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.
In short, you need one.
Men have been wearing hides and skins since our knuckles first stopped skimming the floor, but the leather jacket, as we know it today, first 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 the wearer from the elements and accidents. During World War II the flight jacket became known as the “bomber jacket” and was heavily insulated and prized for its warmth.
Between then and now, we’ve seen leather jackets everywhere from The Wild One to the Sex Pistols, Top Gun to Fight Club. It’s standard-issue for mavericks, scoundrels and sex symbols.
Today, the garment is likely to be one of the most expensive additions to your 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 London leather specialists 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.”
What you opt for depends on what you want from the jacket. If you want 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 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 or PVC, which will also appeal to those who want the look, but want to avoid using animal skins.
When you’re 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.”
The Key Leather Jacket Styles
Also known as the “Perfecto”, the biker jacket is a cropped leather jacket, usually in black, complete with studs and asymmetric zips. Often worn by motorcyclists, the asymmetric cut allows them to lean over their bikes without digging into the body.
The original jacket featured a cropped, 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 a youthful, edgy style, so wear it casually with slim jeans or smarten it up with work trousers. But always wear something lightweight underneath because this style should be cut close to the body.
This flight jacket is simple in shape and usually features a central zip, fitted waist and cuffs. It’s become a bona fide menswear staple in recent years, and you’ve probably got one in a different material, but soft, supple leather adds a luxurious touch.
In terms of styling, the bomber jacket is one of the most versatile outerwear silhouettes you can own, favoured on screen by everyone from Steve McQueen to Wolverine. It can take you from skinhead to Scandinavian chic, but the safest pairing is with denim and a simple white T-shirt or chambray shirt. You can also dress it up by replacing your suit jacket with one – just not at a wedding, obviously.
The field jacket is usually long, with multiple front pockets and belted at the waist. Usually buttoned with a hidden placket, this style 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, of Whatneildid.com. “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.”
This is a minimal, cropped style with front chest zips, a collar popper and sometimes coloured contrasting stripes down the arms or on the front. Also known as the “Cafe Racer” design, it went mainstream in 1960s England.
Soldiers returning home after World War II caught the bug for souping up pre-war motorbikes. They’d race them between local pubs and cafes, creating the need for a streamlined, minimalist leather racing jacket. Heavy horsehide and a strong main zipper added a certain level of protection for the boy racers.
“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’re of slight fame to [accentuate] what you don’t have.” This is an unfussy silhouette, so team with basics like jeans and plain T-shirts.
Arguably the daddy of all leather jackets. As the name suggests, it was created for pilots. Traditionally bulky with a sheepskin collar and/or lining, it often has straps across the neck and comes in brown leather with contrasting coloured sheepskin.
This is both a statement and an investment piece. It’s designed for warmth, so 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.
The Best Leather Jacket Brands
For over a century, four generations of the Schott family have 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.
Closing in on 100 years of heritage, 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.
Founded in 1994, AllSaints is well known for its leather jackets and offers a comprehensive high street selection. The brand’s signature style is a washed and slightly distressed finish in cropped modern styles such as bikers, bombers and even the odd blazer.
The colour palette is usually dark greys and blacks and complements the rest of its mainline collection. Expect soft, supple leathers, all cut slim with a hefty dose of rock ‘n’ roll attitude.
Named after 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.
Swedish mega-retailer H&M offer 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.
They currently have a “premium quality” real leather biker jacket with suede-detail notch lapels, along with an imitation leather biker with many of the same features for the cost of a night out. The range changes fairly frequently but the brand tends to stick with tried and tested styles.
In keeping with its signature tailored aesthetic, Reiss offers a range of well-cut, close-fitting leather jackets in slimline silhouettes like the bomber and racer.
Sitting at the premium end of the high street, the higher price tags tend to be matched by a better quality of leather and stronger finishes on the zips and buttons than you find elsewhere.
The Norton Motorcycle Company – formerly Norton Motors, Ltd. – 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.
Get your engines ready. You can practically smell the fumes with the leather jackets from this authentic biker label, established in 1892. (Lewis Leathers is the brand name of Britain’s oldest motorcycle clothing company, D. Lewis Ltd.)
The company supplied early aviators, motorists and motorcyclists with protective clothing against the cold and damp British climate. In the mid-1950s, D. Lewis 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.
Proudly made in East London, Grenfell has been making adventurer-grade outerwear since the 1920s. Its silhouettes have not changed much since then, and the brand has given a leather treatment to some of its best shapes.
A good example is the Golfer Jacket, which has been in the Grenfell collection since 1931 and is the original all-weather golf jacket. Made from nappa leather and fully reversible, it has a two-way zip, adjustable cuff and navy showerproof Grenfell cloth on the other side. An excellent heritage choice for anyone not seduced by motorcycle style.
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. Instead, use a specialist or do it 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. 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. Styles come and go, so opt for one of the classics above and you’ll wear it for longer.
Don’t: Wear It In The Rain
“This will result in the skin becoming dry and stiff,” says Clarke.
Do: Go Neutral
Stay away from anything too brightly coloured or shiny in order to get the most wear out of your jacket.
Don’t: Assume You Have To Buy New
If you can’t afford a new style, think about vintage. Look offline as the smell and condition can only really be understood in person.
Do: Store It Correctly
“Hang your jacket on a well-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 copy Neo’s style of coat (anything that ends lower than the top of your thighs, really) and you’ll look like a 1990s doorman at a bad nightclub.