WORLD OF LEATHER
Morning style maniacs. Have got a story in The Sunday Times Style today. Its an edit of the piece below. This is the Style&Error version, with all the bits about semiotics left in, which is after all what the piece is really about. Also the right pictures of men in leather too. Let me know if prefer it. Actually, its a bit long for a blog post perhaps. N.B. Other post are far shorter.
WORLD OF LEATHER & THE AGES OF MAN
‘White hat good, black hat bad’ outfit code in early Westerns is a prime example style semiotics. Tricky to work into an outfit for Champions League down the pub or a first date however. Equally significant emblems are far easier to harness. In the realm of stylistic symbolism there’s no more potent a performer than the leather jacket.
Drenched in semiotics they channel all kinds of messages. A whole cast of options is offered in this major outwear player. Would-be leather-boys should exercise caution on the type they choose however, particularly age-concern. While you’re feeling proper Tony Manero bowling in your burgundy bomber, everyone else is seeing mutton dressed as spam down the meat raffle, mid-life crisis pending. So do be mindful of what and who you’re tapping into before you get your leather on.
“Hey Johnny, what are you rebelling against?” asked Mildred of Brando’s character in 1953’s cult film The Wild One. “Whadda ya got?” came the flippant reply. With his leather clad-sneer a cornerstone of rebel attitude was laid. Johnny was young and didn’t give a monkeys, except perhaps about freedom, his Triumph motorbike and his Schott Perfecto jacket. Other film action also firmly placed black bikers jackets at the young end of the leather spectrum. The menace this style emits comes from before the Fifties though. The black shiny leather that the Nazis used for their uniforms, was one of most terrifying sartorial marques of the 20th century. They pinched the idea of leather for status military garb from the Romans. The fearsome overtone has stayed entrenched in the material and echoes within the biker design. The format is like a shortened military coat with turn back lapels and epaulettes, etched with metal zips instead of buttons. When cropped to a waist skimming length the thing becomes full-on agro-chic. Wearing a biker jackets doesn’t make you a Nazi, or a pagan, but it does cast you as a brooding rebel. Be careful you’re not evoking ‘Rebel without a hair-line’ or ‘The Wide One’ if you’re not quite the angry young man you once were.
Naturally the biker was misappropriated by other attitude merchants, chiefly rock’n’rollers. Lou Reed, The Ramones, The Clash, The Pistols and Jim Morrison are all notable examples. The Beatles wore quite little leathers at the beginning too. Perfecto leathers like Brando’s or James Deans are a generous fit compared with tighter ones that evolved, often with less detailing. These sheath-like models have added bondage qualities and are the youngest leather-age setting, pretty much for youths and early twenty-year olds. Step away from any black biker-style past 29, unless you are an actual biker. Brando was that age when he played Johnny Boy, but he’s an ultra-sexualised masculine exception. Ditto Elvis in his Comeback Special look. Mortals simply must heed the mutton factor.
Simple brown leather zip jackets worn by Americans flyers in World War II are less youth skewed. They’re the low-key simmer-er of leather world. They’re still cool and represent masculine can-do presence, but the paired-down finish and natural colouring means you can wear them up to about thirty-five, maybe more. US Airmen strutting about, getting English girls all excited during the war no-doubt enhanced their allure. Screen references include McQueen in the Great Escape, DiCaprio in Inception/The Departed, and even big Tony Soprano. They’re not as overtly macho as other leathers, and can almost operate in a David Niven officer-ly fashion. From dark chocolate through to caramel, there’s still a sheen to the leather channeling some racy essence.
If you fancy smooth leather sheen, but want smarter or structured action consider tailored styles. Almost Beatnik and pea-coat options carry an ‘Outsider’ tag, but aren’t so rough-and-ready. They’re a thinking man’s leather, a creative’s choice . Andy Warhol, Lou Reed again, (while in The Velvet Underground), Johnny Boy in Mean Streets (Di Nero’s first screen role- not exactly a thinking part) and Joe Orton all favoured this look. Cut off point as late as 40ish if you’re holding most faculties together. A looser, more engulfing leather coat that in some quarters is referred to as a ‘Smother’, can go older still, as long as you’ve got the necessary presence to carry it off. Rich browns are easier, like Johnny Depp’s in Donnie Brasco. Black only works if you’re game enough, for example Vinnie Jones’s Lock Stock stance. Haggard facial features/two-day stubble functions well here, however beware ‘Victorian refuse operative’ alert. Get this look wrong (too scruffy/too vintage/too haggard) and find ‘self in ‘Rag-and-Bone’ territory, less Brasco, more Steptoe.
An antiquated and generally battered style works well in the belted, four pocket motorbike style that is synonymous with the brand Belstaff. Interestingly, Barbour were the original and leading British motorbike jacket manufacturers of this style back in the Thirties. Will Smith , Russell Brand and Ewan McGregor are perpetually dropping this look, but is definitely wearable by older men. Note. Approximately two thirds of all London photographers/record company executives over 40 do. Best apply personal judgment in this instance.
A subgroup we could call ‘designer hybrids’ can still work on middle-age style fans done correctly. Paired-down, streamlined bombers with clean lines and subtle details can be an ideal medium for designers to show case specialised treatments, materials or finishes. It’s sort of stealth-lux. Important to get a decent one if you’re past thirty, or look fails. Some are remarkable soft to touch or artfully tanned affairs, but do not shriek their presence. If executed convincingly enough, older fellas can get away with this look, but need to be styled appropriately zeitgeist-savvy to work. Think slim chukka boots maybe, low-key dark knit, dark jeans, no plunging v’s, no gothic jewelry, tats or piercings and you may just slip under the leather-age radar.
Suede bikers adaptations do seem to up the age on consent further still. Or nubuck and sheepskin. Maybe it’s a skin thing; tired flesh looks less so against matt textures. Thus suede is a good way in for older hide enthusiasts. With is matt finish in suede, even in bomber format, you can go to about 45 without looking like the composite ‘crisis-pillock’. Take Daniel Craig who’s often seen in little suede jacket and jeans. He does suede and sheepskins bombers/flyers all the time, and he’s reasonably craggy and old. Make sure your denim is up to date/narrow or the whole thing folds, but it is certainly do-able.
If you’re past fifty perhaps consider more generously cut blouson styles. The story is refined luxury leisure, frequently deployed by Michael Caine, George Clooney and Joe Pesci, all massive real life blouson fanatics. Leather and suede versions both work. These pieces co-exist in Mob-Boss-casual territory simultaneously with ‘Mike Reid opens new golf club pavilion in Croydon’ vibe. Its vintage-alpha refined styling, not to be harnessed without a resonant presence. One minute you’re telling stories at the bar with Bob Hoskins* and Dennis Waterman, the next you’ve had a turn and are on your knees in the car park like Uncle Junior on day release. Do go steady with this stance, but blousons look great with a neat slack, a roll neck and a serious gold watch.
Whichever role you elect to cast yourself in, your leather vote says something quite important about its wearer. Do consider this un-ignorable set of style ciphers drawn from film and pop-culture. There’s almost no such things as just a leather jacket, each one coming with its own subconscious screenplay. Make sure the wardrobe department pays close attention to what the casting director has available for this particular production, even if it is only a relatively low budget picture with a niche interest audience.
* who incidentally favours a grey leather blouson. See also Holly Johnson in Relax (Dont Do It).