The Essential Leather Jacket Guide
Few items of menswear come packaged with as much attitude, heritage or unfiltered masculinity as a leather jacket. Synonymous with punks and pilots, motorcycles and Marlon Brando, the leather jacket is high-testosterone menswear, but it’s also a surprisingly versatile classic. No well-edited wardrobe is complete without one.
Men have been wearing hides and skins since our knuckles stopped skimming the floor, but the leather jacket as we know it today came to prominence in the early 1900s. Brown leather flight jackets were worn by the early aviators and the military, most notably the German Air Force in World War I.
The first contemporary-looking style arrived in 1928. A Manhattan raincoat maker, Irving Schott, designed a motorcycle jacket for Harley Davidson. Dubbed the ‘Perfecto’, after his favourite cigar, this leather jacket was built to protect riders from the elements and accidents. During World War II the flight jacket became known as the bomber, and was prized for its warmth having been designed for wear in open cockpits.
Between then and now, leather jackets have appeared everywhere from in cult flick The Wild One to on the backs of the Sex Pistols. It’s standard-issue for mavericks, scoundrels and sex symbols.
Today, the garment is likely to be one of the most expensive additions to a wardrobe, so don’t be a rebel without a clue – make a shrewd purchase. If for no other reason, a good leather jacket is one of the few long-term relationships you’ll have in fashion. They’re built to last, age as you do and pair with more items than you might expect.
If you don’t consider Danny Zuko a style icon, that’s fine – there are other ways to wear it.
How Much Should I Pay For A Leather Jacket?
There are as many price points as there are jackets. Generally, you get what you pay for, but while in some cases you pay for the name, the price usually comes down to the quality and type of leather used.
“A good quality leather garment is often supple and soapy to the touch,” says Joslyn Clarke, head of design for heritage outerwear brand Grenfell. “Well-designed leather garments should not have unnecessary seams, but should look like a cloth garment in its seaming. Cheaply made leather garments will often have many seams to enable the maker to use as much of the skin as possible when the piece is being cut out.”
Which type of leather you opt for depends on what you want from the jacket. If after something buttery soft, prioritise calfskin or lambskin, but bear in mind that it may not be as durable as a thick biker-type hide.
For the very best quality (and steepest prices) you’ll need to look for ‘full grain’ leather jackets. These use the best quality hides and, due to its thickness, are rather stiff at first. They will take some breaking in, just like a good pair of Derby shoes, but you’ll be rewarded with a natural patina and a jacket that is unique to you.
If your budget is limited, ‘top grain’ leathers are more affordable. These have had the natural grain sanded off and been stamped to give the leather an even look. Cheaper still, you can get great leather alternatives such as polyurethane, which will also appeal to those who want the look, but want to avoid using animal skins.
When weighing up a jacket, don’t stop at the leather itself, says Clarke. “Check for the quality of zips and buttons. Zips should run very smoothly and freely while buttons will be made of natural materials like horn, mother of pearl and corozo. A cheaply made garment will rarely have high-quality trims.”
Key Leather Jacket Styles
The bad boy of the outerwear world, the biker is a cropped leather jacket, usually in black, complete with studs and asymmetric zips. Originally worn, unsurprisingly, by motorcyclists, the asymmetric cut was designed as such to allow riders to lean over their bikes without the fastenings digging into the body.
The earliest examples featured a snug fit with a D-pocket and lapels designed to snap down or fold over each other and zip all the way up. A rugged garment, honed from goatskin, cowhide or horsehide, this is the style worn by the likes of Marlon Brandon in the 1950s.
It’s largely a youthful, edgy style so is best worn with slim jeans, but it can (in the right office) be thrown over an Oxford shirt and knitted tie as a replacement for a blazer. Whichever you go for, always ensure whatever is underneath is lightweight, because this style should be cut close to the body.
One of the most underrated pieces of military menswear, the field jacket is a stone cold classic that was originally rendered in a cotton drill fabric, but has since been updated in leather.
The M-65, as it’s otherwise known, is usually slightly longer than other styles, with multiple front pockets and belted at the waist. Often buttoned with a hidden placket, it looks particularly good in rich brown leather and as it falls below the waist, it will keep you warmer and better shield you from the elements.
“This is the bread and butter of brands like Barbour and Belstaff,” says menswear blogger Neil Thornton, who has worked for leading department stores like Selfridges, Harvey Nichols and Harrods. “It’s the perfect winter style, even more so if you live in the countryside, styled with fitted jeans, a chunky knit and a classic pair of Chelsea boots.”
The OG flight jacket has become a bona fide menswear staple in its own right in recent years, and it’s not difficult to understand why.
Though consistent in its simple shape – a cropped body featuring a central zip and fitted waist and cuffs – it can be rendered in anything from shiny nylon to soft, supple leather.
