Leather Trousers: A Brief History Of Fashion’s Most Rock ‘n’ Roll Staple

Mankind has been rocking the leather look for centuries. We take a look at its brief history in trouser-form...

The leather trouser has been bamboozling mankind for decades. Type in ‘leather’ and ‘trousers’ into your search engine and it’s guaranteed to throw up more style victims than heroes. Assuming the wearer avoids DVT squeezing into a skin-tight pair there’s still the very probable risk of overheating – and that’s before we even talk about the unsightly ruching. And yet…and yet…there’s something about these trousers we keep going back to.

So, what’s the eternal appeal? Are we gluttons for punishment? Maybe, deep down, we’d all like to be The Doors’ Jim Morrison* (*possibly the only musician who has ever managed to pull off leather trousers with buckets of sweaty sex appeal), even if we end up looking more like Bono on a bad day, instead. Musicians like Morrison have given the leather look a hedonistic edge over the years and it’s always tempting to emulate our musical heroes.

The iconic leather look didn’t kick off in the 1960s with godlike Jim M, however. We’ve been scouring the internet like catwalk archaelogists and apparently leather trousers go way back to the Native Americans. Although fashions would change from tribe to tribe, before the European colonisation in the seventeenth century, almost all tribes used the skins of animals they hunted to make soft leather for clothing. In the winter, men would wear leather leggings attached to their breechcloths to keep warm. Wearing leather like this, for Native Americans, was a spiritual endeavour as much as a practical one: underpinning these leather clothes was a belief that wearing the skin of an animal could empower you with that animal’s strength.

When the European settlers arrived, leather trousers were adopted in the late nineteenth century – which brings us to leather chaps and the cowboy fashions we’re all familiar with. Buckled on over trousers, these leather coverings would protect cowboys when riding a horse in the American west. 

A few Hollywood westerns in the 1940s put these gun-slinging leather pants onto the big screen – and even got female stars wriggling into them. There is a wonderful picture of Evelyn Keyes squeezing into a pair, with the help of a very energetic costume assistant, for her movie The Desperadoes. It pretty much captures the spirit of every woman who has ever tried to fit into her skinny jeans on a Saturday night (which, let’s face it, is all of us).

The so-called ‘Greasers’ of the 1950s (named after their greased-back pomade hair) were also big fans of leather. Inspired by the likes of Elvis Presley and Gene Vincent – in addition to iconic Hollywood stars Marlon Brando and James Dean – leather trousers became the ultimate symbol of adolescent rebellion. In 1960, American rock ‘n’ roller Eddie Cochran wore leather trousers on British television for the first time. 

By 1961, a rowdy bunch of Liverpudlians embraced head-to-toe leather-dressing in sweaty Hamburg nightclubs, heavily influenced by their 1950s idols. Although The Beatles’ flirtation with leather would be brief, later musicians would pick up the baton and run with it. The Doors’ lead singer, Jim Morrison, was next to snakehip his way into our perspiring fantasies with his leggy look. Often adorned with a concho belt, Morrison’s leather trousers took its cue from Marlon Brando and bohemian Native American beginnings. Although leather has been closely associated with rock stars ever since, very few have managed to pull off the look with as much sex appeal as Morrison.

Apart from one man, perhaps: In 1968, Elvis was in freefall. Beatlemania had radically altered the musical landscape, Elvis ‘the rock star’ and just become Elvis ‘the father’ and the singer had lost his edge. The 33-year-old did what many men have attempted when existentially lost: he put on a pair of leather pants. Unlike most men, however, Elvis could pull it off. His Christmas TV special would soon become known as Elvis: the ’68 Comeback Special. Gyrating in head-to-toe leather, he meant business.

But what about the women, we hear you cry? When Elvis’ comeback gig was aired, a six-year-old girl was sat transfixed. Suzi Quatro would later embrace his leather look with a 70s attitude that spread like wildfire. Joan Jett, Pretenders’ frontwoman Chrissie Hynde and Marianne Faithful soon followed. Even Joan Collins got in on the action, styling them up to a magnificent 11 with a leather bakerboy hat, jacket and gloves. Iggy Pop would out-do them all in the early 1970s, wearing a pair of silver leather trousers he saved for very special occasions. T. Rex’s Marc Bolan would opt for orange in 1977.

As the 1980s landed and civil unrest intensified, punk fashion became even more politicised and New Romanticism brought leather into the mainstream. Selling fetish and bondage wear, including their own designs, Malcolm McLaren and Vivienne Westwood’s boutique customers now read like a who’s who of the era: the Sex Pistols, Adam Ant and Siouxsie Sioux all shopped here. They all embraced leather.

As the 1990s approached, the leather trouser look became a mainstream staple. These days they often turn up on the red carpet when you least expect them – especially on Kate Moss. Which brings us back to where we began: what’s the eternal appeal? Maybe it goes back to Native American animal-channeling. Only, instead of resurrecting a grizzly bear, these days we’re more intent on unearthing our inner rock star. And maybe that’s silly, but the godlike performers who swaggered on stage in sweaty, tight trousers got us all dreaming. As for that silver pair? Well, we can’t all be Iggy. There’s always eBay…

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