Going to horror conventions, movie marathons, and film festivals is one of my favorite things to do. There’s always a great cross-section of people. Usually fashion isn’t high priority at these types of events, but when it is, it really is! I always gravitate towards people that exhibit their own unique sense of style.
My favorite trend in the horror community right now is the horror-themed battle vest, or in some cases, battle jackets. If you’re unfamiliar with what a battle vest is: It’s a vest that is most times made of denim or leather, decorated with patches and pins that reflect its owners’ interests. This fashion statement started with bikers, hippies, outlaws, and in to the 1980s, punk rockers and metalheads took on the look as their own. In recent years, I’ve seen more and more individuals in the horror community coming up with their own twists on the battle vest.
I grew up in the punk rock scene, so I am a huge fan of this trend. I even have a vest and a jacket that I created, each of which are strictly horror- and film-oriented. I wanted to find out what others thought of this growing trend in the horror scene, so I spoke with some of my favorite horror-con personalities about it — Chad Savage (head designer at SINISTER VISIONS and ZOMBIE ARMY PRODUCTIONS), Erica Kauffman (co-owner and head designer at ATOMIC COTTON), Nathan Hamilton (actor and film curator for the DAYS OF THE DEAD Film Festival), and Neil Preston Autry (head designer and co-owner of WESTERN EVIL).
Daily Grindhouse: What do you attribute the popularity of battle vests amongst horror fans?
Chad Savage: Self-expression. Bikers and punks figured this out decades ago, of course. The Battle Vest allows you to not only express your love of horror (or Halloween, or whatever you love), it lets you do it in incredibly specific pieces. Your vest tells your fellow genre fans that you love these specific movies, characters and in-jokes. Extra points for obscure references and hard-to-find pieces. When somebody recognizes your Sammi Curr pin (from the Halloween-set ’80s rock horror flick TRICK OR TREAT) because they love that movie, too, there’s an instant connection to a total stranger – we both love that cool thing that not everybody is familiar with. It’s part of what makes the horror community in particular so friendly and fun to be a part of. At least, that’s been my experience of it as a maker-and-wearer of patches and pins.
Nathan Hamilton: You can trace the evolution of the battle jacket/vest from motorcycle culture after WWII to the hippies to the ’70s rockers to the punks and headbangers. What do all of these have in common? They are the expressions of outsiders. The marginalized. Those who are a little too out-there for polite society. Horror is no different. Horror is outsider art, so naturally it attracts those with a desire to express their individuality. Plus, in a fandom that often has a “uniform of nonconformity” (Look for me at the horror con. I’ll be the long-haired, bearded dude in the black horror-movie T-shirt!), each battle jacket or vest is a one-of-a -kind item as personal to its creator as their fingerprints.
Neil Preston Autry: Denim and leather jackets, have always been a staple of the punk rock community. The lower middle-class brats who were pent up in their rooms, with late-night TV movies, comic books, loud music, and leftover pizza boxes littered on the floor. It’s never been too far of a step from punk rock, to horror. From the Ramones, down to full-on horror punk bands like the Misfits. In my opinion, its just part of the culture.
Erica Kauffman: I personally just think that horror fans are just a little more edgy and cooler that other fandoms. We are bad kids, the weirdos, drawn to the darker side of life, and I always felt like a good vest was like a warning to some, and a cue to identification with others. It’s like gang colors, or a dumb varsity jacket. It just makes it easier to spot our own kind.
Daily Grindhouse: What does it take to make a good battle vest?
Chad Savage: In a word, attention to detail, and lots of detail. Patches and pins tell your story; adding interesting stitching, rivets, studs, art/paint, etc. is where it goes from garment to wearable art. I have friends that have vests that I’ve seen a half a dozen times, and I still find new little hidden things in them every time I see them. I love that. I wish I had time to devote to it, because it does take a LOT of time to build a vest like that.