One of the most versatile outerwear silhouettes a man can own, the bomber jacket has been favoured on screen by everyone from Steve McQueen to Hugh Jackman’s Wolverine. It can take its wearer from skinhead to Scandinavian chic, but the safest pairing is with raw denim and a simple white T-shirt or chambray shirt.
Aside from the military and sportswear, one of menswear’s biggest influences is the automotive world – driving shoes, ribbed-knee jeans et al. Bring the two together and wrap them in leather and what you have is the racer jacket.
On returning home from World War II, many soldiers caught the bug for souping-up pre-war motorbikes to be raced them between local pubs and cafes, creating the need for a streamlined, minimalist leather racing jacket. Heavy horsehide and a strong main zipper was deemed to provide enough protection for the boy racers, and by the 1960s the style otherwise known as the ‘Cafe Racer’ had gone mainstream.
“This one’s easy to wear and flatters the body,” says Thornton. “It’s great for showcasing broad shoulders, or you can opt for a thicker leather if you have more of a slight body shape to accentuate what you don’t have.”
Arguably the daddy of all leather jackets, as the name suggests, the flight jacket was originally created for pilots. Bulky, and with a shearling lining for warmth, today it’s a statement investment piece for both airmen and stylish civilians alike.
To stay cool in more ways than one, ensure you don’t go overboard with the layering. Keep it simple and contemporary with plain trousers and a light gauge knit or T-shirt. “Balance the weight of the jacket by making sure the rest of your outfit is slim-fit and tailored,” says Thornton.
If you’re worried that you’ll look like you’re on your way to a Blitz-themed fancy dress party, try an option without the sheepskin collar. That’s close to what Harrison Ford wore as Indiana Jones.
Faux Leather Jackets
Faux leather jackets: For all of its cool cred, a real leather jacket is not the most animal-friendly. So, if you’re passionately vegan but still want to tap into that failsafe rockstar vibe, then a faux leather jacket is an option.
Faux leather has an unfair but not wholly unwarranted reputation for looking cheap and shiny. The key then is to try before you buy in-store and see how the jacket looks with your own eyes instead of buying online. It also tends not to last as long as real leather and will be thinner which might work if you’re looking to just try the style out or for a slimmer fit than thick real leather which can sometimes drown the wearer.
The Best Leather Jacket Brands
A brand favoured by everyone from A-list actors to the Pope, Belstaff has been making motorcycle gear since the 1920s. While offering different styles of leather jackets, the British brand is perhaps best known for its long, belted styles.
Look for options that have been hand-waxed for an authentic worn-in feel that will ensure your jacket only gets better with age. It’s also a water-repellent treatment, meaning you shouldn’t be afraid to wear it in light rain.
Named after the village of Cromford in Derbyshire, the birthplace of the industrial revolution, this brand has been a specialist in leather, suede and shearling for over 45 years. Based on Marylebone’s Chiltern Street, it offers bespoke, made-to-measure and an alterations service alongside its own collection, all handmade in London.
Clients include celebrities and wardrobe designers for films, presumably seduced by the brand’s superlative crop of leathers, which are hand-picked from small tanneries around Europe.
For over a century, the Schott family has created authentic products in the USA. Irving Schott designed and produced the first leather motorcycle jacket for a Long Island Harley Davidson distributor. To this new generation of bikers, the Perfecto was a symbol of the excitement, adventure and danger.
This is the jacket Marlon Brando was wearing, perched on his motorcycle in The Wild One – and it’s said that James Dean was hardly seen without his. Throughout the 1970s and 1980s, the Perfecto was the uniform for rock stars like The Ramones, Blondie, Joan Jett and The Sex Pistols. It’s one of those rare designs that will always be cool, but the brand has also expanded its expertise to make high-quality racer and flight jackets, too.
Founded in 1994, AllSaints is well-known for its leather jackets, and offers one of the comprehensive selections on the high street. Ideal for those looking for a grunge look, the signature style here is a washed and slightly distressed finish in cropped modern styles such as bikers and bombers.
As is to be expected of a brand that designs with a hefty dose of rock ‘n’ roll attitude, expect soft, supple leathers, all cut slim in a palette of dark greys and blacks that complements the rest of the mainline collection.
Swedish mega-retailer H&M offers real and faux leather jackets at extremely keen prices. Buying high street means you can be more experimental, fashion-led and own more than one design without having to sell your car.
But it’s not just about basic styles, alongside imitation leather bikers for the cost of a night out, it also offers premium quality real leather jackets that still belie their price tag. The range changes fairly frequently but the brand tends to stick with tried and tested styles.
