Some months ago I decided to buy my first leather jacket. I figured it would be a good investment: I’d look cool and be warm in winter. However, the monstrosity currently hanging in my wardrobe was a terrible buy. It is ill fitting and looks terrible whether it’s buttoned or unbuttoned. I paid far too much for it and, far from feeling hip or stylish, I feel horribly ashamed every time I wear it. But there is an upside. It is warm in winter.
It’s slightly embarrassing to admit you’ve been vanquished by an item of clothing. Why should I feel so powerless in the face of aesthetic decisions and consumer activities I ostensibly control? After all, it’s not as if I was forced to buy it. But leather jackets are what consumer behaviourists call ‘high involvement’ purchases. For a start, they’re expensive, so there’s pressure to ‘get it right’ when buying one. The marketing term ‘post-purchase dissonance’ describes that sinking feeling of having ‘got it wrong’ and wasted pots of money.
Leather jackets also carry layers of symbolic meaning accumulated through their various appearances in popular culture. Furthermore, their inescapably animalistic, tactile nature makes them very intimate and emotionally charged to wear. This all adds up to a kind of mental smokescreen for the potential buyer, clouding any rational attempts to weigh features and benefits. As I discovered, it also makes buying the wrong leather jacket seem like a misjudgement of someone’s character … or even a flaw in your own.
While consumer behavioural theory imagines shopping as a process of uncanny orderliness, many commentators, in the academy and the popular press, depict clothes shoppers as disorderly. ‘Maxing out’ their funds on emotionally charged ‘retail therapy’ and forming frenzied scrums during sale time, shoppers are unable to explain their attachment to fashion’s arbitrary dictates, accepting without question that trends are there to be adopted. Some media narratives even suggest that using shopping to realise an ‘ideal self’ is immorally narcissistic, since it necessarily involves the exploitation of workers and the environment.
I would argue that leather jackets are simultaneously ordered and disorderly purchases. So in this essay, I try to pin down some of the ideas swirling diaphanously about leather jackets by retracing the steps of my ill-fated purchase. Which of the leather jacket’s many connotations spoke most to me? What did I notice about the leather jackets I saw other people wear? And what version of myself did I hope to present in my new jacket? What follows is deliberately peripatetic: I wander past the same ideas in different ways, much as a shopper might return to several shops again and again to re-evaluate each different potential buy in the context of the others. Perhaps this might help us gain some purchase, so to speak, on how shopping responds to cultural imperatives and moulds individual identities.
Rebellion and Intimacy: Leather-clad Transformation
At the beginning of the twentieth century, the leather jacket was a practical, protective garment for motorists, aviators, police and the military. This lent it connotations of both adventure and intimidation, and that play between freedom and constraint lies at the heart of the leather jacket’s subsequent iconic status within subcultures and wider popular culture. Indiana Jones wears an intrepid explorer’s battered brown jacket, while the Nazis and Communists who would subdue him wear structured, disciplined leathers. The 1970s jackets worn by the Black Panthers and early Crips gang members collapse the duality, making their wearers appear simultaneously anarchic and threatening.
The image of the leather-clad rebel, which vroomed into the popular imagination in the form of motorbike-straddling Marlon Brando in The Wild One, marries the freedom of the open road with the menace of the outlaw. While motorcycle clubs had existed throughout the twentieth century, the early outlaw biker gangs were comprised of World War II veterans whose experiences of wartime horrors alienated them from the comfortable materialism of postwar America. They transposed many military traditions, such as camaraderie, gallows humour and group iconography, to their newly founded motorcycle clubs. For instance, several squadrons and military units in both world wars had been known as the Hells Angels, with distinctive logos that members proudly displayed on aircraft, banners and tattoos. There’s a similar slippage between the leather aviator jacket and the motorcycle jacket, which took on a talismanic role among outlaw bikers, displaying their allegiance via embroidered logos and patches.
