While humans have been wearing leather for millennia, black leather, and the black leather jacket in particular, has an ever developing history of meanings and associations. It is an object of contrasts; it simultaneously signals individualism and uniformity, it is tough as hell and buttery soft to touch, it is a symbol of being an outsider to the mainstream, but has remained unwaveringly cool since it’s adoption by mass culture in the mid-twentieth century.
The biker jacket as we know it was designed in 1928 by Manhattan raincoat maker Irving Schottfor a Harley Davidson distributor.
Schott adapted the style of German aviator jackets of WW1, but with zips instead of buttons. The jacket was dubbed the “Perfecto” after Schott’s favourite cigars.
This is the style of jacket later worn by Brando in The Wild One, with a lancer front to cut windchill, fullness through the shoulders to allow a full range of arm movement to steer a bike and a waisted cut for comfort when riding seated. This style has remained popular, with slight adaptations, up until current day.
During this same century the black leather jacket has a darker past, becoming extremely popular with German Nazi officers in WW2, in a more formal double breasted great coat of heavy horsehide.
American servicemen, led by General Patton, also continued to wear leather bomber jackets during the war. This meant that there was a vast array of military surplus leather jackets available when the war finished, both as second hand supply and kept by the men demobbed, which is part of the reason they were adopted en masse by disenfranchised youth - mostly working class - in the decades that followed (1).
A leather jacket is a second skin that says “don’t touch”.
Leather molds to the body, the heat and sweat of the wearer stretching and tightening it to the skin. It is this form fittingness, alongside its association and usage in fetish gear that has deeply connected it with both straight and gay sex.
Fashion theorist Shaun Cole explains that part of the attraction for those who don leatherwear is how it can be used to perform and play with ideas around archetypal masculinity, power, control, and rebelliousness (2). Emerging initially in the 1950s, gay leatherwear culture was propelled by disenfranchised gay servicemen and bikers seeking overtly masculine expression, and originally fortified in the United States (particularly San Francisco).
After the growth of this culture through the opening of gay biker clubs across the country which formed as its heartbeat, leatherwear culture and its association with S&M was thriving by the 1970s and had spread across the globe. From here, leatherwear was reappropriated and bricolaged by many parties, from punks to high fashion designers. Today the association between leather and S&M practices remains and further the desirable and edgy image of the leather jacket.
Following from it’s growth in popularity in the mid-twentieth century, a vast number of styles of the black leather jacket have emerged from multiple fashion subcultures - for example the cyberpunk full length leather jacket, most notably seen worn in The Matrix films.
Many other subcultures adopted different versions of the leather jacket in the second half of the twentieth century, including punks, goths, the gay leatherwear scene, the Black Panthers (who donned more formal blazer or peacoat style jackets), and the 1970s New York Rock scene. Whilst vast in their cultural and political interests, the black leather jacket has always symbolised a ‘rebelliousness’ connected to its early associations with biker gangs and outlaws.
Part of the iconic status of the leather jacket is its ability to speak volumes of the wearer, and it’s usually saying ‘I’m edgy, I’m cool, and I don’t play by the rules’.
What is most fascinating about the leather jacket is not it’s origin story or it’s unparalleled continuous popularity, but how so many different people and subcultures, with such vastly conflicting beliefs, are connected through how a leather jacket makes them feel and look: edgy, cool, and like a rebel (with or) without a cause.
Words: The Stitchery Collective
Video: @iamgoldaguido / @_swop
Creative Direction: @notoriousbrig
Research / Blog: @thestitcherycollective
Soundtrack: Redneph In B Minor by The Midnight Hour
1. DeLong, M., Park, J. 2008. From Cool to Hot to Cool : the Case for the Black Leather Jacket in The men's fashion reader. Eds Andrew Hinchcliffe Reilly, Sarah Cosbey. New York: Fairchild Books.
2. Cole, Shaun. "Hell for Leather: Bikers, S&M and Fetishisation." in Don We Now Our Gay Apparel’: Gay Men’s Dress in the Twentieth Century. Oxford: Berg, 2000. 107–118. http://dx.doi.org.ezp01.library.qut.edu.au/10.2752/9781847888679/DWNOGA0012
3. Beyond Rebellion: Fashioning the Biker Jacket https://exhibitions.fitnyc.edu/biker-jackets
4. Grailed Team. 2016. A Brief History of Schott NYC: Makers of the OG Leather Jacket.