Sons of Anarchy portrays the fictionalised world of an outlaw motorcycle club; although the plots are dramatic in the extreme, many of the details are firmly based in realism, including the costuming. Series creator Kurt Sutter has described it as pure soap opera, but this family drama has earned the tag of “Hamlet on Motorcycles”. It has been embraced by pop culture and by the biker community, and spurred an upsurge in sales of Harley Davidsons (and a $25k SOA branded bike).
Motorcycle club culture took off after WW2, when returning veterans with experience of riding bikes on service, and often undiagnosed post-traumatic stress, took to the lifestyle looking for the camaraderie and thrills their return from war had left them missing. The press quickly seized on the growth of these groups (top tip: don’t ever call an MC a gang) and brewed some good old-fashioned hysteria about anti-social behaviour and the ruin of society. A comment is attributed to the American Motorcycle Association about 99% of bikers being law-abiding citizens, so those who wanted to identify with the outlaws called themselves One-percenters, to the point where it was literally adopted as a badge of dishonour. According to the carefully-crafted show mythology, Sons of Anarchy Motorcycle Club (Redwood Originals) comes from the second boom of the post-Vietnam era, where the veterans were even younger, no longer treated as returning heroes and often had become part of drug culture.
Like all such groups, their identity has to be conveyed to the outside world which in turn reinforces the sense of belonging of its members. Kelli Jones, costume designer on the show, studied Mexican and Asian gangs as well as the biker culture past and present to get a feel for the look. Central to the identity of any MC, even more so than the motorbikes, are the sleeveless leather jackets they wear called cuts or ‘kuttes’. Covered in embroidered patches and pins, they tell you who these people are, what they have done, how they conform to the rules and how they deviate from them. Comparable to military uniform they convey rank and experience to those inside and outside the club.
The code of the outlaw motorcycle club calls for 3 patches on the back of the cut; a central design with curved lettering panels (Rockers) above and below naming the club and its location. The show’s production designer created the patches with the ‘Reaper’ central emblem being designed by San Francisco tattoo artist Freddie Corbin (who featured in a cameo in season 2). The lettering caused more problems: “Now I do know the lettering in the original patch design was too close to a real MC and we had to redo all of the patches before the show ever aired” Kelli says. Clubs claim ownership of certain colour schemes, for example the Hells Angels are also known as the Red and White, after the letters and background colour. Sutter himself did a lot of research in preparation for the show, spending time with real-life clubs he won’t name, and blogged: “I am aware of the sacred nature of patches and colours. I have enormous respect for the colours associated with established outlaw clubs — red and white, black and white, green and white. The colours of Sons of Anarchy are ROYAL BLUE and WHITE.” This is a world where imitation is not always seen as the sincerest form of flattery. Kelli again, “Every department has gone above and beyond to make sure we tread the line of being realistic without being offensive to any of them.”
Behind this protective attitude is the fact that membership of these clubs and the associated display cannot be bought, it has to be earned. The show regularly shows us the difficulty of gaining the right to wear the cut and certain patches to go on it. The journey of a prospect enduring his probationary period of consideration (minimum 1 year) has been used in the show’s plot: we saw two prospects endure a session of Russian roulette, and Half-Sack Epps was only posthumously granted full status in season 3 after dying to protect another member’s child, his cut draped over his coffin. The real-life accounts of prospecting seem similar to the show: the hazing, the shittiest tasks, guard duties and loyalty being tested. There are countless plot examples which tell the importance of the cuts to a member: on their release from prison at the start of season 4, the first thing they are greeted with is their cuts. They put them on first before they hug their brothers and get on their bikes. As they reach Charming, they are stopped by the new sheriff who reminds them as a clause of their probation, they are not allowed to wear their cuts in public. It’s a serious power play, stripping them of the right to flaunt their identity and influence in public. When a rival MC threaten to take his cut, Jax says “Pull the trigger, man. That’s the only way this leather’s coming off my back.”
The other patches denoting rank establish our initial understanding of the dynamics of the relationships between these men, and underline changes such as Tig’s removal of his Sgt at Arms patch being the proof of his alienation from Clay, followed by its handover to Chibs when Jax takes over emphasising their respect and trust for each other and Tig being sidelined. The First 9 patch gives the wearer a heroic status within the club as founders of the group, and even allows some forgiveness for sins against the club, like Piney’s attempt on Clay’s life, though not enough to save McGee of SamBel when he’s caught turning traitor. In season 5, close-ups of Clay show the indentation of the leather where his President patch used to be. In these scenes it’s a visual reminder of his loss of status.
