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Leather Jacket Heroes

In Pictures is a still and moving image gallery for significant works, events and places

Fashion designer Rei Kawakubo
Fashion designer Rei Kawakubo

AnOther considers the enduring appeal of the leather jacket and its historical heroes, from James Dean to Robert Mapplethorpe and Rei Kawakubo

Following on from last week's Vintage Style post on iconic leather jacket wearer Johnny Ramone, we thought it wholly appropriate to consider the enduring appeal of the leather jacket and its historical heroes, from the fields of film, music, photography and fashion.

First worn in the 1900s by aviators and military men in the form of warm, durable bomber jackets, leather jackets hit Hollywood in the 1940s and 50s and soon came to epitomise a bad boy brand of cool. Many attribute their widespread popularity to a brooding, leather clad Marlon Brando who rocked the look in 1953 biker gang drama The Wild One. James Dean is another name synonymous with the leather jacket – he was rarely seen without his black Perfecto following his film (and leather) debut Rebel Without a Cause in 1955. In fictional terms, few were more iconic as leather jacket wearers than The Fonz and Danny Zuko (of Grease); equally tight T-shirted, coiffed and cool, both were lent an undeniable edge by their louche leather outerwear.

Elvis memorably heralded in his 1960s comeback, decked from head to toe in black leather, in two recorded performances dubbed The Black Leather shows. Ranking equally high among the famed leather jackets of the music world is Michael Jackson’s red and black (heavily shoulder padded) jacket in the Thriller video, designed by John Landis' wife Deborah Landis with the purpose of making him appear more “virile”. David Bowie was uncharacteristically muted but typically captivating in black leather for the cover of Heroes – the second album in his Berlin trilogy, released in '77 – in a shot aptly based on German expressionist Erich Heckel's painting Roquairol. But punk was the movement that claimed official ownership of the black leather jacket, harking back to its roots as a symbol of rebellion. Joe Strummer strutted the stage in his leather of choice: the Lightening jacket by Lewis Leathers, while Sid Vicious gave his jacket a DIY twist, customising it with badges and pins.

"For Kawakubo, her interpretations of the leather jacket have become one of Comme des Garçons' defining trademarks, similarly in her protege Junya Watanabe's collections"

There are also notable leather wearers in the fields of fashion and photography. The late photographer Robert Mapplethorpe wore one in his iconic 1983 self-portrait, in which his hair is slicked into an ornate meta-rocker quiff. The image defines Mapplethorpe's work – dark, powerful, sexual and captivating. Fashion designers Vivienne Westwood (mother of punk), Hedi Slimane and Rei Kawakubo, are all ardent supporters of the garment have regularly incorporated them into their collections. For Kawakubo, her interpretations of the leather jacket have become one of Comme des Garçons' defining trademarks, similarly in her protege Junya Watanabe's collections.

Suggested Reading: See Junya Watanabe's leather jackets featured in AnOther's Object of Desire here.

Text by Laura Bradley & Daisy Woodward

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