"Worn to Be Wild," at Seattle's EMP Museum through May 12, 2013, looks at the origins and many manifestations of the leather jacket.

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Leather jackets are the Mick Jaggers of the fashion world: They can add a flash of daring and danger to an otherwise impeccably proper outfit, the way Mick might at tea with the Queen, or they can be part of a uniform of rebellion, a way of signaling that you’re not standing (or singing) with the crowd. So it makes sense that EMP Museum would host an exhibit dedicated to this very rock ‘n’ roll garment: “Worn To Be Wild,” now open and running through May 12, 2013, features nearly 60 leather jackets. Some look ready to hop onto the back of a motorcycle; others (particularly a cropped, short-sleeved number from Jean Paul Gaultier, accessorized with long black leather gloves) would be elegantly at home at a ball.

Presented in partnership with the Harley-Davidson Museum in Milwaukee, the show begins with a historic look at the leather jacket’s beginnings as a utilitarian garment worn primarily by aviators, around the time of World War I. (There were no zippers, EMP senior curator Jacob McMurray said, until the 1930s.) By World War II, airmen customized their jackets with paintings on the back, often of pinup girls, one of whom smiles saucily from a jacket on exhibit. She’s sitting, pertly, on a bomb.

After the war, the jacket became a mainstream garment, worn by bikers (who customized them with studs and other ornamentation) but also by the general public, who bought jackets — often with regular-guy plaid linings — at department stores. A young man named Elvis Presley bought one at JC Penney; it hangs in a frame at EMP, looking decidedly unremarkable.

“The Wild One,” the 1953 movie with Marlon Brando as the head of a motorcycle gang, changed the perception of the leather jacket “180 degrees,” said McMurray — the garment came to symbolize a rebel, and schools began warning students not to wear them. Brando, who pouts alluringly from a “Wild One” clip screening continuously on an EMP wall, became an iconic image in his sideburns and shiny jacket with “Johnny” embroidered on the front; soon to be imitated by Presley and James Dean.

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Since then, countless musicians have donned leather in hopes of amping up their coolness (or, perhaps, effortlessly doing so). A wall display at EMP indicates the range: The Ramones, Bruce Springsteen and Sid Vicious hang adjacent to Debbie Gibson, Michael Bolton and Cher. (Some look, let’s just say, cooler than others.) A pirate-fringed jacket worn by Michael Jackson, inexplicably featuring a Confederate flag, hangs near a jacket once belonging to the singer Fergie, decorated with dainty painted skulls with pink ribbons on their heads. The neck-to-toe leathers of Glenn Tipton, of Judas Priest, are displayed nearby; resplendent with fringe and alarmingly tiny. (Does heavy metal cause one to shrink?)

Movie artifacts are side-by-side with the music world: Arnold Schwarzenegger’s costume from Terminator 2, a backup version (read: unworn, though it’s been touched up with paint so as not to look new) of Rooney Mara’s tough-yet-chic biker jacket from “The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo.” Harry Shearer’s jacket, worn in the party scene of “This Is Spinal Tap,” is on display — it’s elaborately decorated in a way that makes you smile, but is not actually leather, which seems right for a fake documentary.

A selection of customized jackets from 1980s Seattle lurk together in the center of a room, as if gathered for some sort of anarchist soiree. Each conveys a message, some strongly: One has fake vomit spilling over it; another is studded with dangerous-looking carpet tacks.

In contrast, five mannequins gaze over at them from a nearby runway, amused. This is high-fashion leather: a cropped jacket worn with a bustier (it looks like one piece from a distance, but the jacket barely covers the shoulders) and a long sheer skirt; a leather cape tossed over a pinstriped suit; a delicate short jacket made of chain mail, sparkling like diamonds in the rough.

Nearby, next to a transparent plastic jacket by Comme des Garçons founder Rei Kawakubo that seems to be floating, the voice of designer Gaultier speaks from a video: Leather, he says, is not just “to go on a bike, but to live with it, to sleep with it — why not?” Indeed; like Mick, it can go anywhere it wants.

Moira Macdonald: 206-464-2725 or mmacdonald@seattletimes.com

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