Man’s Guide to Leather Jackets
Leather jackets are pricey pieces of clothing.
They don’t go with everything the way that a plain dark overcoat does.
It’s hard to find one that can go with both a dressy business look and a unique casual one. So why the heck does anyone buy them?
Yeah, we’ll go ahead and put this one at the top of the list.
Attitude. Style, funkiness, class, uniqueness, that bad boy vibe – call it what you want to, but leather has an attitude that cloth doesn’t.
The nice thing about leather is that its tough-guy appeal is timeless, not trendy. We associate leather jacket with ruggedness because rugged people have depended on leather since the early days of humanity. It’s not a constructed image the way that ripped jeans or metal studs are.
So a leather jacket gives its wearer a sense of toughness, competence, and edginess, even when it’s a very smooth and refined style of jacket. Attitude that doesn’t look like it’s trying too hard is tough to come by, and that’s one of the best reasons to wear leather now and again.
On a much more practical note, leather is tough. Leather hide protects an animal for its whole life. Personal armor has used leather for protection for almost all of human history, up until the advent of bullet-resistant synthetics in the 20th century.
You’re hopefully never going to need your jacket to turn a knife or protect you from a bear’s teeth, but the toughness that protects from those holds up just fine against lesser, day-to-day wear and tear as well. A good leather jacket made from quality hide and treated well should last through all kinds of nicks and scrapes.
The same toughness provides a good level of weather protection as well. Leather is an excellent windbreak and is naturally water-resistant; most jackets these days add waterproofing compounds during the treatment of the hide as well. A leather jacket will still be warm and dry long after wind, rain, or snow have worked their way through the same jacket in wool or denim.
Not quite the same thing as protection, the durability of leather is its natural longevity. Good hide gets more supple as it ages, but doesn’t crack or split. If you’re careful about treating it when it needs it, leather can last a lifetime.
It’s worth remembering that we still have leather clothes and armor worn by Roman soldiers in museums all across the world. If you’re willing to spend a bit up front for a quality product, you can get a leather jacket that will outlive not just you but also your children.
This is a good consideration for anyone and a huge consideration for practical men whose jackets see a lot of real, outdoors use. Even tough denim or canvas frays and comes apart thread by thread eventually. Leather lacks the weakness of a weave – its fibers are matted into a natural solid, so there’s nothing to unravel. As long as you can avoid a puncture that goes clean through you’re not going to see your jacket coming apart on you.
Elements of a Leather Jacket
We’ll get in to individual styles and traditional cuts in just a minute here. First it’s worth familiarizing yourself with the bits and pieces that make up a style, so that you can understand why a simple change in the height of the collar and the angle of the pockets can make the difference between a sleek business jacket and a rugged working man’s coat.
The first thing to think about is always the length from top to bottom. The longer the coat is the more practical it is as a weatherproofing garment, which is why trench coats and dusters are deeply associated with men who work outside. Wearing one of those from your car to your office is a little pretentious.
Most leather jackets are just that – jackets, rather than coats. The bottom hem falls right around the waist. A higher, snugger hem is more stylish, while a hem that falls past the belt with a bit of looseness at the hips is a more rugged and outdoorsy look.
It’s oversimplifying a bit, but as a general rule of thumb for stylish jackets, your belt should be visible when you zip your jacket up. If you’re out working with cattle or timber, something longer is fine.
The shape and size of the collar says a lot about a leather jacket.
Short, tight collars that don’t turn down are associated with fashion and with motorcycles and race cars. They give the most sleek and streamlined look.
A short, soft collar that can either be turned down or popped up to frame the chin is a casual style associated with military surplus and street wear. That bit of floppiness says “rugged casual.” It’s typical on jackets with a looser cut.
Full turn-down collars are typical on rancher’s jackets, dusters, trenchcoats, and other long leather jackets and coats. The best ones will be designed to flip up and button closed in the rain. They’re also a defining characteristic of bomber jackets, which are shorter but, because of their aviation history, also meant to be practical, weatherproofing garments.
More pockets is more casual. More details on the pockets is also more casual.
Logically, that means that your sharpest-looking leather jackets have smooth fronts. Since that’s not very practical, most fashionable jackets opt for a pair of jetted pockets instead, where the opening is a small slit in the leather without a flap or button. These can be vertical or horizontal, but a vertical or sharply-diagonal slit on each side for the hands is typical of jackets seeking a streamlined shape.
