Leather in Cinema
Leather clothing in mainstream movies has been present since the early days of cinema. In the movie "The Virginian" from as early as 1929, we can see world famous Gary Cooper, 28 at the time, as a cowboy in black leather chaps. It was his first sound film. The western genre has shown more leather. Left Dirk Bogarde in the 1960 film "the Singer not the Song".
Left: Dirk Bogarde 1960.
Right: Gary Cooper 1929.
Leather pants vs. jackets in movies
Although leather has been present very early, as we can see from the example above, a main character wearing leather pants is not a very common thing. Oh yes, there are a lot of films portraying the leather world of bikers and bad boys. A long list of movies starting as early as 1954 with "the wild one" and Marlon Brando. Also on that list "Wild Angels" (1966) and of course the well known 1969 movie "Easy rider". But most of the men portrayed in these films wear leather jackets, not leather pants.
Cult biker films from the 1950's and 1960's.
This is the case in most American movies. In Europe wearing leather jackets, at least outside the UK, has always been more generally accepted. To portray a really tough guy in Europe, he would have to wear more than just a leather jacket. In the 1956, German movie "Die Halbstarken" (the Hooligans), a German answer to James Dean in Rebel without a cause (from 1955), with a similar story, the main character wears leather pants throughout the entire film. Actor Horst Buchholz (1933-2003) looked very good in this film. He was just 22 when most of the filming was done.
From the German 1956 film "die Halbstarken"
Connecting leather with homosexuality
In the British film The Leather Boys from 1964 leather pants play an exceptional role. At first it seems to be one of the classic motor cycle films. But that is not really true -we learn from a contemperary magazine- "The Leather Boys is not really about leather or motor-bikes; but very much about boys and their attitudes towards girls, and each other. Mostly each other, which is unusual in British or American cinema, where homosexual relationships are taboo". The movie was filmed on location at the Ace Café in London with the participation of many Rockers meeting there.
From the 1964 English film "the Leather Boys".
The leading character wears leather pants only in a few scenes: the scenes in which the gay man -who does wear leather pants throughout the entire film- and he are closest. It seems the maker tries to emphasize the fact that the two men become very close by having them both wear leather pants. It makes this movie an early mainstream example of a connection between homosexuality and leather pants.
Allthough the percentage of men in leather pants in films is low, just because there are so many movies, there were still numerous men in leather in movies over the years. Sometimes even twice, like in the original movie Shaft and in the remake.
Left: original Shaft (1971). Right: Remake (2000).
It would be impossible to have a complete story on all those films here. So instead, we have a random number of films in which men wear leather pants. There is a pattern to be seen. If the movies portray pop stars, bikers, a science fiction story or just violent men, there is a higher probability of these men wearing leather pants.
In 1980 Europe saw the release of Mad Max, a must for people that love to see men in leather. In this Australian look into the future the "good guys" wear black leather. That's a change!
Mel Gibson as Mad Max in full leather.
In 1982, Grease II hit the cinema in Europe. The leading role was played by Maxwell Caulfield and he was covered in leather, head to toe. At least at night, when he tried to impress the girl. He impressed us too, maybe even more than the girl.
Maxwell Caulfield head to toe in leather. 1982 stills from Grease II.
It is interesting to see how a guy wearing leather in 1961 (the story is set in that year) is portrayed in an eighties movie. Compare these pictures to the pictures of the English Rockers of the sixties.
Promotional shots for Grease II, Maxwell Caulfield as a sexy leatherboy.
In 2011 photographer Richard Pier Petit published a tribute to this photo series: "Not long ago, I acquired a stack of vintage magazines, and among them was a 1982 copy of After Dark, with Maxwell Caulfield on the cover [...] I thought it would be interesting to pay a winking tribute to some of those earlier images".
This 2011 tribute is clearly inspired by the shots for Grease II.
Shakespeare and Terminator
Even Shakespeare can be told by actors wearing leather. In the nineteen sixties, "Othello" has often been performed on stage by actors in black leather pants and a sweater. But when the stories are turned into a movie, we can sometimes see leather too. In "Much ado about nothing" (1993), it was the really bad guys wearing black leather pants again... (One of whom played by Keanu Reeves, who is known for wearing leather pants in real life too.)
Left: Keanu Reeves. Right: Arnold Schwarzenegger.
Not quite Shakespeare is the Terminator series. In 1984 and 1991 the world saw two Terminator movies. Arnold Schwarzenegger, originally an Austrian who now even made it to US governor, played an indestructible leather clad cyborg who traveled through time. Late 2003 came the third movie, and yes Arnold was sporting a nice leather outfit in that one too.
The turn of the century
At the turn of the century there were suddenly quite a number of films with actors in leather. In 2000 we see James Marsden and Hugh Jackman in very nice full leather suits in the movie X-men. In 2001 another movie about a rock star, appropriately called "Rock Star" was released in the US. The leading role was played by Mark Wahlberg, and he seems to be in leather constantly. To our knowledge he never wore leather while he was a 'pop star' himself though, when he used to be in his band "Marky Mark and the Funky Bunch". Daredevil (2003) a comic book story turned into film, brought us Ben Affleck in a tight red leather suit.
Left to right: Ben Affleck, Mark Wahlberg and James Marsden.
Actors in leather
In the late nineteen nineties it was not only fashionable for pop musicians to wear leather, actors too were to be seen in leather pants very often. Actors of the silver screen and television actors alike, wore leather pants on, and even more so off the screen!
A random number of actors in leather pants.
Early 21st Century
In the first few years of the new century wearing leather pants was not a mainstream thing anymore. There are not many examples of leather in movies, unless they are sequels like X-men II and III that do have men wearing leather suits.
Left: Hugh Jackman in X-men III
Right: Edward Speleers in Eragon.
But adventure movies may change that. One example is the 2006 movie "Eragon" in which a number of characters wear leather pants, including Edward Speleers playing the leading role. Even though he is not wearing black leather but brown.
It would be nice to see more films with characters wearing leather pants. It would help making wearing leather more accepted again.