Like many wardrobe staples, what we’ve come to know as the quintessential leather jacket was born out of functionality, when they were created for aviators in the First World War. The first leather flight jackets were bulky, often featuring shearling-lined collars and lapels to protect pilots from the elements. Since, the leather jacket has become as essential in fashion as the little black dress, abandoning its more practical uses in favor of a sartorial importance fueled by pop culture and the evolution of trends.
Outerwear designer Irving Schott and his brother Jack created the iconic Perfecto style in 1928. The Perfecto was cut in thick leather, and featured wide snap-buttoned lapels and heavy zippers, making it durable enough to protect motorcyclists in the event of an accident,. It quickly became a popular choice among the biker gangs of the 1930s, and soon the Perfecto became as infamous as the bikers who wore it, gaining a reputation through brands like Harley Davidson, the jacket’s first distributor. It wasn’t long before the leather jacket, and the Perfecto style in particular, was immortalized via Hollywood’s influence. Marlon Brando’s Perfecto from The Wild One became the ultimate symbol of bad-boy notoriety.
The Greaser subculture was born in the late 1950s – mostly-American countercultural groups fueled by teenage angst rebelled against just about everything. They adopted the leather jacket as a kind of social signifier that identified them as “outside the law.” Rebellion and the leather jacket were soon ineluctably intertwined: the Punk era of the 1970s erupted with anti-establishment sentiments and a desire for individual freedom, expressed in part through patch-covered leather jackets.
Yves Saint Laurent was the first to show a Perfecto-inspired jacket on the runway in 1960. That period also saw a sleeker distillation of the prototypical American biker look. In Britain, the Mods sported leather jackets, but unlike their biker cousins across the pond, mod boys and girls rode Mopeds, and sported trim silhouettes and clean, cropped cuts. For the first time, the leather jacket became a uniform for girls as well.
The 1980s saw the birth of the Grunge movement, and the decade saw cropped, oversized leather jackets gaining popularity. By the end of the 80s, the leather jacket was appearing on the runways of labels like Versace and Chanel. Contemporary leather jackets showcase a slimmer, more tailored silhouette in line with the refined aesthetic of modern outerwear. Current styles remain true to the jacket’s classic look or offer interest through bold use of color or contrasting textures, as seen on the Spring 13 runways of designers like Phillip Lim, Balmain, Saint Laurent, Rick Owens, and Alexander McQueen.