Leather also has a long history in fetish wear. The styles of leather clothing used in bondage, discipline and sadomasochistic sexual practices draw largely from underground homosexual ‘leatherman’ culture. With their emphasis on ultra-visible ultra-masculinity, postwar leathermen considered themselves outlaws from both straight culture and gay culture, which at the time emphasised either ‘passing’ as heterosexual or a flamboyant sense of camp. Early gay leather clubs operated similarly to outlaw motorcycle gangs, adopting similar clothing and iconography, and many of them became outlets for exploring kinky sexual practices. BDSM practices added a sexual frisson to the tension between freedom and constraint that leather had already connoted. But leather is a good symbolic fit in these cultures for another reason: as animal skin, it covers (and strategically reveals) human skin, while mimetically suggesting another kind of nakedness. Fetish magazine Skin Two is named after the notion that fetish wear forms a second skin: it creates another way of experiencing one’s own body and of admiring the bodies of others, in which the fetish garment is integral to aesthetic and corporeal pleasure. In tight-laced corseting subcultures, for instance, the fetishised garment itself creates the body, and the sense of self, that is being celebrated.
Unlike most leather fetish wear, leather jackets are not worn next to the skin. Instead, they act as protective outer garments, carapaces against real and symbolic onslaughts. Yet they are still strangely intimate. For a start, they mould to their wearers’ shapes, creasing or stretching to accommodate their movements. But you don’t just wear a leather jacket; you also surrender to its wealth of sensation and weight of cultural meaning so that, in a way, it wears you. You and your jacket share stories and adventures, as well as being a source of spectacle and speculation for onlookers. In the minds of strangers and casual acquaintances, you become inextricably linked with the jacket. You become a Leather Jacket Person.
Popular culture also views leather jackets as catalysts for transformation—perhaps because they’re animal skins. There’s a wealth of European folktales in which humans are cursed to take animal form, requiring specific conditions to reveal their ‘true’ selves. Other tales feature animal skins worn as disguise or penance that ultimately bring their wearers status and happiness. In the French fairytale Donkeyskin, a princess in exile disguises herself in the skin of her father’s prized magical donkey to work as a scullery maid. The story is propelled forwards by the strategic donning and doffing of the skin. Meanwhile in the German tale Bearskin, a desperate soldier makes a pact with the devil to wear the skin of a bear for seven years, and ultimately marries the only one of three sisters who can stand the sight of him. In these and many variants, the animal skin symbolises the same tension between freedom and constraint, revelation and concealment, that the contemporary leather jacket dramatises.
As well as continuing to mine the rich iconography of rebellion, leather jackets in contemporary cinema act as a metaphor for realities and bodies in flux. The Matrix trilogy contrasts the weird homespun T-shirts worn in the ‘real world’ outside the Matrix with the severe, stylised black leather trench coats worn to fight inside it. The subtly different repertoire of blood-red leather jackets sported by the charismatic Tyler Durden underscores the growing surreality of Fight Club. Fresh as a daisy from her coma, the Bride in Kill Bill slays her enemies in a cheery yellow leather motorcycle jacket. Distressed mutant Wolverine favours distressed brown leather in X-Men; while a cyborg assassin’s acquisition of clothing from a leatherman of convenient Arnold Schwarzenegger proportions has become one of the Terminator franchise’s key motifs. In my everyday world, unthreatened by mutants, devils, psychopaths or killer robots, how was a leather jacket going to transform me? Back in the mid 1990s, I had been that most gormless of Leather Jacket People: the Teenage Wearer of Dad’s Old Leather Jacket. Like many a teenager before me, I thought myself mighty tuff and groovy as I strutted through the mall, but it never really left the realm of dress-ups. I don’t think I ever really felt transformed by those jackets, and I certainly had never craved another one. That’s what made my sudden decision to buy one so odd: I saw a rack of variously styled jackets in a chain store, and thought to myself that (in marketing parlance) it was a low-involvement purchase. The price was low enough for me to cut my losses if I chose poorly.
