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The First Leather Jacket - The History Of The Most Iconic Piece of Clothing

November 06, 2019

The First Leather Jacket - The History Of The Most Iconic Piece of Clothing

by Sarah Makhluf

Sarah is a freelance content writer from Boston, MA. She loves traveling, fashion, and the beach.


How has a jacket that dates back to the early 1900s remained a staple in so many men's wardrobes? Usually, trends come and go, but for the last century, we haven't noticed a break in the production of leather jackets. In fact, today, more are produced than ever before.

One of the main reasons why leather jackets have remained one of the top-selling clothing items is due to their versatility. Greasers, cowboys, police, motorcyclists, punk rockers, metalheads, and so many more all enjoy a great leather jacket. While each style may be different, it's a way for people to show off their favorite bands, pay homage to their upbringing, or stay protected in their line of work. Did you know there is a National Leather Jacket Day? Can you name another article of clothing that has a day devoted to it? Since 1975, the Hell's Angels proposed every June 14th is dedicated to the beloved leather jacket. Read on to learn more exciting facts about leather jackets and how they became the only article of clothing to stand the test of time.

What is a leather jacket?

Made from the tanned hide of various animals, leather jackets are designed for many different purposes. Different styles are associated with certain subcultures regarding music, pastimes, and professions. Some leather jackets are made for protection, while others are strictly for fashion reasons. Typically, leather jackets are black or brown, but there are plenty of other color options available. You may be surprised by how many different options there are.

What is a leather jacket today?

  • Types/Styles - What's your favorite style? No matter what your personal preference is, there is a leather jacket out there that suits your needs. We have more styles to choose from today than ever before. Do you think back in the 1920's they would have dreamed of a leather shirt jacket, or how about a leather coat with safety pins and studs sewn on to it? We don't think so. Fashion has evolved over the years, and leather jackets were not held back.
  • Colors - Today, leather jackets come in all sorts of colors — green, blue, red, yellow, and more. There are no boundaries when it comes to colors today. Men enjoy showcasing their unique fashion sense through clothing, much more than the men in generations prior. Stereotypes that said men should stick to black and brown have been shut down in recent decades. Plus, with today's technology, we can expect to see greater things on the horizon for colored leather jackets.
  • Customization - Another perk of living in the 21st century. Today we can have our clothing custom made to fit our bodies perfectly without the steep price tag that men used to pay from a tailor. Online retailers made it more accessible for men to create their dream jackets at a reasonable cost. Custom leather jackets are quickly becoming the new go-to for men who are tired of ill-fitting clothing and lack of color and style options.

The evolution of leather jackets

Today's leather jackets come in styles and colors that the first leather jacket wearers couldn't have imagined. We can safely say that with the options we have today, there is a leather jacket out there to suit everyone's needs and fashion sense. Back in the day, leather jackets were quite 'cookie cutter.' People didn't pay attention to how they looked on the body, what colors men might like, or how soft they felt on the skin. It was all about functionality. Leather manufacturers were concerned with two things. Will this jacket provide warmth? Will it withhold harsh weather conditions? Color schemes and cutting the fabric in a flattering way were far from their minds. It wasn't until a couple of decades later that men began to wear leather jackets for fashion purposes.

Evolution of leather jackets

Bringing back old styles

We see an interesting turn of events in the late 80s. In 1986, when the iconic film "Top Gun" was released, many fans became interested in purchasing jackets that emulated the one worn by the main character, Pete Maverick. His jacket quickly became a pop culture icon, and the film is now widely considered a cult classic. Manufacturers had to look back in time to create jackets that were similar to the ones aviator pilots wore during the war. Today, people still seek replicas of the famous coat for Halloween costumes.

History of leather jackets

The first leather jackets had nothing to do with fashion; it was all about practicality. Leather jackets first came on the scene in the early 1900s. Aviators and members of the military wore flight jackets made from brown leather. You may recognize the A1 leather jacket, created by Chapal in 1925, which later became the ever-popular "bomber jacket." The sheepskin jackets were part of the military uniform during WWII. They were crafted to keep bomber pilots safe from extreme climate conditions at high altitudes. At this time, you wouldn't see anyone who was not serving in the military wearing a leather jacket. Production of these aviator jackets slowed down after the war.

