Leather, (along with leopard print, feathers, and and anything fringed) is my favorite. You simply cannot imagine my enthusiasm when the material started appearing everywhere in 2011. Not only was the iconic leather jacket back in vogue, but designers started using the material for everything and anything—from sweatsuits to evening gowns in an array of colors and shapes.
It’s ironic that what was once the protection of choice aviators, biker gangs, and mid-century rebels somehow became the fabric du jour for women attending red carpet events and high end luncheons.
The leather jacket received it’s status within American iconography when Marlon Brando wore his with attitude in The Wild One. It soon became a Hollywood symbol of rebellion and youth culture, as films continued to type-cast rebellious young men in leather jackets as the films’ leads. The leather jacket was synonymous with freedom, youth culture, and challenging conventional social norms and institutions. (Remember how in the ‘50s themed film Grease, the T-birds’ leather jackets and greased hair was a stark contrast to the preppy varsity sweaters of the jocks?)
However, It wasn’t until Yves Saint Laurent’s 1960 fall collection that the first leather jackets for women went down the runway. (Not the aviation kind where Amelia Earhart wore her leather jacket.) Even then, it wasn’t conventional or particularly trendy until after the late ‘70s punk movement for women to wear leather jackets—let alone a dress or pants made from leather.
Fictional women who wore leather in popular culture, such as Catwoman or Xena, were depicted as exceptions to the status quo, posing an opposition to our social construction of femininity. Women in leather were dangerous, sly, aggressive, or sexually carnivorous. Wearing leather signified a man’s traditionally “masculine” role of warrior or renegade and served as an outward symbol of their strength.
On the other hand, there was the depiction of women in leather as objects of desire. For some reason, wearing animal skin carries a semiotic significance of giving into primal instincts. This possibly started with mental associations of our primitive hunter-gatherer societies where it was man vs. nature, and was perpetuated by the hedonistic lifestyles of ‘70s and ‘80s rockers.
I find it interesting that what was once relegated only to super heroes (i.e. freaks of nature) or sexual deviants is now being sold in department stores and worn to work. Just as fashion changes, the significance of leather has also changed. Women have taken on the material, (quite well, if I do say so myself) and made it a staple in their fall, and even summer, wardrobes.
Although it still conveys a devil may care attitude, leather is no longer solely a material worn by men for protection, or a symbol of male virility and strength.
Seeing how within the past couple of years, there has been a massive media focus on women such as Sheryl Sandberg and Arianna Huffington who have risen to the top of largely male dominated industries, I’ve began to wonder if it wasn’t merely coincidence that leather gained popularity around this time.
Could it be that the acceptance of women wearing leather in popular (and even corporate) culture is indicative of a step forward in gender equality?
Or is it just a happy coincidence?