The Norton Motorcycle Company – formerly Norton Motors – is a British motorcycle marque, originally from Birmingham. It was founded in 1898 as a manufacturer of “fittings and parts for the two-wheel trade,” but the fashion side of the business is now Spanish-owned and produces a full range of motorcycle-inspired leather jackets that tap into the brand’s heritage.
Expect a mix of classic and contemporary styles, with its cafe racer styles – complete with contrast arm stripe – being the stand-out pieces.
The renaissance of Keanu Reeves hit a fever pitch when the seasoned thespian starred in a series of black and white ads for the luxury fashion house, Saint Laurent. Reeves, of course, looked majestic but the pics would have been nothing if not for the beautifully simple Saint Laurent leather jacket Reeves was sporting.
The black LJ has become a staple for the most rock and roll label in high fashion with a clean, minimalist design and an arena-ready slim cut, this is the leather jacket as shipped by Hollywood’s finest.
Offering high fashion takes for those with a high street budget, Zara is the affordable place to make a statement. Real leather jackets that tip just over the £100 mark, slot in with faux leather options that come in just under.
The range of styles is broad from straightforward bombers to eye-boggling puffer jackets, but the real stars this season are the chunky aviator jackets topped off with a gallant shearling collar.
King of the Scandi brands, Acne Studios kicks the minimalist cliche by favouring a more maximalist high fashion approach. This comes forth in its soft-like-butter Napa leather jackets from runway sized collars and an overload of metallic zips, to wholly unnecessary but undeniably elegant belted waists.
Fits at Acne are either oversized or cropped high and cut extremely tight around the shoulders. There’s no middle ground when you want to stand out.
Spanish high street giant Mango Man represents a more classic style than its edgier, slave-to-the-trends counterparts along the road. Expect sleek design then with subtle touches that don’t feel overcooked in a range of styles as you’d expect from a mass-appealing high street store.
Dusty brown shades offer an alternative to polished black, while the stand-out style is a straightforward biker jacket free from all those shiny, flashy zips and with a neat notched lapel pinched from tailoring.
Cult Japanese vintage brand Real McCoy’s is heavily influenced by ’50s and ’60s Americana, so when it comes to its world-class range of leather jackets think more Marlon Brando in 1953 classic The Wild One than anything crafted this century.
With the vintage style locked down, look out for exemplary touches from retro gold Talon zippers and a more eco-friendly vegetable tanning process to curved outer pocket stitching and a silky rayon lining.
In keeping with its signature tailored aesthetic, premium label Reiss offers a range of close-fitting leather jackets like the bomber and racer that are cut as well as its suits.
Sitting at the high end of the high street, the increased price tags tend to be matched by a better quality of leather and stronger finishes on the zips and buttons than you find elsewhere.
As the trading name of Britain’s oldest motorcycle clothing company, D. Lewis, you can practically smell the fumes with the leather jackets from this authentic biker label, established in 1892.
The firm supplied early aviators, motorists and motorcyclists with protective clothing against the cold and damp British climate. Then, in the mid-1950s, it produced the Bronx leather jacket, one of the first products aimed directly at the post-war teenage fashion market, which was widely adopted by the ton-up boys and rockers of the 1960s. We strongly advise you do the same.
The Dos And Don’ts Of Leather Jackets
Don’t: Use Your Local Dry Cleaner
“The results of professional cleaning are not always satisfactory and often changes the appearance and finish of the skin for the worse,” says Clarke, who suggests visiting a specialist or doing the dirty work yourself.
“Use a damp cloth or sponge with soapy water – no bleach – to wipe clean any marks, but try first in an area which will not be visible, e.g. inside hems or the underarm area. Then dry with a clean soft cloth.”
Do: Buy A Jacket That Suits
It’s imperative to find a jacket that feels comfortable and suits your image. Trend-led styles come and go, so opt for one of the classic shapes above and you’ll be able to wear it with more, for longer.
Don’t: Wear It In The Rain
“This will result in the skin becoming dry and stiff,” says Clarke. If you do, and your jacket hasn’t first been waterproofed, allow it to dry naturally away from hear, then follow up with a conditioner or leather renewal lotion to stop it from cracking.
Do: Go Neutral
As with most pieces hanging in your wardrobe, if you want to get the most wear out of a leather jacket, it pays to opt for black or, at a push, brown over anything too brightly coloured.
Don’t: Assume You Have To Buy New
If your wallet doesn’t stretch a new style, think about vintage. Here it pays to shop offline as the smell, condition and general fit are best examined in person.
Do: Store It Correctly
“Hang your jacket on a rounded or padded hanger. Leather draped over sharp shapes will stretch and mould to said shape,” says Clarke.
Don’t: Think You’re “The One”
The Matrix was a very stylish movie but try to cop Neo’s coat (anything that ends lower than the top of your thighs, really) and you’ll look like a 1990s doorman at a bad nightclub.