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A Brief History of the Leather Jacket in Rock n Roll

The leather jacket in the 21st century is in a curious place.

11 February 2016, 3:00pm

Photo Credit: Getty Images

This article is part of an editorial series sponsored by our friends over at HBO celebrating the launch of their new show 'Vinyl,' from Martin Scorsese, Mick Jagger, and Terry Winter exploring the crazy and fantastic world of music in the 1970s. Throughout the week, Noisey will analyze this iconic era with articles looking back in time.


The leather jacket in the 21st century is in a curious place. A style perennial, it's as likely to adorn your local garage rock band as it is a Parisian fashion editor. But there was a time when clothing could still be permeated with biting subversive potential. Allow me to take you on a whistlestop tour of rock n' roll's love affair with the leather jacket, essentially a "Greatest Hits" of cowhide cool.

The leather jacket adored by rock fans has its roots in the 1928 Schott Brothers' Perfecto motorcycle jacket, which was adapted from First World War aviation garb. It's first true rock n roll moment came not from music, but from the silver screen when filmmakers tapped into youth culture in the delinquent films of the 1950s. The most notable instance of celluloid rebellion was The Wild One (1953) that saw Marlon Brando as the smouldering, leather-clad leader of the Black Rebels Motorcycle Club (no need to elaborate on the very clear influence on rock music this has had). Remarkably the film was considered so dangerous that it was banned in the UK for 14 years, no doubt due to the searing nihilism evident in exchanges such as,

"Hey Johnny, what are you rebelling against?"

"Whatta you got?"

Despite the New York Times lamenting the movie's "grotesque costumes" in its review, sales of black leather jackets and motorbikes reportedly skyrocketed after the film was released. The decade that gave birth to rock n' roll soon enshrined the leather jacket in its sartorial Hall of Fame, and it was seen adorning the likes of Gene Vincent and Elvis Presley.

The Beatles in their pre-mania days picked up the leather gauntlet during their early shows in Hamburg. Inspired by a group of German Existentialists, on one of their visits they had full leather outfits tailored for them, before Brian Epstein demanded they smarten up their look. In Epstein's defence, leather jackets still had such a dangerous air in the early 60s that designing couture versions helped to get Yves Saint Laurent sacked from his job as head honcho at Christian Dior. In 2012, Bonhams sold one of George Harrison's leather jackets from this period for an eye watering £110,450. Towards the end of the decade, Elvis famously wore an all leather outfit when he filmed his 1968 Comeback Special, proving my theory that no one has ever really pulled off leather trousers outside of Jim Morrison. The potential for wardrobe malfunction alone is enough to warrant giving them a wide berth. Just ask Ross from Friends. Or Lenny Kravitz.

In many ways the 1970s was the Golden Age of Leather in Rock. Firstly: The Ramones, who have provided an unshakable template for rock star style since at least 1974, although Johnny Ramone claimed in his autobiography that he'd been wearing the Perfecto for seven years before they even formed. Bowie donned a leather jacket for the cover of "Heroes" in 1977 during his time in Berlin. Ever the eclectic, the image was inspired by the German Expressionist artist Erich Heckel. Around this time Bowie was often seen in a full length leather trench, marking the evolution of his previous Thin White Duke persona into the Berlin Trilogy years. But the 70s was also the era that the unisex potential of the leather jacket was fully realised. The decade saw an abundance of groundbreaking women rocking the shit out of leather, from Patti Smith to Joan Jett and Debbie Harry. It became such an emblem of Suzi Quatro's style that her character in Happy Days was given the name Leather Tuscadero. This predilection for bomber jackets harked back to the aviation chic of Amelia Earhart in the 1920s and 30s. Earhart was not only the first female aviator to fly solo across the Atlantic (among setting a plethora of other records), but was also the first president of the "Ninety-Nines" organization of women pilots. Which is pretty goddamn rock n roll.

In fitting with a decade obsessed with excess, the leather jacket got a colourful makeover in the 1980s with Michael Jackson's video for "Thriller," released in 1983. Designer Deborah Landis created the iconic V shape to broaden Jackson's shoulders in an attempt to make him look more virile, creating a look that can currently be purchased as either fashion or fancy dress. Such is the price of immortality. Red leather had been seen earlier that year when "Beat It" was released featuring Eddie Van Halen on guitar, and Jackson—still clearly on the virility tip—breaking up a flick-knife fight. Later in the decade the studded leather La Rocka look became all the rage following George Michael's leap into solo stardom with "Faith" in 1987. La Rocka was masterminded by Lloyd Johnson, the designer who outfitted everyone from Bob Dylan to Keith Richards, Ronnie Wood and Siouxsie Sioux. After designing the clothes for Quadrophenia (1979) his boutique was overrun with Mod revivalists. The La Rocka range helped to counteract this, harking back to classic biker style that was synonymous with the Rockers—the Mod's sworn enemies two decades earlier.

In the 90s, rock n roll began to embrace its emotional side, with Kurt Cobain looking as comfortable in a Perfecto as in a woollen cardigan. The end of the millennium saw leather go stratospherically pop with a frankly unpredictable trend for matching leather ensembles, sported by the Beckhams and by Destiny's Child in their proto-House of Dereon finery. Beyonce is, however, the latest star to harness the iconoclastic power of the leather jacket. Her Super Bowl performance paid homage to Michael Jackson's military-style at his own Super Bowl moment in 1993. Surrounded by leather-clad, Black Panther-esque dancers, Beyonce succeeded where others have failed in recapturing the radical spirit of the leather jacket. Creating what is quite possibly the most rock n roll moment the 21st century has seen to date.

Amber Butchart is a writer based in London. Follow her on Twitter.


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