The Fashion Voyeur: Leather looks

Allison Farrand/Daily
LSA freshman Rachel Cullen tones down a cropped leather jacket with a basic t-shirt and combat boots. Buy this photo

By Adrienne Roberts, Editorial Page Editor
Published October 22, 2013

Leather jackets have gone through major changes — some, quite awful — throughout the past decades. I remember getting weird stares as I walked into my third grade classroom, unwillingly dressed by my mother in a stiff, blazer-shaped leather jacket. Since then, I’ve had the impression that leather either made you look like you’re in a motorcycle gang, a Sandy from "Grease" wannabe or an S&M-loving dominatrix. However, in the past few years, leather has become infinitely more feminine, wearable and mainstream.

Allison Farrand/Daily
LSA junior Chelsie Kastl lightens up a primarily black, leather look with a colorful printed scarf.
Allison Farrand/Daily
LSA junior Amanda Nanayakkara mixes printed jeans with a menswear shirt, black combat boots and a leather jacket.

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Leather has quite an interesting and varied history. The material first became popular for clothing during World War I, when leather jackets were created for practical reasons — to protect aviators from the elements when flying. Soon after, women were wearing leather leggings reminiscent of those worn by the men on the frontlines.

In the late 1950s, the Greaser subculture was born; a youth movement that became a popular expression of rebellion. In this time, leather jackets were seen as a fashion statement that meant you ignored laws and were therefore dangerous.

Leather finally made it onto the runway in 1960 when Dior’s 24-year-old haute couture designer, Yves Saint Laurent, showed leather jackets in their winter collection. He was soon fired after being heavily criticized that the jackets took away from the ladylike tradition of Dior. Leather jackets, at this point, were still considered “gritty streetwear.” However, Saint Laurent’s jackets were sleek, cropped and fur-lined — a huge departure from leather’s rebellious roots.

Leather jackets developed their BDSM associations in the 1970s as the Punk era developed in Britain. Vivienne Westwood, one of Britain’s most famous designers, had the goal of bringing the dark world of sex — including bondage and S&M — to the streets of London. When the Punk movement eventually became more mainstream, many people in Britain and the United States could be seen wearing leather jackets adorned with safety pins and duct tape. In this time, women were trying to make a feminist statement by wearing clothing that was traditionally seen as more masculine. For example, women would wear a pink tutu, but add fishnets, combat boots and a leather jacket to the outfit.

We're now seeing a combination of Punk influences with the more feminine leather jacket on the runways of designers like J. Mendel — a designer known for his ethereal and luxurious clothing, who dresses the very girly Taylor Swift. He showed a collection with many leather jackets. His collection was described as “biker chic.” Alexander Wang’s latest collection was inspired by female boxers, and his models wore fur trimmed leather jackets with his rendition of “boxing gloves.” Wang wanted his models to look powerful and intimidating, and his show even opened with the theme song of Rocky III, “Eye of the Tiger.”

This combination of feminine details and Punk inspiration translated over to the streets of Ann Arbor. Students are pairing black, cropped leather jackets with combat boots and menswear shirts. However, colorful scarves and delicately printed pants are added to these looks, toning down the biker influences of the jackets.

What we’ve seen in the past with leather jackets are extremes. Women either looked like subjects of dark, sexual fantasies or Harley Davidson biker chicks. Both looks, however, are not exactly something you can show up to class in. Now, leather jackets are much more versatile. I think, finally, that leather jackets have evolved into a powerful, statement-making piece without looking too sexualized or overly-rebellious.