Byline: Peter Braunstein

NEW YORK — In the epochal film “The Wild One,” Marlon Brando’s Johnny Strabler leads a posse of nihilistic, thrill-seeking bikers into the gingerbread void of a small, straitlaced California town. Clad in black leather jackets and high-density blue jeans, Johnny and crew’s style is part Luftwaffe, part beatnik and part Tom-of-Finland catalog. One townie woman, titillated by the bikers, asks Johnny, “What are you rebelling against?” to which he responds, somewhat absentmindedly, “What’ve you got?” Eventually, the townspeople take a zero-tolerance approach to the leathered terrorism, ganging up and beating Johnny senseless, while he, battered, sneers, “My old man hit harder than that.”

Brando’s character embodied the old-school leather ethos, a volatile admixture of sadism and masochism that challenges: “Are you tough enough?”

“‘The Wild One’ was essentially about a clash of styles — leather jacket against baggy suit; random, cruising sexuality against smug, self-satisfied certainty,” argues Mick Farren in his book “The Black Leather Jacket,” (1985). The film codified the black leather jacket as the official uniform of rebellion for the next few decades, the de rigueur appurtenance of gangs, self-destructive rock stars, kinky people and homosexual fetishists. In a 1981 Village Voice article, “Why is Leather Like Ethel Merman?”, Vito Russo mused that “leather ‘gear’ has become synonymous with queer,” and cracked a joke that had long circulated in homosexual circles: “Q: Why do motorcycle gangs wear leather? A: Because chiffon wrinkles so easily.”

But, alas, the days when leather connoted the hard life may be over. In the last two decades, it has been growing more and more mainstream, and in the past year, this trend has reached epidemic proportions. Gap models who hawked khakis just a few seasons ago have since taken to advertising “Gap leather.” Former early-morning talk goddess Kathie Lee Gifford nabbed the cover of the December issue of McCall’s, clad in a leather camisole and gold leather pants. Even the candy-colored Spice Girls, attempting to revive sagging album sales, appeared at the MTV Europe Music Awards wrapped in leather, which they spanked periodically to the tune of their new single “Holler.”

Add to this the fact that leather pants can be had for a pittance at Old Navy, and it seems as though it has become as ubiquitous — and about as transgressive — as the Razor scooter. The current rate of mainstreaming begs the question: Can leather ever be bad again? Either way, it may be the perfect time to memorialize this dark knight of apparel. If cotton is the fabric of our lives, then leather is the hide of our secret fantasies. Its deviant cachet is registered throughout the history of rock ‘n’ roll, which, until recently, operated according to a very simple principle: If you want to be edgy, just add leather.

Mick Farren hypothesizes that while Bob Dylan alienated his fans by wielding an electric guitar at the legendary 1965 Newport Folk Festival, his black leather jacket was equally traumatic for the middle-class folkies. “[Dylan’s] leather jacket brought back too many memories,” he writes. “Preppies against greasers, fraternity boys against townies.”

Similarly, after starring in a string of painful white-bread movies, Elvis reclaimed his mantle as The King in head-to-toe black leather during his 1968 television comeback special. Rock god Jim Morrison’s affinity for leather spurred his self-applied moniker, the Lizard King, while tough-girls Joan Jett and Chrissie Hynde bare-fisted their way into the male-dominated rock world by sporting leather gear and the requisite sardonic smirk. Conversely, early rock groups seeking mainstream status were often forced to abandon leather for something that wouldn’t freak out Ed Sullivan. The Beatles, during their pre-fame Hamburg days, dressed like state-of-the-era bad boys in menacing leather apparel. When they were repackaged as the the Fab Four, off it came in favor of Mod-style matching, collarless suits and ties that would titillate teenage girls without unduly alarming their parents.

Nor was the association of leather with loud music, motorcycles, mayhem, stale beer, and/or exotic sexuality limited to those subcultures centered around it. Everyone remembers Henry Winkler as the Fonz in the Seventies hit TV series “Happy Days,” astride his bike and forever clad in a black leather jacket, white T-shirt and blue jeans. What fewer people know is that Fonzie was nearly denied the chance to become a pop-culture icon. When ABC’s Standards and Practices department heard that executive producer Gary Marshall was planning to cast a leather-clad biker in the sitcom, they decreed that such a character could not appear in a show that children would watch because of the material’s association with deviance, nonconformity and homosexuality. Eventually, a deal was struck: The Fonz was forced to spend the early episodes of “Happy Days” wearing a blue nylon windbreaker and penny loafers, a style option that made it very difficult to firm up his credentials as the King of Cool. Gradually, Gary Marshall worked the leather jacket into Fonzie’s permanent wardrobe, until it became the most identifiable feature of the character.

Joel Waller, president of Wilson’s Leather, whose company enjoyed a banner year in sales, gets nostalgic about leather’s marginal past, but believes that its image has softened along with its hide. “Fonzie drove lots of business for us back in the Seventies, but I think the tough-guy association has gone away over the years,” he claims. “If you talk to baby boomers about it, they still think ‘bikers, sexy, dangerous.’ The younger generation sees it as sexy and fashionable, but not necessarily dangerous.” While leatherwear has gone in and out of style since the Seventies, Waller believes that the current vogue may point to a new era. “For us, the mainstreaming of leather started about two years ago,” he says. “At this point, I think we’ve taken the cyclicality out of it at retail.”

The material’s other former vices have transformed into virtues as a consequence of the economic boom and a blase attitude toward transgression among younger consumers. “We’ve done focus groups, and have found that 57 percent of 40-year-olds vow they’ll never buy leather because: 1) leather denotes sex, 2) leather is too expensive and 3) leather is too hard to take care of,” Waller explains. “Among teenagers, those three factors are assets. They like that leather is sexy; they have money, so cost is not a real factor and they don’t want to buy an outfit and wear it forever, so this myth that leather requires a lot of care is not a consideration, either.”

Josephine Seidita, the promotions officer who handles leather for the Italian Trade Commission, attributes its mainstream status to refinements in the tanning process that have made hides less tough and more supple. “Nowadays, it’s treated in ways that make it like any other fabric, which also translates to its applicability,” she says. “It’s now fit for any lifestyle, not just a bad one. It’s become an ice cream parlor with 31 flavors.” Suzanne Schwartz, vice president of Andrew Marc Leather, considers leather’s current vogue to be the culmination of a trend that began in the Eighties. It was very mainstream then, but it had a different look: purple skirts, bright red jackets like Michael Jackson wore in [the video for] ‘Beat It,”‘ she says. “You don’t want to remember it, but it was there. Then we had a slight dip in the early Nineties, and now it’s back: more pants than skirts this time, lots of fur-trimmed items, lots of knee-length jackets.”

Andrew Marc is boasting a 20 percent jump in sales over last year, and Schwartz is the first to agree that leather’s shock value tends to decrease in proportion to the quantity in circulation. “The sheer amount out there is bound to demystify it to some extent. It’s like body piercing: It scared people when it first started, but nowadays people have gotten used to it,”she explains. “If you’re a bad boy into leather these days, you’ll have to come up with a new approach to convey a tough image.”

While leather is no longer automatically associated with deviance, most insiders contend that it’s more marginal connotations of sexy, dangerous and cool continue to be easily accessible to those crafting a distinctive image. “Leather can still be edgy,” says Scott Fellows, creative director of Bally. “It all depends on the silhouette, the hand of the leather you use, and the attitude and style of the person wearing it.”

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