How materials/making process has changed over the years

  • The first "bomber jacket" we mentioned above was made from sheepskin and had a very thick fleece lining to give the pilots optimal warmth. When leather jackets started making waves in the fashion industry, many designers turned to cowhide because it was more accessible and cheaper. However, antelope, buckskin, and lambskin were all among the first widely used materials during the early rounds of leather jacket productions.
  • The process of making leather has not changed a whole lot throughout the last century. Usually, the skin is removed from the animal at the meat processing plant, where it's refrigerated, and preserved. After, it's off to the tannery where the hides undergo a series of processes to soften the material and prevent it from decaying. In later years, some designers have pushed the boundaries even further, making leather jackets out of ostrich leather and crocodile skin.
  • The construction of leather jackets has changed more than the tanning process. With new advancements in technology, leather workers were able to sew the garments quicker with better sewing machines. This made it easier for manufacturers to produce more products, and eventually, mass production began to become widely used. The sewing process has come a long way. Today, most of the leather jackets you purchase in a store were made in a factory by machines. However, if you feel like a more personal touch, there are options, like buying a custom leather jacket. Custom leather jackets are hand made to order.
Leather jackets throughout the years

Leather jackets throughout the years

The 20s

  • In 1928, Irving Schott designed the first motorcycle jacket. He sold it for a mere $5.50 at a Harley Davidson store in NYC. It wasn't until years later that Schott became one of the most sought after leather jacket brands in America.

The 50s

  • Irving designed the cult leather jacket from the 1950s worn by Marlon Brando, who portrayed bad boy Johnny in "The Wild One." This jacket created a phenomenon among American men. Guys were lining up looking to buy a coat similar to their "cool guy" icon, Johnny.

The 60s

  • 1960 gives us style envy from Academy Award-winning actor Steve McQueen. Nicknamed, "The King of Cool," his leather jacket paired with aviator sunglasses quickly became the new "it" look of the decade.

The 70s

  • The 1970s was the "Happy Days" era. The 'Fonz' lived up to his cool-guy attitude, famously wearing his leather jacket on the show. The jacket Henry Winkler wore on the set is currently on display at the Smithsonian Institute.

The 80s

  • The 1980s were all about big hair, punk rock, pop-punk, and personal expression. Musical legends like Billy Idol, Blondie, and The Ramones would adorn their jackets with studs and safety pins. Fans were quick to buy their own leather jackets and decorate them like their favorite musicians, especially if they had the chance to catch them in a live show.

The 90s

  • In the 1990s, famous supermodels started wearing long black leather jackets that quickly became the trend of the decade for women. Men wore more baggy styles, and it was in the 90s when the somewhat controversial leather trench was born. Some men loved the look of the long sleek leather jacket while others felt like it was a bit of an overkill. That didn't stop the top boy bands of the decade from wearing them, though! The Backstreet Boys and *Nsync sported the long jackets through much of the late 90s.
Leather jacket a fashion statement

Leather jacket: a fashion statement or a safety measure?

Depending on why you chose to wear a leather jacket, it can be strictly for fashion reasons, or it can add an essential layer of protection to the body. There's a massive difference between the two. Leather jackets designed for protection are often worn by motorcyclists and tend to be heavier, thicker, and may even come with built-in armor. They are crafted solely for practicality, made for people engaging in what could be a dangerous activity, like motorcycle riding. You wouldn't see a construction worker without his hard hat or a fireman without his protective uniform. For motorcyclists, leather jackets are their safety equipment. Protective leather jackets usually are equipped with heavier zippers, higher collars, and are designed to be longer in the back to help protect the kidneys.

A leather jacket primarily designed for fashion will be much lighter and won't offer protection to the wearer. However, if you're not planning on burning rubber on a motorcycle, then you don't need that extra layer. Jackets made for fashion will still give you a feeling of warmth. Jackets that are made for everyday use give designers more wiggle room to use different fabrics and create new styles without having to worry about the wearer being protected.

PHYSICAL - The Admiral Moto

PHYSICAL - The Suede Double Rider

PHYSICAL - The Technical Bomber

Who wears leather jackets?

The thing we love most about leather jackets is that a diverse group of people wear them. From fashionistas, average Joes, doctors, to bikers, there are no limitations when it comes to leather jackets. Everyone has a different reason for wearing a leather jacket. A biker will wear it for protection while a fashionista will wear it to amp up their wardrobe. What's important here is that there are no limits when it comes to leather jackets. We all have different reasons for wearing them and loving them. Some men wear leather jackets because they like the look, some find them to be the most comfortable, and some say they feel the most confident when wearing a great leather jacket.

Leather jacket history

Final thoughts

Thanks for reading. Did you learn something, or did you already know the history of the leather jacket? Have you been thinking about purchasing your own? This article was a blast for me to write. As someone who loves fashion, the history of fashion has always intrigued me. I think it's fascinating how an item of clothing can tell such a story. I remember seeing a photo of Steve McQueen wearing a leather jacket with aviators from the 1960s and thinking how cool he looked. I went out and purchased my first pair of Ray-Bans shortly after. If you liked this read, please pass it along and let us know what you think about the history of leather jackets.

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