Nathan Hamilton: There is only one key ingredient… creativity. Your vest is a reflection of who you are, so it should be just as unique. Sure, people may have some of the same patches or employ certain similar styles, but there are no two alike. Therefore, it’s hard to judge what a “good” one would be. For example, I despise the movie 28 DAYS LATER. Let’s say a guy has a vest with a 28 DAYS LATER back patch. In my opinion, that movie is NOT good. But is his vest good? Hell yeah, it is! It means something to him and represents what he’s into, which is the whole point.
Neil Preston Autry: First thing into making a good “battle vest” is… don’t call it a “battle vest.” You’re not going into war. Punks don’t fight anymore — they just kinda sit around and complain. You aren’t Mad Max in some post-apocalyptic wasteland ready to stomp some mongoloid freak to a pulp just for some gasoline. Just call it your “denim.” And to make a good denim vest, you gotta make it your own. They are like snowflakes: No two are ever the same. But if you put your blood, sweat, and stitching into that snowflake, than you should be proud of it. If you are proud of it, then it’s a good fucking denim jacket.
Erica Kauffman: I am kinda not into the the name “battle vest.” And I think its all really personal. Some people are really into studs, or patches, or only pins. Some people have to have one giant back patch, and others have tons of patches. I like a balanced mix of patches and pins, I’m really big into symmetry, but I am also not exclusively into horror. I have a lot of wacky random shit on my vest.
Daily Grindhouse: When did you notice battle vests become popular at horror conventions and film festivals?
Chad Savage: I made my first one five or six years ago to wear as a vendor (branding!), and started noticing an uptick at trade shows and conventions over the ensuing year… or I just didn’t notice them until I made one.
Nathan Hamilton: I went to my first horror convention in 2006 (DAYS OF THE DEAD Atlanta). I had been seeing battle vests for the past decade at concerts, and a lot of the same people from those shows were at the con, so battle vests were a common sight. I honestly couldn’t tell you when I saw my first one devoted purely to horror, though.
Neil Preston Autry: Honestly, I never noticed it because its always been there. From bikers, in the ’60s to punks in the ’70s and ’80s. Its just a part of counter culture or “underground culture.” I remember in the early 2000s, people were telling me denim was back in style. Which was great news for me, because I hadn’t heard it ever went out of style. But there is a big thanks to China for the resurgence of “flair” for your vests. With cheap manufacturers overseas, everybody and their mom is making pins and patches now. The market is flooded with them. Gone are the needs of a Sharpie and a friend who can draw well. This isn’t a bad thing. There are pins and patches for everything and anything you can think of now. When I was a teenager, I wish I could have went to my local punk shop and bought a CANNIBAL HOLOCAUST pin, where the chick slid up and down on a pole that was impaled through her vagina and out her mouth. They have that shit now. It’s a wonderful time to be alive.
Erica Kauffman: I have noticed a huge upswing in the past two years. I think it has a lot to do with the Enamel Pin explosion. And people just want to look cool. Vests are just fucking cool, and you can make them uniquely yours.
Daily Grindhouse: Who was the first person you remember seeing representing with a horror-themed battle vest?
Chad Savage: No idea on the specifics, but it would have been in Dallas in the late ’80s. There were some hardcore fellas in my circle of friends and they had AMAZING hand-assembled vests, jackets, jeans — you name it — all bearing mostly-hand-made references to their favorite horror movies and bands. It’s not a new thing.
Nathan Hamilton: I’ve always been a huge fan of horrorpunk, and in that culture, most of the vests had both bands and horror movie icons represented, sometimes in the same patch, so the line between a music vest and a horror vest has always been blurry to me. For example, mine has all horror on the front and all bands on the back, but a lot of the bands are also horror-based. It’s hard to say when I first saw one solely dedicated to horror. I bet it had a Misfits back patch, though.
Neil Preston Autry: I had a “RUN OJ RUN” and “The Juice is Loose” vest when I was a teenager. Does that count?
