A History of the Leather Jacket: How’d It Get so Cool?

This time machine has that fresh new car leather smell…


We spend a lot of time talking about the concept of cool — what it means to be it, whether you can become it and how it is so universally desired yet impossible to fake. And over this conversation consistently hangs a single, wearable talisman of the closest you will get to cool if you’re not, and a garment you’re guaranteed to own if you already are: the leather jacket. Its history dates back to the first World War, when the leather bomber was introduced for fighter pilots. It traverses time to the ’20s, where Irving Schott’s invention of the motorcycle jacket was first sold for $5.50 at Harley Davidson. On it goes to the ’30s and ’40s for another World War, the ’50s in Hollywood, ’60s in music, ’70s and ’80s in perverse feminism and ’90s in fashion.

It is not uncommon to see an iconoclastically cultural emblem appropriated in fashion, but so few garments have successfully demonstrated staying power like the leather jacket has. Why is that?

To understand this, we must identify the jacket’s incipient poster-children — those who imbued in the garment a remnant of their own cool.

The aviator jackets of World Wars I and II are perhaps best modeled by Amelia Earhart, an early card for female equality and, on a spectacularly different plane (pun intended), Tom Cruise’s Top Gun character.

When Marlon Brando played Johnny Strabler in 1953’s The Wild One, he wore the shit out of Schott’s first leather jacket, now ostensibly vintage. Ditto that for a forty-year succession of emblematic bad boys, like Steve McQueen, and then the musicians: The Ramones, The Beatles, Elvis!

Following a brief introduction to women’s fashion in the ’60s (blame it on mod, or the irreverent tough girls of ’50s lore), the leather jacket was redefined for the ’70s and led into the ’80s by such quintessentially subversive but celebrated icons as Joan Jett and Debbie Harry. And let us not forget Madonna. First time-touched virgin, maybe — but stranger to insurgency? Absolutely not.

Here’s where we cut to the ’90s, the introduction of the supermodel and thus a new style icon: the model on-duty. (Think: Cindy Crawford circa House of Style, a young Kate Moss.) She is frequently seen wearing high waist blue jeans, a white t-shirt, and, duh, a leather jacket.

This model on-duty effectively became one off-duty into the 2000s with the proliferation of paparazzi photography and the simultaneous luxurification of expensive designer motorcycle jackets like those of Nicolas Ghesquière’s, who established one of the first signature leather jackets for Balenciaga. Not long after came newly-minted designer Alexander Wang who launched his jackets, which were priced somewhat more conservatively relative to the anterior.

What has seemingly remained both consistent and reliable about the jacket is one key asset: its protective edge. If initially this protection was more purely utilitarian (literally acting as armor for pilots and motorcyclists), it has become something so endemic to fashion — the protection of a person under the guise of “cool.”

This virtue has reminded us of how lucky we are; incidentally, faking it takes nothing less, nothing more, than a simple, single garment.

Feature collage by Emily Zirimis.


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