From Functional to Fashionable: How the Leather Jacket became a Wardrobe Staple
Is there any other clothing item more timeless and iconic than a leather jacket? Every year, Slow Fashion Movement takes a deep dive into a specific part of the fashion industry. After covering denim and the classic t-shirt, this year we are focusing on the leather industry. If there is one material that has stood the test of time, it’s leather. As we will see, leather has been used for thousands of years for many different purposes. From shoes to furniture and book bindings, in this blog article we are taking you through a short history of leather to understand how it became a staple in the fashion industry.
Leather is also one of the most contested materials, despite being super durable, environmental issues and the impact of tanning leather on workers are popping up in the news. Not to mention, traditional leather is derived from animal skin, which doesn’t make it not an option for vegans. At Slow Fashion Movement (SFM), our goal is to empower you to make environmentally and socially conscious fashion choices. Through our #KnowYourLeather campaign, we hope to give you the tools to shop consciously in a way that aligns with your own fashion values!
When did we start to use leather?
Using animal skin dates back all the way to prehistoric times, when our ancestors used hides or animal pelts for clothing and shelter. It is believed that this was already done some 400,000 years ago! Leatherworking tools were confirmed to have been around in the Stone Age since at least 5,000 BCE. However, the first evidence of leather goods being worn by people was through a shoe found in Armenia in 3,500 BCE. Not quite the fashion statement compared to modern-day leather boots, but experts found its design “astonishingly modern.” Not only that, the shoe was extremely well preserved, showing how durable leather can be.
Humans from then on have discovered pretty quickly how useful leather is — and interestingly enough, it did not travel from one place to another, but evidence shows that leather has been used in every corner of the world, particularly for shoes and armor. Since then, leather has been used for all sorts of purposes, including book binding and furniture.
However, the Industrial Revolution changed the way in which we produced and consumed leather. It became much quicker and less expensive to produce leather, and the demand for leather arose from initiatives across different industries. Combined with the consumption of mass media in the past 100 years, the cult status of leather clothing as fashion statements such as the leather jacket and leather boots, were solidified.
Leather in North America
To look at how leather garments became so prominent in fashion we need to look a little closer at the history of leather in North America. Settlers in the Americas certainly were not the first ones to introduce leather to the continent. As leatherwork developed across the world in most places where humans lived, Indigenous communities in the Americas were no exception. They used leather and hides for clothing and shelter for thousands of years, notably buckskin, a leather derived from deerskin. When settlers arrived in North America, a variety of textiles were costly and not always available, making animal hides a convenient alternative, especially since deers were plentiful around them. In the 17th century, leather became a more and more popular choice for furniture, like sofas, and the first leather tannery was established in New England in 1623. By 1650, there were 51 tanneries in Massachusetts alone.
And if we think back about this time in the United States, chances are we’ll picture leather outfits, a big thanks to the Wild West and cowboys. One could even say it all started with a leather boot: the solution for settlers in the 19th century, when cattle drivers needed something durable. The first cowboy boot was allegedly made in 1863 by John A. Fry. No wonder we still picture cowboys dressed in leather! And to no one’s surprise, classic leather boots are making a comeback in recent women’s fashion.
Hollywood and Subcultures: Popularizing Leather as a Fashion Statement
Instagram and TikTok dictate a lot of what’s trending now in fashion, but back in the day Hollywood was the main source of visual inspiration to draw from. In the 1940’s and 1950’s, the Wild West genre became popular and Hollywood depicted men in the cowboy hats and leather boots that we all associate with cowboys. Hollywood actually took inspiration from looks that were only worn for a period in the 1890’s. In the following decades, this image remained, as seen in the ’80s movie Urban Cowboy starring John Travolta. The movie was so popular at the time that it kickstarted a pop-country movement, and a reboot is even in the making!
The Wild West wasn’t the only era Hollywood drew inspiration from. The 1950’s, at the same time when cowboy movies were a hit, saw the rise of biker culture. It was characterised by the leather jacket we all know and wear to this day. The first leather motorcycle jacket was made in 1928, by brothers Irving and Jack Schott. The military and aviation industries previously utilized leather jackets, however, it was the biker jacket that popularized it as a stylish garment. Even decades later, in the 1980’s hit Grease we see this edgy leather image. This was seen when Olivia Newton-John’s character Sandy’s transitioned from a well-behaved girl to a rebellious one was exemplified by her donning a leather jacket.
From the Beatles to the Ramones and Sex Pistols, the music industry also added to the jacket’s popularity, not to mention its rebellious image associated with rock and punk music. Debbie Harry of Blondie and Joan Jett were amongst the first women to wear leather jackets, mainstreaming the look for women. And while the 1950’s introduced leather garments as a fashion statement to a wide audience, the 1980’s solidified leather as a timeless place in fashion and created a cult status of the leather jacket. Many of us now own a leather jacket, whether bought new or vintage, or even found in our parents’ closet. To this day, even designer fashion houses are inspired by leather and the subcultures attached to it, as seen in the Fall 2021 haute couture season.
The Future of Leather
Leather has been around for a huge part of modern civilization — for practical, but also for fashionable reasons. We’ve relied on it for thousands of years for warmth and protection, and for objects like books, musical instruments and furniture. It’s no surprise that we still rely on leather. The status of leather in popular culture and various subcultures, combined with our increased consumption of fashion, also tells us that leather is not going anywhere anytime soon. That is not to say leather will always be the same. As environmental impacts of the production of leather are becoming more well-known and questions of ethics arise, it opens op questions of where the industry is heading.
But it also opens up possibilities! Through innovation, leather alternatives are made from sustainable materials, which include fruit waste. Next week on the blog, we will do a deep dive into the process of tanning leather. Join Slow Fashion Movement to continue making informed shopping decisions and to meet like-minded individuals creating a better fashion industry for the earth and people!
Written by Claudia van Dijk
Claudia is a slow fashion enthusiast based in Brussels, Belgium. During her studies she became increasingly interested in fashion and the Sustainable Development Goals and decided to combine the two topics for her Masters thesis. Nowadays, she channels her passion for writing into blog posts for Slow Fashion Movement.