Another significant patch is the Men of Mayhem badge we see Jax and Opie wearing over their right breast pocket. We are introduced to them both as conflicted young fathers, troubled but essentially sympathetic characters we are supposed to identify with, but according to the show folklore this patch means both have killed for their club. It’s supposedly the equivalent of the Hells Angels Filthy Few patch (as alleged by some law enforcement organisations; the HA refuse to explain their meaning). These patches reveal a darker, more chilling side to their characters which we see more of as the show develops. By season 4 we see Juice given his Men of Mayhem patch and watch his psychological struggles with the deeds he has carried out to earn it.
Pin badges are also worn, the most noticeable example being Clay’s paratrooper jump wings showing you his military background. Others are club symbols like the Reaper. These motifs are repeated in their jewellery, particularly the heavy rings they all wear which in Jax’s case have been used as a device to show where he is with his loyalty to the club versus his family. Tattoos are similar, with the Reaper a repeated theme. The tattoos are treated almost as a permanent version of the cut and the consequence of someone displaying a symbol they are no longer entitled to is graphically shown in season 1, when former member Kyle has failed to black out his tattoo as instructed.
Within the club’s conventions, any deviation is equally revealing. There are several different styles of cut, with different collar details, and individual customisation. Bobby, who is first introduced to us as a working Elvis impersonator, has silver braid round the edge of his waistcoat-style cut, old-school with a hint of showbiz. Piney’s cut is denim, the original choice of MCs; Kelli says “we wanted Piney to reflect the past versus the present/future.” This marks him out as a relic of the old days, a dinosaur, and suggests conflict with change.
The clothes they wear do the same job; within the framework of simple workwear in a limited colour palette the variations give you clues about the characters. Kelli’s view: “Clay is old school. So his jeans are old school and shirts are basic. With the feeling he’s had them for years, if not decades. Tig is a soldier, a workman if you will. He wears Dickies shirts and faded black jeans with the leather cuffs. Middle age bad ass.” Bobby wears patterned shirts with a western cut, a hint of his musical side. The most interesting division is between the clothes the older members of the club wear and the younger. Their look is drawn from urban culture, “more hip hop and less hillbilly” as Kelli puts it. With low-slung jeans and white t-shirts, it emphasises the new generation and the divisions within the group. Charlie Hunnam has talked in interviews of how he researched the wardrobe he and the team put together for his character, but some viewers have felt that the white training shoes are not authentically ‘biker’ enough. Kelli’s view is typically blunt: “Honestly anyone who criticises Charlie’s look can go fuck themselves. That guy did an ENORMOUS amount of research with a certain club and that’s what the younger ones wear.”
In season 5 and 6, Jax’s look has subtly changed with his responsibilities as club president, and we see him wearing his white t-shirts less and instead more long-sleeved shirts with a long, narrow silhouette and the usual dark colour palette. To get the look she wanted, Kelli has had the shirts custom-made and put into a limited production run for sale through the FX website.
The Sons are not the only group in town. Other gangs are shown, with their own visual trademarks, from the Nords and their redneck racism in season 1 and 2 (workwear and wifebeaters), the Mayan MC (cowboy boots), and the Neo-Nazis with skinheads and army boots. The One-Niners, a black drug-running gang from Oakland are all hip-hop, dressed like rap stars, but fellow Oakland criminals from Damon Pope’s organisation wear smart suits in dark colours looking like sober well-to-do businessmen. This helps us follow the complex and constant changes in alliances by giving us a visual shorthand for who the Sons are dealing with. They exist in a world where almost everyone belongs to some sort of group, whether it be law enforcement or outlaw.
The tribal nature of the MC culture has provided a huge wealth of detail used in the costuming to bring the characters to vivid life and make the world of SOA seem rich, three-dimensional and believable.
By Lesley Holmes.
Lesley likes movies with space and dinosaurs, and B&W screwball comedies. She is fascinated by fashion history and particularly obsessed by underwear. She sells repro 1940s style knickers at her site Dorothy May Lingerie; she also conducts fashion talks on various topics.
With thanks to Kelli Jones.
READ PART 2 OF THIS ARTICLE LOOKING AT THE WOMEN OF SAMCRO HERE
© 2014, Lord Christopher Laverty.