Leather has had a long and varied history. but not all agree on the chronology of who, what and when… everyone does agree on the Marlon Brando effect. But first let’s back-track to the beginning, so you can understand the subtext behind our new-in (cruelty-free) leatherette styles.
Before Brando, leatherwear, ofc, existed. It was popularised as uniforms for the police and military, particularly with the rise of the motorcycle. Irving Schott (then pattern cutter, now ‘Schott NYC’) was the first to put a zip in a biker, asymmetrically to make it more comfortable to ride in. It was that Schott jacket that Brando wore in 1953 film ‘The Wild Ones’. The film was inspired by motorcycle sub-cultures that had long adopted the leather jacket, for safety and practicality. It became a symbol of rebellion though when in 1947, at an annual motorcycle rally in Cali, a small minority caused some trouble. This small minority were since termed ‘the one-percenters’ (they made up about 1% of the 4,500 attendees). Despite just three people getting injured, the media sensationalised the event. Press described the rally in Hollister as terrorism and a riot, dirtying the reputation of motorcycle culture altogether. The headline image? A ‘drunk’ man on ‘his’ Harley wearing a leather jacket… (the image was allegedly staged).
Back to Brando… ’The Wild Ones’ (1953) was based on this ‘riot’. Of course with his mainstream handsome looks, strength and luck in love, Brando’s character, and his leather jacket, became iconic. He was a symbol of independence, rebellion, sexual power and masculinity. Often ignored by mainstream media though was Brando’s character’s influence on gay culture and its subsequent relationship with leatherwear and eroticism.
In the years following ‘The Wild Ones’, the gay community made a trope of the hyper-masculine gay man, and leather embodied that. From there grew BDSM and fetish sub-sects of leather culture that still flourish today and overlap with areas of motorcycle culture. Tom Finland’s erotic illustrations added to that culture, along with Peter Berlin’s pornographic films like ‘Nights in Black Leather’ and Glenn Hughes of The Village People. The leather jacket was banned in American Schools.
In the meantime, leather’s association with counter-culture, rebellion, independence and sexual power attracted the Greasers, Rockers, Punks and the Metal Heads. Musicians from Judas Priest to The Ramones and Bruce Springsteen were tapping into leather’s cool-factor. They customised their jackets with paint, pins and badges to try to maintain that sense of individuality - which was the initial appeal. But then leather became mainstream, at least for the boys.
[Enter Joan Jett] and the ‘leather pride’ sticker on her guitar. During the 1950’s early emergence of leather subculture, few women were visible, but the 70’s and 80’s saw a rise in feminism and Joan Jett was, initially without intention, near the front of that. She asserted her right to do as the boys did, without worry or self-consciousness, and to do so she wore leather in her defiant performance of masculinity. Non-conformist female musicians Debbie Harry and Patti Smith also made the male-dominated trend their own, catalysing a widespread adoption across cultures.
Now everyone wears leather, though the last 5-10 years especially have seen a big shift from real to faux, in favour of the planet. So now you know the history of independence, counter-culture, sexuality and defiance that forms the back story to the leather pieces you wear.
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