll. A popular patch of the time summed it up: “Loud Fast Rules.” Punk ignited a political movement in Great Britain, and a a companion fashion movement as well in London and New York. Denim ruled once again, accompanied by ripped t-shirts, safety pin jewelry, and once again, leather jackets. Patches became an ideal way to express a general anti-establishment attitude and wear it proudly.
Ultimately, as often happens with symbols of rebellion, custom patches were assimilated and commodified into modern fashion. Today’s patches are less the mark of a rebel and more a generic symbol. Even the Gucci label has gotten into the act, featuring patches on the runways of Paris and New York.
As you might expect, custom biker patches have escaped the commodification of other patches. You don’t see biker patches, even for fictional motorcycle clubs, on leather jackets for sale at high-end fashion emporiums.
There’s a reason for that. Real outlaw motorcycle club members don’t take kindly to folks pretending to be something they’re not. If you wear a jacket with a patch of a real club on it when you’re not a member, you’re taking your life in your hands. Yeah, they take it that seriously.
On top of that, biker clubs are notoriously territorial. Even a fictional club patch could be seen as interloping on a home club’s turf. It’s far safer to steer away from faux biker gear all together.
Besides, there are plenty of other ways to make a fashion statement with patches. For example, you can make a hole in your custom patches, thread a chain through and create a fast fashion necklace. Or cover an entire jacket in patches, with many designs and sayings. Let the spirit of punk live!
Really, there’s no wrong way to wear custom patches. (Well, other than the motorcycle club warning above, that is.) Patches give you a way to express your individuality in unique, affordable ways. Feel free to explore the many ways you can make patches work for you. Call or email us and we will be glad to help you design your own custom patches today!