More casual jackets add flaps and rotate the pockets to fully horizontal openings. Dressier styles have the pockets sewn onto the interior, while more casual ones will have larger “patch” pockets sewn onto the exterior, so that the back of the pocket is the front of the jacket.
Anything with more than two pockets on the front is a casual jacket. Four front pockets is very standard for the fatigue style, and dusters and trench coats often have pockets both above and below the waist.
- Zippers and Buttons
Zippers are sleeker; buttons are chunkier. From a practical standpoint zippers are also easier to use, while buttons are easier to repair or replace.
There are some contradicting schools of thought on whether a man should wear buttons at all. Leather jackets with big, round buttons have been a feminine style for much of the 20th century; on the other hand, men in both World Wars wore leather jackets with buttons. A lot of cattlemen still prefer buttons because they just pop off when the jacket strains, rather than breaking or tearing away from the leather like a zipper.
This basically shakes down to a cultural divide: sharp-looking urban jackets rarely use buttons, while rugged outdoors jackets use both zippers and buttons. You can do whichever you want, but a very sleek and modern-looking jacket with buttons does run the risk of looking a little feminine.
There’s very rarely a good reason for a man’s leather jacket to have lapels. They exist, and they appear on the runway regularly enough, but the “leather blazer” look is a tough one to pull off.
If you like the framing effect of lapels – that V-shape widening up your torso – you should look for zippered jackets with wide, soft collars instead. These can be worn half-zipped with the collar flipped out onto the shoulders like a cardigan, giving you the same effect without the awkwardness of a fully-constructed lapel.
For the diehards that must have a constructed lapel, narrow and understated is better. Big flaring lapels on a leather jacket makes you look like a low-level Las Vegas mob enforcer or a 1990s superhero.
Most leather jackets are black or brown. Black works well if your wardrobe has lots of solids and sharp contrasts, while brown works well with a more muted wardrobe that uses lots of earth tones and textured fabrics.
One of the keys with leather is to match it – you shouldn’t wear a brown jacket with black shoes. If you want to be the kind of guy that wears a leather jacket every day you’ll probably need two.
Other, brighter colors are available but less versatile. It’s hard to get away with wearing them day in and day out. Avoid racing stripes or other flashy colored patches unless you’re actually wearing the jacket to motocross races.
Not all leather is the same leather, or even from the same animal. Different hides with different treatments create a number of different surfaces for jackets:
- Cowhide is common, tough, and plain. The majority of leather jackets are made from it. It’s a thicker, tougher leather that takes a while to break in. Quality can vary widely depending on the animal the leather comes from, which part of the cow the hide comes from, and how it was treated. Look for leather that’s thick but not completely stiff on the rack.
- Deerskin is cowhide’s more refined cousin. It’s similarly tough and weatherproof, but lighter and more flexible. The finished surface tends to have a softer texture with a bit of knap (fuzz) to it rather than a slick, sheer feel. It’s suitable for both work jackets and fashion pieces.
- Goatskin comes in and out of fashion. It’s lighter than cowhide and weathers more obviously – a goatskin jacket tends to develop a pattern of surface lines and creases over time, making each one unique. It has a more visible texture than cowhide when new.
- Lambskin is soft and sometimes lined with the outer fleece for warmth (though as a practical production reality, most lambskin jackets these days are made of plain leather with fleece stitched back on, which gives you a more even lining than trying to turn a sheep inside-out). Lambskin is lighter and softer than most other leathers, and is used in light, three-season jackets rather than winter or sporting wear. Lambskin jackets need to be treated a bit more gently than most leather.
- Bison leather is tough, rugged, and textured. As farmed bison become more and more common the leather is showing up more in stores, especially in protective garments like motorcycle and motocross jackets. Its natural color is ruddy, and the skin has fine creases running throughout it.
As a general rule cowhide is going to be the cheapest, but a fancy, upmarket cowhide jacket could easily cost more than a very plain, utilitarian bison jacket. Quality varies widely with all, and a poorly-tanned hide will have a fraction of the longevity that top-notch leather has.
The Classic Leather Jacket Styles
Most leather jackets fall into one of a few common families. These common styles all have their own niche – wearing a duster to a suit-and-tie meeting will look just as odd as wearing a Prada fatigue jacket to chop wood.