But still the choice lay ahead: which of the available styles to pick? It took me a week or two of musing, discussing leather jackets with my friends and observing leather-clad strangers on the street to negotiate this semiotic minefield. I longed for a leather jacket, a chrysalis: an unformed and symbolically ‘clean’ garment that would incubate a fresher and more glamorous version of myself. But from the range of garments I could see in the shops and in public, it seemed I must allow the leather jacket to ‘wear me’; to mould me in the image of other Leather Jacket Wearers. The Sleek Bourgie, with softly gleaming leather in a conservative cut. The Rock God, with retro-style blazer. The battered, baggy blouson of the Scruffy Academic. The fitted, cropped, hooded bomber jacket of the Insouciant Hipster. The Quirky Matron’s deliberately wacky coloured leather. The motorcycle-style Clubbing Doofus, with flashy, contrasting racing trim. The IT Goth’s ankle-length trench coat. Ultimately, I bought the least iconic style in the store. Hip-length, with a Peter Pan collar and puffed sleeves, its overt girliness offset the toughness of the black leather, maintaining the leather jacket’s essential tensions while refusing the weight of its accumulated cultural connotations. In this jacket, I felt, I could be myself. I was wrong.
Luxury and Glamour: Leather-clad Fetishism
Sharon Zukin’s 2005 book Point of Purchase: How Shopping Changed American Culture devotes a chapter to following a 29-year-old New Yorker, Cindy, on her quest for ‘the perfect pair of leather pants’. Over an entire year of combing department stores, upscale designer stores, small, hip boutiques, high-street chains and, finally, discount leathergoods merchants, Cindy refuses to compromise her vision of the high-waisted, straight-legged pants she wants. This makes the going tough—at the time, fashion favours low-waisted flares. The leather-jacket buyer faces the same dilemma as Cindy. Despite their expense, leather jackets are still fashion items. They might fall hopelessly out of style before their owners have worn them enough to justify their cost. One way to circumvent this dreaded dagginess is by purchasing a ‘classic’ style that won’t date as quickly. ‘Leather is such a classic thing,’ insists Cindy. Zukin initially treats this pronouncement with scepticism:
When I was her age, in my late twenties, I never thought that leather pants were classical. In those years, if you wore leather pants, especially black pants, people thought you were some sort of a sexual fetishist—or, at the very least, that you didn’t mind being stared at for flaunting a well-honed pair of thighs. Recently, however, leather pants have changed their image. If you wear them with a cashmere turtleneck and a houndstooth jacket, they look simple, rich, and casual. They represent the ‘classic’ American sense of comfort with a materially satisfying life. (pp. 89–90)
Leaving aside the somewhat alarming sartorial spectacle conjured by Zukin, she does open some interesting possibilities by invoking leather’s connotations of material satisfaction and success. What Cindy (and Zukin) really means by ‘classic’ is ‘luxurious’ and ‘glamorous’. Luxury involves an object or experience that isn’t a necessity, but is intended only to bring pleasure, ease or comfort. Expense can make a leather jacket extravagant, but the way it delights the senses is what makes it luxurious. It’s quite marvellous to consider that a purely utilitarian garment intended only to encase the body can also provide intense corporeal pleasure. Leather jackets feel wonderfully soft and supple to the touch; their scent is unmistakable and their subtle sheen echoes the sleekness of a well-fed, happy animal. Leather is casual, too, because luxury is a feeling of leisure. As Gwen Stefani sings in ‘Luxurious’:
Working so hard every night and day And now we get the pay back Trying so hard, saving up the paper Now we get to lay back
Here, luxurious things are simultaneously enabled by labour and relief from labour; they are inextricably linked with languid enjoyment and freedom from economic considerations. In this way, working enables the consumer to afford a leather jacket, which then casually advertises that its wearer doesn’t need to work.
Glamour, meanwhile, has a contemporary meaning of mystery and allure, but in its original sense from the Scottish gramarye, glamour meant ‘magic, enchantment’. In a pithy 1998 essay entitled ‘Fetishizing the fetish’, American sociologist Matt Wray argues that the attribution of some kind of magical power to a particular object is the most primitive and still most powerful meaning of fetishisation. It’s this magic we invoke when we speak of finding ‘the perfect’ iteration of some garment that will somehow invest us with glamour. Cindy’s obsessive, drawn-out search fetishises the leather pants she seeks, but the sex-fetish connotations of leather are a red herring here. Rather, Cindy’s mythologised leather pants act as a receptacle for her dreams of being glamorous.