Erica Kauffman: Shit, I think my dad was the first person I ever saw in a dope vest. It wasn’t horror themed; it was all Marine-Corps-themed. But I get my love of eccentric flair from my dad. Growing up, I always had patches and pins and paint all over my jackets. It’s just how I was raised. I was raised right.
Daily Grindhouse: How do you make your battle vest stand out from others?
Nathan Hamilton: I think variety is a strength of mine. That, and the fact that I used pretty much every square inch. I’ve got horror movies, haunted house attractions, serial killers (I cannibalized an Ed Gein shirt to sew to the vest, pun intended), video stores, deathmatch wrestlers, horror hosts, and everything else you can imagine represented. I have a bunch of Halloween Girl Scout Patches on there. I have patches I earned working at Netherworld. One of the patches is off of the vest I wore in FRANKENSTEIN CREATED BIKERS, complete with blood stains from my death scene. Beavis is in there somewhere. Hell, as far as bands, I have everything from metal to horrorpunk to soul to Leonard f’n Cohen. I mean everyone has The Misfits and Slayer, but how many are rocking a patch of The Spinners? A battle vest is a wearable piece of art, so it can’t help but have the creator’s personality in it. That makes each one its own monster. That’s what makes one stand out.
Neil Preston Autry: Depends on what you are into. But Western Evil is my baby. So of course I’m gonna plug that. Buy some shirts, cut them up. Sew them to the back of your vest. Buy some of the Tragic Kingdom pins that feature serial killers mashed up with your childhood cartoon favorites. You can even buy your own Western Evil denim vests if you catch me at a convention. They come with a hidden gun pocket in the lining, because I want to stay true to the biker roots of denim vests.
Erica Kauffman: I am a HUGE TITTYBATS fan. Just Google “Tittybats” and you will find him. There is just so much out there. You can seriously just google whatever you might be looking for and you will be able to find a pin or patch or shirt relating to it. Some other companies I think really have great jacket stuff are
Yeah I think those are my top guys. But almost every artist I know, or vendor, has at least a few pins, or a patch or two for sale. I like to think of enamel pins as jacket stickers. I have a few hundred at the moment.
Daily Grindhouse: How do you make your battle vest stand out from others?
Chad Savage: Originality and craftsmanship. Plain & simple.
Neil Preston Autry: Now, this is the million-dollar question: How to make your vest stand out. I once was set up at a punk show. And this kid came up wearing a denim vest that was two sizes too big. He was checking out some of the patches I had at the time. He comes back with his mom a few minutes later, and she tells him she only has $20 bucks, so he can get however many that will buy him. They start talking to me about how he drew most of his patches himself, with a fabric paint marker, and he did a pretty damn good job. She sewed them on to his jacket and they both were really proud of it. That kid represented the true DIY spirit behind denim vests and jackets. I gave him every patch he wanted, because I remember being that kid. Looking back on some of the stuff I wore now is almost cringe-worthy. But to me, when I was a kid, I was cool as fuck. Thats what made my vest stand out. I was proud of it. I had cut up old shirts, or bought patches at skate shops, and 1” pins at record stores, and made it my own, with things I thought were cool. So put as much or as little as you want on a vest. As long as you think it’s cool, it’s fucking cool, and don’t let anybody tell you different.
Erica Kauffman: Glitter puffy paint, and lots of glow in the dark. All of my pinmaker friends know I am a freak for the glitter variants, so they usually hold one for me. The same goes for glow-in-the-dark. I like to be flashy. It’s like a giant craft project to me, and it’s always changing. I am currently making my fourth vest since we started vending and attending conventions, and it’s like a yearbook, almost. It’s a collection of treasures and patches form artists and makers that I love, I represent my friends and family at all times, and I feel naked without a good solid vest on my chest.
Well, I hope this little group interview helps any readers out there in Daily Grindhouseland who are thinking about putting together their very own horror-themed battle vest. Just remember it’s all about individuality, originality, and having fun. This is your main ripper, Mr. Germ the Ripper, saying love fashion, hate fascism, and tell ‘em Daily Grindhouse sent ya!