Where Did the Tradition of an Eagle Pin on Leatherman Caps Come From?

Photo credit: Tom of Finland

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Where Did the Tradition of Eagle Pins and Leatherman Caps Come From?

by Master Wolfgang 18/06/2019

Wearing an insignia pin on a peaked cap goes back to the 1800's military uniforms and was used extensively by police and military by the early 20th Century. This informed post-WWII biker culture created when veterans feeling displaced at home searched for the comradery that they had in the military, a sense of loyalty and brotherhood. They had brought back with them iron crosses, peaked caps, and Bundesadler insignia (the German “federal eagle” symbol which had been adapted by the Nazi party). Many had also retained Marines insignia including the eagle which had been used since 1868. Bikers began wearing the eagle as a form of rebellion. It had less to do with Nazi or military beliefs and more to do with shock value. Groups such as the Hell’s Angels (founded 1948) embraced eagles and wings in their iconography.

Gay male leather culture began alongside these biker clubs in the 1940's appropriating the heightened masculinity of the fashions into leather fetishism and the striving for independence paired with sexual kink. This was boosted by a staged photo published in Life magazine from a 1947 American Motorcyclist Association motorcycle rally that got out of hand in Hollister, California. It drew widespread attention to negative aspects of biker culture, and popularized the image of bikers not as veterans but as tough, reckless, sexy, macho, dominant male outlaws which resonated with gay men wanting to rebel and distance themselves from femme gay male stereotypes.

The rally was fictionalized in the short story “Cyclists' Raid” by Frank Rooney published in Harper's Magazine in 1951 which was then adapted as the immensely popular 1953 film “The Wild One” starring Marlon Brando. The particular hat Brando wore was created by Muir Cap & Regalia Ltd. (one of North America's oldest and finest uniform cap manufacturers located in Toronto, Ontario and still in existence today). The popularity of the original cloth design with bikers and fetishists prompted the company to begin manufacturing it in leather. It has been copied by many other companies since and the basic design is now known generically as a Muir Cap.

Parallel to this explosion of biker iconography, in 1939 artist Touko Laaksonen at the age of 19, he moved from his hometown in southwestern Finland to Helsinki to study advertising and commercial illustration. In his spare time, he began drawing eroticised images of men based on male laborers from his hometown, men from the Finnish Army (in which he served as well) and soldiers of the German Wehrmacht stationed in Helsinki. These drawings often featured stylized and fetishized versions of the ultra-masculine military uniforms his subjects wore. He continued drawing through the 1940’s gaining an underground following of like-minded men.

Laaksonen’s art eventually found its way to America in 1957, published in Physique Pictorial who anglicized his name to Tom of Finland creating an almost mythical status. Many of his images contained peaked caps with pins including winged or eagle insignia he had seen in Helsinki. Later he noted, "In my drawings I have no political statements to make, no ideology. I am thinking only about the picture itself. The whole Nazi philosophy, the racism and all that, is hateful to me, but of course I drew them anyway—they had the sexiest uniforms!".

His artwork meshed well with the gay biker club aesthetic and further influenced the look and dress of the growing fetish culture. This was evident by 1964 when a Life Magazine article entitled "Homosexuality in America" which featured photos from the leather bar The Toolbox included a number of shadowy men in peaked hats. This article also served to bring leather subculture to the attention of isolated and closeted gays. The popularity of the gats and the pins continued on from there. The eagle insignias have become reimagined as more American/generic and less Germanic/Third Reich and persisted as one of the most common designs used. Helmet laws in the early 1970's saw the decline of peaked hats worn by bikers while gay icons such as Glenn Hughes of the Village People and Peter Berlin furthered promoted their use in leather and BDSM culture. In many areas, the hats are also known as Master’s Caps and symbolize a Dominant in a D/s relationship.

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