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This was in the ‘90s, just before high-end leather jackets became ubiquitous. My friend referred to the jacket as a kind of armor – she went to a middle school she hated, but the jacket kept her safe. In it, she looked like the girl lead in the John Waters films we both loved, or like Winona Ryder on the cover of a magazine. I was impossibly jealous. I wanted desperately to find my own jacket like hers.
Almost exactly a year ago, as the season turned into back-to-school, I decided to make a significant investment in a piece of clothing for the first time. I have always been wary of spending money on clothes, seeking out second-hand items or passable inexpensive imitations. But I decided it was time to purchase a piece of clothing from which would emerge not an upgraded wardrobe, but an entire upgraded life.
If this is perhaps an absurd expectation to put on a single purchase, it is also often what we want from clothes, no less than complete transformation. We imagine an item will launch us out of our inescapable banality into a better, cooler, more interesting self. With clothes, as every makeover sequence in a movie promises, we can escape ourselves. I considered other options, but ultimately there wasn’t any choice. It had to be a leather jacket, because it was a leather jacket that would finally make me cool. It would offer me a fully formed new identity, pre-made and irrefutable.
The leather jacket, in particular the biker jacket, is for many people this transformative item of clothing. Wearing a biker jacket promises that you get things done, that you’re not trying to impress anybody, even as the whole point of the jacket is look impressive. It promises action, moving beyond the restrictions of purely decorative clothing – the leather jacket carries in it the idea of escape and adventure, and promises to transform you into the kind of person capable of both. The jacket is a new, tougher, better skin.
The history of leather jackets progresses unavoidably along binary gender lines. Men’s jackets start from function – the "bomber jacket," the immediate inspiration for the jackets worn by movie stars in iconic photos from the 1950s, was a military garment, designed to protect pilots from falling out of planes. A version of the same jacket was marketed to civilian men in the 1920s, when Schott jackets cost $5.50. In the 1950s, male movie stars and musicians appropriated the jackets from motorcyclists and pilots, and then women re-appropriated it from them in the decades that followed.
Leather jackets on women in the ‘60s and ‘70s are images of rebellion. The jacket meant either sleeping with the boys or wanting to be one of them. It was a means of refusing femininity, and in many instances a signal of female queerness. The women’s leather jacket enters the world of fashion in the 1960s and ‘70s, but it stays firmly in specific demographics, symbolizing a particular identity – a wealthy straight woman in these eras would never have worn a biker jacket. It wasn’t until the 1990s, when it became part of the personal uniform for supermodels that the jacket joined mainstream fashion. Designers started making versions of the biker jacket tailored specifically for women. It no longer necessarily looked like one had borrowed it from a boyfriend who owned a motorcycle, and it no longer visually represented a rejection of femininity.
Somewhere between Debbie Harry and Cindy Crawford, the leather jacket transforms into an accessible symbol of cool. Cool often indicates gentrification and gentrification’s inherent violence. Much of what becomes cool begins its life as part of the codes necessitated by oppression. Cool is then a translation of these codes into the mainstream – the swagger that comes with cheating death is often a very strong look. The 1990s in particular was a high tide of gentrification, a time when the country mined the underprivileged corners it had left in the dark for successful mainstream aesthetics. In this era of gentrification, the leather jacket moves from a symbol of alternative identity to a symbol of generalized cool.
The outerwear brand The Arrivals was founded in 2014 by Jeff Johnson and Kal Vepuri. Johnson came from a career as an architect (Vepuri’s background is as an investor; he has also backed companies including Warby Parker and Reformation), and sought to bring the ideas of architecture to outerwear. The Arrivals quickly achieved popularity in particular for its leather pieces, biker jackets that at once perfectly call up the archetypal jackets of past decades and seem to be of a future era. Speaking about The Arrivals’ leather jackets, Johnson returned to ideas of subversion and of nostalgia. The subversion of these jackets again takes place within ideas of gender, and once again seeks to explode those ideas. The Arrivals’ designs are aggressively unisex – Johnson mentioned how some designs intended as men’s jackets are based on jackets originally made for women, while some of the brand’s jackets ostensibly made for men have proven most popular with female customers.
Nostalgia is even more apt. The leather jacket is always a quotation, perhaps more than any other single piece of clothing. We imagine ourselves into a black and white photo of James Dean crouched against a wall or Marlon Brando grinning around a cigarette, into the jacket that hangs off of Debbie Harry as she walks out of a show, into a gaggle of supermodels dodging paparazzi into the full bloom of the ‘90s. The jacket exists not just as a moveable piece in a wardrobe, but as a specific performance of toughness and desire, an invocation of any number of past eras and their extinct transgressions.
