The leather jacket isn’t just one of the world’s most stylish articles of clothing. It is also an attitude
Words Aninda Sardar
There are clothes, and then, there are clothes. Some make you look good, but the other one? That one makes you feel something. When you don it, you feel like the don that you want to be. And there are few articles of clothing that can rival the ability of a leather jacket to evoke emotions. Or to help you stand out in a crowd with its sheer style. From Top Gun’s Pete ‘Maverick’ Mitchell in 1986 to DDLJ’s Rahul in 1995 to Casino Royale’s James Bond in 2006 or in Skyfall in 2012, the leather jacket is the one style item that threads through the decades. But if there is one movie that made the leather jacket the style icon it has become then that credit goes to the Marlon Brando starrer The Wild One.
The 1950s were a strange time as the world recovered from the aftershocks of the Second World War II. As the generation that had fought and survived with the scars of the War settled down to normalcy, their next generation had just started to find their own feet. Fuelled by a growing rock’n’roll music phenomenon and their love of a racy lifestyle in a largely peaceful environment unlike what the previous generation had experienced, this mass of youth were bubbling at the cusp of rebellion against anything and everything conventional. Why? Because their own lives simply weren’t as exciting as the stories of the War they heard through their growing up years. All they were missing really was an icon. An image they could all galvanise around as they spoiled for a fight with society.
Into this boiling cauldron rode Johnny Strabler (Brando), the outlaw biker with his arrogant swagger, loud motorbike, jauntily worn cap, blue jeans and his black leather jacket. He was everything that this young generation was feeling. Resentful of society and its restrictive norms and utterly dismissive of conventional authority Johnny’s appeal to the youth of the 1950s was as much as Robin Hood’s was to the people around Sherwood Forest.
Johnny was an instant hit, and his leather jacket? It got catapulted from being a practical item of clothing to a symbol of something larger. The deal was sealed when style icon James Dean donned leather in his Rebel Without A Cause, just two years later in 1955. A symbol of youthful rebellion, whether it was the erratic ace Maverick of Top Gun, the goofy romantic rebel Rahul of DDLJ or the loose cannon that has always been Bond, life for the leather jacket would never be the same again.
The leather jacket as an article of clothing of course pre-dates both Brando and his Wild One. In fact throughout the early 20th century the leather jacket, worn over other layers of warm clothing, protected early aviators from the bitter cold of high altitudes. Back in 1928, Irving Schott designed the world’s very first biker jacket and sold it for the princely sum of US$ 5.5. By the time Adolf decided to march all over Europe, the simple leather jacket has already been transformed into what we now know as the Bomber jacket. Lined with fleece, these jackets were part of a bomber crew’s outfit and were meant to provide protection against extreme exposure. In the wake of Adolf’s tantrums, large numbers were ordered by Air Forces across continents. Contracts were awarded and the leather jacket went into mass production.
When the War ended in 1945, the world was suddenly left with a huge supply of surplus leather jackets. Canny makers like Lewis Leathers in the UK, saw this as an opportunity and began selling them to post War Britain’s burgeoning motorcycle brigade. If you were a biker in the 1950s and 60s in the UK you just had to have a leather jacket. Over time, the leather jacket moved from biker closets into the wardrobes of the stylish.
Their appeal enhanced not only because they looked damn good but also because they marked you out as someone willing to buck the trend. Someone who wouldn’t always want to play by the rules, who wasn’t afraid of authority and was willing to stand up to stupid social notions. Someone who was willing to be a badass when push came to shove.