Life, etc

Chronicles of Chic: Where did all the leather jackets go?

By Emilie Gambade 25 January 2013

There will always be a cultural icon to turn a garment into a most-wanted fashion item: Mia Farrow’s baby-doll dress, the Blues Brothers’ Ray Bans Wayfarer, Jane Birkin’s straw basket, John Lennon’s teashade sunglasses - deceptively insignificant wardrobe pieces turned massive fashion statements. EMILIE GAMBADE traces one of the ultimate symbols of rebellion and its journey from the Bolshevik revolution to Jacob Zuma.

Before our human capacity to strip the hide from an animal and tan it until it was wearable finally awakened the rage of PETA and burgeoning campaigns against animal cruelty on international catwalks, leather was simply considered a protective, resistant and weatherproof material. The thickness, the warmth and the malleability of the skin made it an indispensable element to design effective protective gear, a uniform to wrap the body, armour against extreme conditions.

The first tanned hides appeared during the Palaeolithic age, when the use of tools made out of flint or shells helped with the cutting up of animals; to make sure the skins remained rot-proof, one would bring it next to the smoke of fire or apply oil extracted from birch all over the surface. Later, skins were dyed thanks to organic colours removed from the soil, tree sap or fruits.

Over the years, techniques to tan the hides evolved dramatically and tanners started to spread inside villages. From the Assyrians to the Babylonians, populations around the globe were fond of the noble material and the soft skins of deer or antelope soon constituted the material for urban inhabitants’ clothing. Depending on someone’s social status, role, tribe, culture and location, the type of clothing would differ: the leather jacket was a long and thick coat for the powers-that-be of the Roman Empire; it was lighter, fringed and beaded as a War-costume for post-colonisation Native Americans.

Made from the tanned hide of goats, pigs, cows, calves or sheep, and later from crocodiles, ostriches and snakes, the modern leather jacket, before it reached its exalted status of life-on-the-edge clothing item, was worn by the Commissars during the Russian civil war and made popular in 1917 as the uniform of the Cheka, the Bolsheviks’ secret police that eventually became known as the KGB. Floating, austere, knee-length, with a wide collar and tightly belted, the Chekists’ leather jacket was a symbol of power and oppression during the Red Terror that shook Russia in 1918.

In America, Jack and Irving Schott, two brothers from Manhattan, sons of a Russian immigrant, designed the first leather jacket that would make its marks on the hall of fashion fame, the Perfecto. Named after Irving’s favourite cigar, it featured “a belted front, bi-swing back, underarm footballs, zippered pockets and sleeves, with insulated nylon quilted lining,” rough enough to seduce Harley Davidson riders around the globe. The sharp shoulders, a rugged je-ne-sais-quoi, an air of unbalance with zips slicing the leather in sharp diagonals, a strong belt seizing the waist with silver buckles, the Perfecto screamed steely determination and a self-confident journey on the warm asphalt.

Photo: The original Perfecto design (Photo by Rin Tanaka. From the book Motorcycle Jackets – A Century of Leather Design.)

From their side, early aviators needed extra protection inside their fragile and open-to-the-air cockpits, so Schott designed for them a special ‘bomber jacket’ also called flight jacket, with knitted cuffs and waist, a warm protection against extreme temperatures; think Tom Cruise in Top Gun, white t-shirt and rough look, brown leather jacket zipped at the front and cropped at the waist, collar sometimes doubled with Melton wool.

Ruler of the American tarmac, the leather jacket, be it the bomber or the Perfecto, became the emblem of a generation hungry for rebellion. It was a fashion statement against conformism, a uniform for different subcultures, cigarettes dangling on the lips, hair greased with pomade, motorbike or guitar glued between the legs.    

Marlon Brando, in the 1953 movie The Wild One, stepped off his 650cc Triumph Thunderbird, sculpted in a Schott Perfecto, the shattering image of a seriously sexy gang leader. American schools banned the biker jacket on their premises, the movie was forbidden in the UK, and fears of a disobedient and untamed youth rose once again.

Photo: Marlon Brando, The Wild One

And so did the leather jacket cover the shoulders of infamous rebels for years; from James Dean, the Ramones to the Sex Pistols and Billy Idol, it remained a timeless ‘screw you’ to all fashion trends.

Photo: James Dean, the original rebel without a cause

But not all leather jackets make for a fashion icon; whoever dares to wear the revamped version of the long coat a la The Matrix’s Neo – sleek, minimalist, buttoned up, touching the floor and elongating the neck with a Mandarin collar – is condemned to back bends and looking like an athletic geek.   

The same applies to the 2010 glorious collection of leather jackets designed by the ANC, infamous for its sense of style, in all the ANC colours, of course: not everybody can pull off the tricolour biker jacket, let alone the flashy majorette-cut jacket, the neon flamboyant green shirt jacket, noticeable for its vertical opening on the front side with buttons all the way down or the single-breasted, tailored suit jacket with yellow lapels, green front pockets and black sleeves; yes, the ANC can

Photo: Some of ANC leather jackets. Kind of obvious why no-one would sign the creations.

No designers dared to put their name on the ANC creations. Critics around the world cried their eyes out to the Gods of style and called it a fashion heresy, but the 19 leather jackets, including the infamous ‘President No 1,’ were pompously displayed on the website of the ANC and on the shoulders of party members and the paramount leader Jacob Zuma.

Thanks to this very jacket, President Zuma made it in the 2010 TIME top ten list of worst-dressed leaders, next to Kim Jong II, Vladimir Putin and the late Lybian leader, Colonel Muammar Gaddafi, who hurt many eyes while traversing the world draped in golden or silvery silk capes.

The leather jacket, celebrated worldwide for its innate air of rebellion, mutiny burning off its zips, was turned by the ANC into a tricolour sheath for awkward, overweight, long-retired bikers. 

But who cares about style, when it’s the black, green and yellow brand that matters? The choice of designing a leather jacket, a symbol of both Communism and rebellion, is not senseless. Yet, giving the job to a trusted and more experienced designer (and South Africa has talented candidates) might have helped spread the sense of cohesion not only inside the ranks of Zuma’s devotees but to the wider population of South Africa; it might also have helped avoid the painful burden of international fashion disgrace.

At the recent ANC 101 birthday celebrations held at the Kings Park Stadium in Durban, Kwaito-singer Chomee wore an understated twist of the ANC leather designs, a black cropped Mandarin jacket with green and yellow round buttons; Premier of KwaZulu-Natal Zweli Mkhize and the MKVA opted for the decidedly sought-after ‘President no 1;’ in the tight lines of the ANC, the leather jacket persists.

In 2011, Minister of Mineral Resources Susan Shabangu, in a generous, gracious, gratifying gesture, spent R400,000 on Jacob Zuma’s biker jacket. (No one has ever seen Shabangu wearing the infamous jacket, but we’re sure she has plans with it.)

And now, at the dawn of the President’s State of the Nation speech, with many South Africans raising their voices and their fists to the injustices they face, real rebellions have started to rock the country. Sure, there may be no leather jacket in sight in the burning fields and townships of South Africa, but be assured the revolt is real. DM

Main photo: President Jacob Zuma waves upon arrival at the start of the 53rd National Conference of his ruling African National Congress (ANC) in Bloemfontein, December 16, 2012. REUTERS/Mike Hutchings

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