Sorry, you need to enable JavaScript to visit this website.

Why we all submit to leather

Why we all submit to leather

Evocative of both the authoritarian state and the rebel cause, leather is a material that evokes both freedom and restraint

Evocative of both the authoritarian state and the rebel cause, leather is a material that evokes both freedom and restraint

Matthew Sweet | April/May 2020

Some fashion materials are civilised. Not leather. Leather is prehistoric, ancestral. It is torn from the flanks of beasts and laid over ours, as if we hoped to inherit their toughness, their hunting magic. It is formed by the filth of nature. How many other fabrics, historically, have required human urine and dog faeces in their production? (Tanneries are usually located out of town.) That long, stinking backstory must be the reason why leather stirs something so deep in us, why it’s the stuff of both freedom and restraint. Leather is for the open road and the prairie – it suits libertarians, cowpokes and Hell’s Angels. (Think of Marlon Brando in “The Wild One”, sneering “what have you got?” when asked what he’s rebelling against.) But it’s also the material of authority. Police states have appropriated its power; masochists love to submit to it. And that’s conveyed through more than its tactile or visual qualities. “Taste the whip,” wails Lou Reed. “Now bleed for me.” Matthew Sweet

Sir Philip Sidney unknown artist, c.1576
Today white leather is for clubbing: miniskirts, taxi shoes and handbags you can dance around. In 1576 it furnished noblemen with slashed doublets of the sort worn here by a 21-year-old Sir Philip Sidney, Renaissance war hero and author of “Arcadia”. The dress code speaks to both his poetic and martial side. The decorative elements suggest courtliness, the shape mimics the tight-fitting carapace of the early-modern breastplate. Unwittingly it presages his fate – felled by a musket shot after lending a comrade a piece of his armour, using his last moments to select a deathbed song.

MAIN IMAGE Taking liberties with the statue
Green leather jacket, £3,425/$4,960. Gold leather top, £1,390/$2,130. Black leather skirt, £1,575/$2,410. Rope bag, £1,170/$1,525. Dove-grey brass, lacquer and blown-glass necklace, POA. All Prada

PHOTOGRAPHs theresa marx
STYLIST lewis munro

Shell’s angel
Yellow leather jacket, Paul Smith, £1,890/$2,895. Green leather T-shirt, POA. Pink leather shirt, £399/$499. Both Stand Studios. Black leather culottes, Holland & Holland, £1,140/$1,473. Water snake mules, Tods, £440/$975

Heading to come 
Green leather shirt  and white under skirt by Marni, POA. Water snake mules by TOD’S, £440/ $975

Walter Model 1944
The Nazis boycotted Paris couture and put the nation in uniform. Even swimsuits came with an SS logo. Black leather – trenchcoat, cap, jackboots, worn here by Generalfeldmarschall Walter Model – was the purest expression of their violent glamour. Himmler hoped it would inspire a queasy feeling as well as admiration. The slave labourers at Hugo Boss would have agreed. So would Susan Sontag, reflecting on Fascism and fashion in the 1970s: “The material is leather…the aim is ecstasy, the fantasy is death.” Model lived it. First he was a Panzer commander, then he co-ordinated the German retreat, then he put a bullet in his brain.

Enid Boulting wearing Yves St Laurent 1963
Yves St Laurent designed his clothes for the fully automated luxury future, for cocktail parties on the Moon base. In this assembly, cut and shaped after a brief period of National Service and a protracted nervous breakdown, he adumbrates a darker world. Tight alligator-skin boots, thick leather smock, sci-fi collar, visored helmet – Enid Boulting, a South African model who then married film director Roy Boulting, looks fit to go on a book-burning mission with the firemen of Truffaut’s “Fahrenheit 451”.

Bags heading to come
Green Hermes Trim Duo bag in calfskin evercolour, £3900/$5060. Black Chloe Darryl in small grain & smooth cowhide leather/POA

Elvis 1968
The leather jacket is a classic but it’s not entirely timeless. The black shiny creases of his comeback tour suit mark out Elvis as a figure from the cultural reliquary. (The 68-ers would not have torn up Parisian paving stones dressed like this.) But the King is still hot. You can see it in the faces of his admirers, who gladly caught the perspiration-soaked towels he threw into the crowd. You’d have felt it too if, like his costumier Bill Belew, you’d had to peel this off him after the show. Sweat cracks leather. Ask any taxi driver who doesn’t have air con.

Peter Marino 2015
In 1965 artist and activist Avery Willard wrote a piece for a gay porn mag. It was a manifesto for the nascent leather-bar culture, which hated “the over-feminised present”, loved Marlon Brando and yearned for “the thrills of the moment, for life at its highest pitch”. Peter Marino, the New York architect photographed here, demonstrates the long burn of that impulse. At the age of 50 he found himself in the doctor’s surgery, discussing mortality. Though he could no longer die young, he decided to live fast – in motorcycle boots, a codpiece and chaps. That was 20 years ago. He’s still riding.

Bikers 1950
Western biker culture seems intractably masculine. The chance to escape the world of women is the undeclared offer of Mr Harley and Mr Davidson. But look. This gear may bring Amelia Earhart to mind, but Marian Willgoes, Joan Nimlo and Gloria Crane are members of a motorcycle club in 1950s Queens – and part of a longer history of female bikers, whose scorch-marks can be tracked back to the Great War. The business with the compacts feels like a kinky joke for those thrilled by the association of lipstick, leather and motor oil. They appear to be in on it.

Heading to come
Red leather trench, Coach, £1,125/$1,465. Shirt, Holzweiler, £197/$257. Silk motif tie, Canali, £160/$195

Life’s a beach
Black leather dress, POA. White leather shoes, POA. Blue leather Cassette bag, £2,090/$2,800. All Bottega Veneta.

Run-DMC c.1980
The black leather bomber jackets worn here by Run-DMC – Jason “Jam Master Jay” Mizell, Joseph “Rev Run” Simmons and Darryl “DMC” McDaniels – call back to Brando and his 1950s Wild Ones. The huge gold chains, heavy as something wrought by Isambard Kingdom Brunel, furnish a theatrical element – something to keep utility at bay. For Brando, that was supplied by the cocky angle of his leather motorcycle cap. For 1980s New York hip-hoppers, the Village People had already closed off that avenue.