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Thomas Helyar-Cardwell

Published date
19 Jun 2018

Battle jacket

Chelsea College of Arts

A battle jacket is a customised garment worn in heavy metal and extreme metal subcultures. My research will examine the Battle Jacket as a multi-layered symbol, and locate its roots in heraldic and military image traditions and plot its subcultural development.

During the Middle Ages in Europe, a system of heraldic symbolism developed to identify and trace the histories and hierarchies of noble and royal families and to identify allegiances on the battlefield. In World War 2, German motorcycle troops wore leather jackets emblazoned with the insignia of the Third Reich. In the post-war decades this style was appropriated by motorcycle gang culture, most typified by the uniforms of the Hell’s Angels gangs, in which the back of the leather or denim biker jacket became a space to display logos of gang affiliation and rank. The style crossed over into Rock ’n’ Roll culture, with subcultures such as the Teddy Boys and Rockers embracing customised leather jackets. The 1970s saw the blossoming of the Heavy Metal and Punk music genres, and the late 1980s and 1990s brought a fragmentation of Heavy Metal into myriad subgenres. Similarly, the styles of customisation of fans’ jackets also varied to reflect the particular subgenre with which they primarily identified.

In the Netherlands during the 17th century, painters such as Willem Kalf, Willem Claesz, Heda, and Pieter Claesz developed an intensely detailed still life painting style featuring arrangements of food and related objects against sombre backgrounds. This has had an ongoing influence in painting practice, with a recent revival of the still life painting as a critical venture evident in the work of many artists.

Through theoretical research and contemporary painting practice, I will study examples of the Battle Jacket, producing a series of artworks and an analytical text that will seek to expose the complex histories of these unique image collections, their meaning and significance for those who make them as well as for the wider culture.


Mark Fairnington