Early history of leather

People have always worn leather clothing. From the earliest of times they have taken the skin of animals to protect themselves. Leather not only protected ancient soldiers like the Romans and the Tartars, but it was also worn by hunters, wood workers, blacksmiths and cowboys.

Original leather armour Roman leather uniform (replica)

left: Eurasian Scale Armour, ca. 6th century B.C.
right: Roman leather armour (replica)

Early leather traditions

Original and very old leather pants are rare, but some did survive. In "El Museo Canario" on the island of Gran Canaria (Spanish territory since the 15th century) artifacts of the original pre-Hispanic inhabitants can be seen. Among them: pre-historic goat's leather gloves and goat's leather pants!

Prehistoric goat's leather glovesprehistoric goat's leather pants

Prehistoric goat's leather
Left: a drawing, centre, the actual glove.
Right: prehistoric goat's leather pants.

The well known Bavarian "Lederhosen" have survived until today. Lesser known is that these kind of pants were worn all over Europe and by men of all classes in society. As an example below we see an oil painting of a French man in 1795. He wears snug leather breeches and leather boots.

German lederhosen French leather breeches from 1795

Left: traditional German Lederhosen
Right: French man in leather breeches in 1795.

Leather breeches were created and worn even in London and from there also exported to the then 'new world'. In Virginia in the 1700's leather breeches were a very common item of apparel among all classes too, just like in Europe, stretching from slaves to the Royal Governor. These breeches were a basic item of utilitarian clothing for men in colonial America because they were so durable and fit for the rough life in these times. If they weren't natural color, they were painted black so that dirt wouldn't show.

English breeches from 1789

Advertisements for leather breeches in 1789.
James Potter in London exported leather breeches to Virginia.

Cowboys and black smiths

While in Europe people stopped wearing leather for the most part, in the harsch conditions in the US leather remained the best practical option for durable clothing. In the old west cowboys were best known for wearing leather, especially for wearing chaps. The word chaps derives from the Spanish word "chaparejos" meaning "leather leggings". Which is exactly what they are: two wide and full-length trouser-legs made of heavy calfskin connected by a narrow belt or strap. They were cut away entirely at front and back so that they covered only the thigh and lower legs and did not heat the body as a complete leather garment would. They were intended as a protection against branches, thorns and later even barbed wire. But many cowboys wore much more leather gear. Leather hats and leather cuffs, gauntlets, vests, holsters and boots.

Cowboys in leather

Cowboys in leather, not only did they wear leather chaps,
the center boy wears a leather vest and leather cuffs.

Early pictures of the original men wearing leather are rare, but late 2001 our local newspaper treated us to this picture below, of a contemporary young Dutch blacksmith (or farrier) still wearing heavy black leather like so many smiths before him. His comment: "I wear a leather blacksmith's apron that is kept tight around my legs with straps, to make sure the horse can't injure me." Which to some may seem a dubious reason! - the purpose is to protect against flying sparks when hammering the red-hot horse shoe on the anvil! To have the leather so tight around the legs is unusual but looks better and that might just be the real reason...

Young Dutch blacksmith in a leather apron

The Netherlands 2001.
Even modern blacksmiths wear leather for protective reasons.

In some, still existing, century old traditions we can even now see how some cultures used leather clothing in the past. In the Turkish Oil Wrestling tradition, wearing leather pants was, and still is, a great honour only to be acquired by prior wins in the sport. The leather pants give the wrestler a higher status and an advantage in the game.

Turkish oil wrestlers

Turkish oil wrestlers.

 Twentieth century leather

At the beginning of the twentieth century all the traditional men in leather were succeeded by bikers and aircraft pilots. In the very early days of motorcycle racing wearing leather was already recognised as the best way to protect the dare devils who participated in this dangerous sport.

Motorcycle racers from around 1916 in leather pants

Motorcycle racers from around 1916,
already wearing leather pants and high boots.

Loose fitting leather suits were commonly worn in the early days of motorcycling usually with high boots.

TT Assen, Netherlands, late 1920's 1950's biker in loose fitting leather gear
Left: Race winner in the Netherlands late 1920's.
Right: a biker in the early 1950's.

The leather military uniforms of pilots and army motorcyclists of the 1920's and 30's were usually very loose-fitting and brown. They were designed first and foremost for protection, not to "look good". The pilots of World War I (1914-1918) sat in their planes out in the open air and needed the leather to protect them, especially from the winds. A typical fur collar was designed for them as well.

1940's brown leather jacketFrench brown leather army uniform 1939

Left: brown leather jacket for a motorcyclist.
Right: original French brown leather aviator uniform 1939.

The Second World War (1939-1945) was very influential for the wearing of leather clothing. Vast numbers of young men were given leather to wear. Mostly leather jackets, but some outfits like the ones worn in German submarines consisted of leather pants as well. With all the terrible things happening to them the men tend to remember the good things of this time in which they wore leather. One of those good things was the camaraderie they experienced in those dark years. "Leather" and "tough boy's camaraderie"; these two already went together well and their connection was never to be severed from then on.

British and American WWII soldiers in leather jackets

British and American uniform leather jackets in 1942.

The general public looked at all those young soldiers in leather with great respect. They were the tough men that helped in ending the war. With the end of the war all the surplus leather uniforms came available for second-hand use in the late 1940's and early 1950's.

German U-Boot leather uniforms

German U-boot crew wore gray full leather battle-dress.

This WWII surplus leather was indeed worn by many people and may have led to the increasing interest in wearing leather. At the same time men also started wearing leather for other than just protective reasons. Right away, leather had a "cool" image as can be seen in this "He-man" advertisement, possibly from the late forties or early fifties. The words "protects you handsomely" and "horsehide beauty" in this advertisement seem to indicate a shift of interest from protection to appearance. The brown of the first uniforms continued in the first "fashion" coats.

Horsehide Sportswear advertisement "Mr. He-man, here's your coat!"

Advertisement for "Sportswear" in leather, late 1940's.
"Mr. He-man, here's your coat!"

It is a plain fact that tough guys appeal to a lot of gays and experts believe that herein lie the roots of gays wanting to wear leather. Their interest was also ignited immediately after World War II when the aforementioned leather wearing soldiers returned to society. It really increased when more men were seen in even more attractive black leather in the 1950's.

1940's black leather jacketcirca 1956: gay biker in leather

Left: traditional black motorcycle jacket 1940's.
Right: gay man posing in leather circa 1956.

Black leather replaced the earlier brown leather fairly quickly after the war. Above left: a picture of a motorcycle jacket from the 1940's - no wonder people wanted to wear this! Even after sixty years this jacket looks very good and there is still nothing about the design that isn't right.

Above right: in this late 1950's picture the leather outfit is much tighter than the previous leather motorcycle suits, and it is black. Just looking at the way this man poses sitting on his bike rather than standing behind it, showing-off his entire body in leather, we suspected this to be a gay man with a leather fetish. After this picture was on our website for some years, we received an e-mail from someone who knew the man in the picture. Our assumption was confirmed! He was a biker from Quebec in Canada who had friends in the US and was indeed a leather fetishist. The picture was taken in 1956 or 1957.

This page was printed from the Leather History pages of the website of
Cuirmale, the Netherlands
e-mail: - website: www.cuirmale.nl