Veda’s offices on Canal Street, in a long, low second-floor showroom overlooking filthy subway stations and illegal sidewalk vendors, still feel a little bit like the old New York. Veda is a small independent clothing brand whose name, to some, is synonymous with the idea of the biker jacket. Veda’s jackets have a more particularly feminine edge, lush colors and flattering shapes rather than austere utility. Veda’s owner and creative director Lyndsey Butler spoke with me about Veda’s jackets, and emphasized both their femininity and their versatility. Their jackets are influenced by Harley-Davidson jackets – Butler triumphantly tells the story of finding a vintage Harley Davidson jacket that fits her perfectly, but then immediately stresses how rare this is — updated to be sleeker and more feminine, to welcome a broad range of aesthetics, jackets for wearing to the office and then out to drinks with friends.
When I set out to purchase my own jacket, I was looking for something that would act as the same kind of infallible style armor as a vintage Harley Davidson jacket. But instead of searching for a perfect vintage piece – a process demanding equal parts time, investment, and luck – I could buy it somewhere that specialized in providing exactly the piece of clothing of which I dreamed. The beat-up jacket that one would once throw on as a symbol of rebellion is now comparable to a high-end handbag, something to save up for and choose carefully. At Veda, Butler talked about designing pieces with this kind of buyer in mind. "I know that it’s a big purchase, people are spending a lot of money, and they want something that reflects that," she explained. "Styles change, but a black leather jacket, you can wear that for a long time, and if you’re not into it for a couple years, eventually you can come back to it and pick it up again. There are only a few other items like that — maybe a classic leather bag or a classic motorcycle boot."
For myself, I ended up choosing something more punk than not, made of heavy leather and modeled after traditional motorcycle jackets, with puffed-up sleeves and utilitarian details. It weighed five pounds and felt consequent in my hands. I felt beautiful in it, but not primarily – instead, it felt like armor. I still wanted to be defiant. I wanted to reach back to a past in which a woman in a leather jacket was refusing manners, class, and politeness. Or at least that was what I believed I wanted.
The night I bought the jacket, I had tickets to the opera. I threw it on over a fancy cocktail dress and ascended past people in gowns and fur coats at Lincoln Center. I thought this would feel subversive, the way it might have to wear a leather jacket to the opera twenty years ago, but instead I just felt like I fit in. The jacket had done what I had purchased it to do – it had transformed me so that my external image signaled fashionable. But more than that, it signaled money. The jacket was built in the shape of a traditional motorcycle jacket, but its lines were elegant and architectural, and it was made of flawlessly new, high-quality leather. It felt like wearing a new car. I didn’t stand out; I blended in with the people around me because what I was wearing was visibly expensive. The jacket had more in common with cocktail dress than with what someone riding a Harley Davidson might wear. I felt cool not because I was rebelling, but because I was acceptable. It is difficult to feel subversive in something that cost a week’s pay.
In Atlanta last year, my boyfriend and I wandered into a favorite thrift store and discovered a table piled high with biker jackets. The store’s proprietor, staggering under an armload of leather, let us know that a motorcycle club had just donated several lifetime’s worth of old gear. The jackets were at once a mess and gorgeous – puffy, protective shapes, weathered black and brown and declarative combinations of red, white, and blue. But when I tried on jacket after jacket, none looked right on me– they didn’t fit correctly, too large and masculine, too heavy and restrictive, turning my upper body into something reptilian and threatening. Perhaps I wanted the idea of the thing and not the thing itself — real vintage jackets didn’t convey the aesthetic I sought. This is how we approach so much in our nostalgia-soaked present moment. We praise the bad old days, the gritty realities, the black-and-white version of an old neighborhood, but what we actually want is the cleaner imitation that can be bought with money – all of the swagger and none of the experiences, the theme park version of the neighborhood but not the neighborhood itself.
And yet there’s more to it than that. The longer I wear my jacket, the less expensive it looks and the more I love it. It molds to my body, telling the story of a repetition of days. It acquires the smell of sweat and perfume and food and bars. It gets stained with my makeup and scratched from contact with the city into which I wear it like armor. Both Butler at Veda and Johnson at The Arrivals talked first and foremost about the leather jacket as singularly personal, an item that grows to resemble its wearer. "You get a new leather jacket," says Butler, "and at first you’re kind of precious about it, but then you get that first scratch or whatever and you’re like "all right, this is really mine now." With any leather I think it’s that cool kind of skin mentality, this kind of thing that grows around you."
Perhaps this has always been part of the transgressive, fetishized quality of the jacket: These garments become part of the architecture of our own bodies. Comic book superheroes wear a better version of their own skin as costumes, and perhaps that’s what the leather jacket offers, even in its current gentrified incarnation: A chance to transform ourselves by finding a new skin, one we get to choose for ourselves this time.
"I would say for someone purchasing their first-time leather jacket it’s always like this coming-of-age moment," Butler says. The leather jacket has become more glamorous than gritty. But glamour is a kind of armor, too. The origin of the word glamor comes from the idea of casting a spell to disguise oneself, beauty as a means of protection. The leather jacket is gentrified, but it still has the power to transform us, allowing us to step out into the world in a chosen skin.