A Brief History of Leather Jackets
There is no doubt that the leather jacket is a cultural icon, but where did it start? Well, unfortunately the answer to that is not as clear as you would expect and tracing its history can be as confusing as it is frustrating...
Some people claim that leather jackets were invented for aviators to wear on bombing raids in world war two; others say that they were around before then because they were popular with the Russian Bolsheviks and were worn by the commissars during the Russian civil war. The real truth is, simple forms of leather jackets have been around for centuries, ever since humans worked out how to strip and tan the hide from the animals they had hunted for food.
Whatever the history of the leather jacket is there is no doubt that, in many different forms and guises, it is probably one of the most iconic pieces of clothing in popular culture and can mean so many different images.
The brown leather jackets of the pre war years were often associated with aviators and servicemen and were commonly know as ‘Bomber Jackets’. Sometimes they would be made with a sheepskin collar, reminiscent of fictional characters such as Biggles or Tom cruise’s Maverick in ‘Top Gun’ yet the plainer, older and faded brown leather jacket remained more popular with adventurers such as Indiana Jones.
While the style of brown leather jackets remained fairly simple without much variation, and often being worn by a specific type of military/action figure, black leather jackets have a much more varied and interesting cultural image and can mean lots of different things to many different people.
In the early years of its history the black leather jacket was very much associated with American police forces, as they favoured them for their water proof and protective qualities. They are also extremely resilient, lasting the rigours of wear and tear very well, another good quality for such an active profession.
Later on black leather jackets became a symbol of cool and rebellion and then inadvertently bikers, as owning a bike symbolised freedom for the youngsters of the day in the 50’s and 60’s. Marlon Brando in ‘The Wild One’ or Honor Blackman in ‘The Avengers’ are perfect examples of this fashion statement during the period. In fact when TV shows and films made in the 70’s and 80’s wished to depict life in the preceding decades, they made sure that black leather jackets were prevalent on the screen - The T-Birds in ‘Grease’ and the Fonze in ‘Happy days’ are perfect examples of this.
Black leather jackets then went through a phase in the 70’s and 80’s of being associated with so called criminal or seedy elements of society, being favourites of Hells Angels and Heavy Metal fans (the two often being one and the same). It has also been strangely linked to the gay fashion scene, which in fairness is a world away from the previous examples, but nevertheless still an uncomfortable association for worried parents of the day. However, the enduring qualities and cool of the leather jacket could never be repressed and, they soon became part of the mainstream again with variations in design such as the black leather trench coat worn by Laurence Fishburne as Morpheus in ‘The Matrix’ films.
Whatever your enduring image of leather jackets happens to be, there is one fact that will always remain – they will certainly be around for a long time to come and there are very few items of clothing around in the fashion world that simply epitomise the word cool.