Leather jackets occupy a unique place in fashion history. They’re one of the few items of clothing that almost never go out of style, even though they do experience phases in their popularity.
This is partly because of the special place leather jackets occupy in popular culture, particularly in films. If you’re wondering how the leather jacket became so cool, here’s a quick introduction.
The history of the leather jacket
Leather jackets are commonly thought to have been popularised by the military and pilots in the early 20th century. Indeed, some of the most iconic images of leather jackets are from World War Two, when they were nicknamed "bomber jackets" since they were worn by fighter pilots. During the war, leather jackets were reinforced with thick insulation, to protect pilots from cold weather while flying. However, leather jackets were also said to be popular in Russia with the Bolsheviks, and the exact origins are often disputed.
The popularity of leather jackets in the immediate post-war period is often attributed to a combination of their wartime importance and their appearance on film. David Niven, for instance, glamorously sported a bomber jacket in the film A Matter of Life and Death (1946), in which he played a RAF pilot. Actor Jimmy Stewart – a real-life US bomb squadron leader during the war – also wore one in the 1957 film Night Passage, as did Marlon Brando in The Wild One (1953).
But the most famous wearer of leather biker jackets in the 1950s was James Dean. His iconic turns in films like Rebel Without a Cause, coupled with his tragic death, only helped to boost the stylishness of the fashion item.
Leather jackets after the 1950s
Punk bands like the Ramones kept leather jackets fresh in the 1970s, as did films like Grease and the TV series Happy Days. And Tom Cruise’s fleece-collared leather jacket in Top Gun sparked a new trend in the 1980s. Leather jackets are still popular today, though they have largely lost the associations with the military. And since they are generally quite warm, leather jackets have become a practical choice as well as a stylish one with many people across the UK.
Traditionally, leather jackets are made from animal hide. Today, leather jackets may be made from this material, but are more likely to consist of an imitation material like PVC or polyurethane. As a result, they’re usually vegan friendly and often cheaper than those made from real animal hide.