As with many pieces of clothing popularized as street fashion, the origins of the black leather jacket lie with the military. They were issued to German pilots in World War I, while German submarine crews, bomber pilots and members of the SS wore them in World War II. A seductive Marlene Dietrich immortalized the look for women in the film Dishonored (1931), starring as a secret agent – clad in black leather.
After the wars, the black leather jacket became the uniform of American policemen, selected for its resilience. As an emblem of toughness as well as for its protective qualities, it was taken up in the 1950s by bikers – often dissatisfied ex-servicemen – who congregated in gangs or at motorbike rallies and gained a reputation for violence and hard drinking. Their Perfecto or Bronx jackets, worn with jeans and white scarves, looked tough and proudly working class, in an era where respectable men wore suits. The few girls who dared to join the biker boys went for unisex leathers too. László Benedek’s film The Wild One (1953) chronicled this hedonistic yet intimidating group, casting the brooding Marlon Brando as the black-leather-clad lead.
Though Yves Saint Laurent dared to put a black leather jacket on the catwalk in 1960, it was Britain’s rockers who at that time made the jacket their own. Greasers, punks and heavy-metal fans all wore versions of the jacket, while in the United States it was taken up by members of the Black Power movement, the Black Panthers. Gay men wore leather clothing, including leather jackets, as a symbol of their sexual status – they were sometimes referred to as leathermen. Both Chanel and Versace later put the leather jacket on the catwalk and soon enough it became part of the respectable unisex street uniform of the 1980s, especially when combined with Levi’s jeans and Dr. Martens boots.
And the jacket, post 1960s, was not restricted to the original Perfecto biker style. A leather jacket could be tailored or bomber-style, long and sleek or short and cropped. Designers reinterpreted both classic and new shapes in leather, and did not restrict the colour to black. Textured skins such as suede, or leather with an ostrich or alligator finish, added a new exotic interest to classic styles. Leather was no longer a symbol of rebellion.