- The Motocross Jacket
Sometimes called a “moto” as well, this is a tight-fitted style with a collar that hugs the neck and doesn’t turn down. The front zips up all the way and the waist is usually elastic. Since it’s made to be streamlined, there’s usually no extra outer details like buckles or pocket flaps.
The moto family of jackets goes well beyond gear for actual motocross riders. It’s one of the most common urban styles for both men and women. It’s simple, sleek, and a bit more dressy than something with lots of bells and whistles.
The tight fit and slim lines make this a good jacket for people with a slender or athletic build. If your midsection is wider than your chest it’s going to make a noticeable (and unattractive) bulge.
- The Fatigue
A leather fatigue jacket looks pretty much like a cloth one, except in leather. It has a soft collar that can be turned down or flipped up, horizontally-opening pockets with flaps covering them, and sometimes (though not always) details like a built-in D-ring belt or epaulets. The fit tends to be looser than a moto jacket: it might cinch at the waist if there’s a belt built in, but otherwise it’s a straight up-and-down fit like a sack suit, with no elastic or drawstring at the waist.
Fatigue jackets are practical, utilitarian, and good with just about any day-to-day outfit. They can’t dress up quite as sleek as a moto jacket and they don’t offer as much weather protection as a cattleman’s jacket or a duster, but they’re what most people think of when they think “leather jacket.”
Bigger men look good in a fatigue jacket. The looseness around the waist helps it drape over any thickness in the stomach, and the soft shoulders keep you from looking overstuffed.
- The Bomber
A favorite of vintage junkies and college kids for years, the bomber tends to get sneered at by high fashion types. Ignore them.
A bomber has a soft, turn-down collar with a cloth or fleece lining. The interior is lined as well, usually in a heavy, warm fabric (they were made for guys in high-altitude bombers, hence all the warming details). The waist and sleeves cinch tight, usually with elastic and cloth cuffs or with buckles.
Bombers are decidedly more casual than their moto cousins. They share the snug waist and the close fit in the arms (a bomber should never wrinkle as it drapes), but the overall style tends to be much more utilitarian, and the fit (because of the thick lining) less shapely.
Thin guys can add quite a bit of bulk with a bomber jacket. It has to fit well, though – a loose bomber will just swallow you right up. Heavyset guys would do better in a looser style like a fatigue jacket. And as a purely practical note they should mostly be reserved for fall and winter wear, to avoid overheating, making them a bit less versatile than other styles.
- The Cattleman
The classic Western style has seen a lot of adaptation to urban wear lately. In its classic form it’s a long, straight jacket that flares out slightly at the hips and falls a few inches past the waist. This makes it long enough to protect the weak spot where the shirt meets the trouser from weather, but short enough to wear in the saddle without a pile of leather bunched up around your crotch and butt.
Cattleman coats rarely use any detailing around the edges. The collar is usually a short turndown that can button up against the wind, and the cuffs and waist tend to be plain stitched leather without a hem.
Slimmer versions in light leather are a spring/summer/fall staple in fashion catalogues. More traditional versions made from thick cowhide, deerskin, or bison remain on the racks anywhere that sells farm equipment side-by-side with clothing. It’s a good, simple style for people who don’t like a lot of whistles and bells, and one that works well on shorter men by elongating their torso a bit.
- The Duster
A duster is a full-length coat that falls below the knees. Traditionally they’re slit up the back to allow for horseback riding, and most feature an extra layer of leather draped like a cape over the shoulders and upper back/chest for rain protection. Most historic dusters were actually canvas or linen, but leather versions have become popular since the advent of Hollywood Westerns.
Dusters are (and should remain) the uniform of men who spend a great deal of their time in the saddle: cowboys and cross-country motorcyclists. If you’re not one of those and you’re wearing a duster, you’re either a Wild West re-enactor or embarrassing yourself.
- The Trenchcoat
Like the duster, historic trench coats were usually made from waterproofed cloth rather than leather – it was lighter, more breathable, and cheaper to mass-produce for soldiers. They fall to around the knees, feature a built-in belt at the waist, and usually have wide, soft turndown collar that can fasten against the rain.
Trench coats are a classic overcoat for men, but a leather one takes some attitude to pull off. If the rest of your wardrobe isn’t somewhat retro and dressy, your coat is likely to overwhelm the rest of your outfit and make you look like the star of a very low-budget detective thriller. Unless you’re very devoted to the shiny, buckle-laden look (which can come across as a bit bondagey in black) you should probably pick a shorter jacket for your leather one and go for a cloth trench coat instead.