I wanted the luxury of a leather jacket that was pleasurable to wear, and in a dim, non-specific way I hoped it would enable me to become more glamorous. But I had never imagined this luxury and glamour to inhere in a particular ‘perfect’ leather jacket. With relative pragmatism I’d simply selected from the contents of a single shop, telling myself that it would be all right if it turned out to be a bad buy, because I hadn’t invested too much of myself (or my money) in the purchase. But it turned out I was implicated, whether I liked it or not.
Wray argues that the media focus on the psycho-sexual dimension of fetishism has come to crowd out other ways of conceptualising the fetish—especially Karl Marx’s critique of commodity fetishism. Whether it’s because of the increased visibility of sex in official discourse, the cultural influence of psychoanalysis or the individualism that leads us to turn our erotic gaze on ourselves, he writes, holding up consumer goods as the solutions to our problems makes us ‘lose sight of and forget the processes of exploitative production which create commodities in the first place’.
I still cringe when I remember the first time I wore my new leather jacket. At a friend’s birthday party, I was chatting with Nathan, an acquaintance who runs an independent fashion label. Appraised by his industry-savvy eyes, I felt naked … but not in the intimate sense of feeling comfortable in my ‘second skin’. Rather, Nathan seemed instantly to recognise the scope of the disaster: the jacket’s poor fit, low-quality leather, and design that, he noted, was a rip-off of some more reputable label whose name I instantly forgot in my shame. As I turned away, crestfallen, Nathan tapped me on the shoulder and pointed out that I had forgotten to remove the protective tissue paper covering from two buttons on the back of the jacket. This is an act of fashion illiteracy right up there with not realising you can remove the ‘Wool/Cashmere Blend’ label on the sleeve of your new winter coat. Nathan made some throwaway remark about how it was important to give the kids in the Chinese factory something to do, and I felt like the worst kind of schmuck. I had squandered the indentured labour of Chinese teenagers on this.
Now my mistake had dawned on me, I re-enacted the purchase over and over in my head like some recurring nightmare. The insufficiency of my leather jacket had left conceptual room for that mythic ‘perfect’ jacket that I could still buy; this was retroactive fetishising. Eventually, I slunk back to the shop where I’d bought it, the offending jacket rolled into a ball and tucked under my arm so nobody could spot its telltale resemblance to its fellows on the racks. I’d bought my jacket on sale and considered it a bargain. But when I entered the shop, to my horror I noticed it had been reduced to half the price I paid.
In a frenzy of post-purchase dissonance, I contemplated buying the damn thing over again, getting it right this time. I tried on another jacket one size smaller. Yes, it did fit better. My jacket was still new enough to return to the shop. I could totally do this. But then a sick, heavy feeling of self-loathing seized me. What was the point? It seemed obscene to get so worked up over what was ultimately an unnecessary luxury. In Point of Purchase, Zukin writes that the shopper’s sense of shame surrounding their narcissistic quest is a gendered self-loathing:
The more sophisticated and self-aware we [women] are, the more we try to distance ourselves from our urges for commodities—or even to laugh ironically about them. Deep within our belief in sexual equality lurks a severe distrust of our aesthetic urges—our unworthy urges for goods. (p. 91)
It’s not as if women are the only ones to make ill-judged purchases. (My dad recently bought an electric warehouse pallet stacker. As far as I know, he doesn’t spend time in anything resembling a warehouse.) But a female consumer must bear the moral as well as the intellectual weight of her buyer behaviour, struggling against the ‘commonsensical’ idea that her shopping is irrational and emotional. Yet the more she attempts to evaluate and justify her purchases, the more obsessive and fetishistic her behaviour seems. When purchase decisions fail, a woman is more likely to blame herself—and if her leather jacket was a bad purchase, she, by extension, is a Bad Leather Jacket Person.
Like a fairytale prince punished for hubris by being transformed into a hideous beast, I wear my leather jacket almost every day. But as I constantly remind myself, all is not lost. It’s cold outside. My jacket is warm in winter.