The Ultimate Guide To Men’s Leather Jackets
It’s one of the biggest wardrobe decisions a man can make. Here’s how to get it right
But where to start? It’s well known that an abundance of choice doesn’t make it any easier to choose – the more options there are, the higher the risk of picking the wrong one. And this particular strain of buyer’s anxiety is especially acute when the item in question is a leather jacket, which, as well as being a big financial decision, entails a serious style commitment to boot.
More simply, this isn’t a purchase you’ll want to end up regretting, which is why we’ve taken the liberty of writing a prospective buyer’s guide, breaking down everything you need to know before taking the plunge. Scroll down to discover the variety of styles available, the history behind them and the modern-day brands that do each best.
The history of the leather jacket as we know it today begins with the pioneering aviators of WWI, who would don rugged leather “flight jackets” in order to protect themselves from the elements while flying in open cockpits. After the war, the US Army established a series of standardised military specifications for these jackets, the first of which was formally adopted in 1927: the A-1.
Distinguished by its stand-up ribbed collar and button fastening, the A-1 is a dressier and more understated garment than its successor, the rather more utilitarian A-2, which superseded it in 1931. While the original jackets were made from hard-wearing leather, modern interpretations of the A-1 are often cut from suede – the softer, more refined texture of the material suiting the jacket’s elegant appearance. An example of this is the Valstarino, a luxurious reimagining of the A-1, which was devised by the Milanese outerwear brand Valstar in 1935 and is still available (in largely unaltered form) today.
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Serving the needs of US Army pilots from 1931 until 1943, the rugged A-2 is the archetypal leather bomber jacket. It’s also the style that we most associate with wartime heroes immortalised on the silver screen by stars such as Mr Steve McQueen, who donned one to portray the imprisoned US pilot Virgil Hilts in The Great Escape.
A marked improvement on its predecessor in terms of warmth, it featured tightly ribbed cuffs, a throat latch and a sturdy zip fastening protected by a leather placket. A sheepskin-collared version of this jacket, named the G-1, was developed towards the end of WWII for the use of naval pilots. This is the jacket that Mr Tom Cruise’s character wears in Top Gun.
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A disputed addition to this list, the MA-1 arguably isn’t a leather jacket at all. Introduced in the early 1950s and produced under contract for the US Army by what is now Alpha Industries, it was initially constructed not from leather, but a heavily padded nylon shell.
Indeed, it was the introduction of the MA-1 that helped mark the end for the military-issue leather bomber jacket. This was the dawn of the jet age, with military pilots flying at higher altitudes than ever before. For all its cold-weather virtues, leather was simply no longer the best material for the job.
But the sheer popularity of the MA-1 – which has been co-opted by countless subcultures over the years, from rockers and skaters to hooligans and ravers – has seen it transcend its military roots. When we talk about an MA-1 today, we could be talking generally about a bomber jacket with a short, ribbed collar, a ribbed waistband and two diagonal welt pockets. They can be, and often are, made from leather; Sandro does them particularly well.
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Designed in 1928 by keen motorcyclist Mr Irving Schott of Schott NYC, the Perfecto is perhaps the quintessential leather biker jacket. Though its striking looks have seen it become a fashion statement over the years, they wholly belie this perfect example of form following function: the snug, cropped fit was designed for comfort while poised over the fuel tank of a motorcycle, while the asymmetrical zip fastening was chosen because buttons, which were standard-issue at the time, have a tendency to blow open at high speeds.
The Perfecto owes its rebel icon status to Mr Marlon Brando, who wore one as the maverick biker Johnny Strabler in 1953’s The Wild One, and to the seminal punk outfit the Ramones, who adopted the jacket as their unofficial uniform in the 1970s. As for the name, “Perfecto” was apparently Mr Schott’s favourite cut of cigar.
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Named after a type of low-slung, stripped-back motorcycle that was popular with bike gangs in the 1960s, who would race them between the roadside transport cafés dotted around London’s arterial roads, the café racer is a streamlined leather biker jacket designed for a hunched-over riding position.
With a no-frills appearance that features a tab collar and horizontal, zip-fastened chest pockets, the café racer is the closest you’ll get to a modern leather jacket designed for genuine road riding – minus the padding, of course.
It’s also an understated and very wearable jacket, so if you’re worried that you might not be able to pull off a leather biker, this is the place to start. Just add a grey marl T-shirt, dark denim and boots, and off you go. For tried-and-true classics, look to Schott and Belstaff; for luxe upgrades, try brands such as The Row.
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First introduced in 1948, the Trialmaster jacket is Belstaff’s most iconic creation. And while it’s perhaps most famous for being worn by a young Mr Ernesto “Che” Guevara on the South American odyssey recorded in his memoir, The Motorcycle Diaries, it was once intended to suit the needs of a rather different sort of motorcyclist.
The Scottish Six Days Trial is an off-road endurance race that has been held annually in the rugged Scottish Highlands since 1909, making it the oldest event of its kind in the world. Belstaff, an English outerwear company founded in 1924 by Mr Eli Belovitch in Staffordshire – hence the name Belstaff – designed a jacket that could stand up to the harsh conditions faced by competitors as they navigated their motorcycles across the rocky terrain.
The result was comfortable, warm, packed with handy pockets and tough as old boots. And while it was originally constructed from waterproof waxed cotton, it’s a more durable and sophisticated garment when made from leather. If you’re interested in a Trialmaster, there is of course only one brand you need to know: Belstaff.
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What’s a trucker jacket, you ask? It’s just another name for the Levi Strauss Type III. With its darted fit, button fastening and two chest pockets with pointed flaps, it’s as recognisable a jacket silhouette as they come – and while it’s far more common to see it in denim, there are plenty of leather versions available, too.
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More a fabrication than a style, the shearling jacket nonetheless merits a mention all of its own on this list, as the insulating properties of sheepskin make it a splendid cold-weather alternative to finer leathers. In that great crucible of all things menswear, the military, it was put to use in some of the earliest bomber jackets designed for high-altitude flying. The US Army’s military issue B-3 jacket is keenly sought after to this day.
Passing into the civilian wardrobe in the latter half of the 20th century, the material became hugely popular in the 1970s and 1980s. In the UK, it became indelibly associated with legendary football commentator Mr John Motson and Del Boy from Only Fools And Horses.
The jacket has been enjoying a resurgence in popularity over the past few seasons, and as a result, it’s now possible to buy one from any number of brands. For a rugged all-rounder, we recommend the jackets from MR PORTER’s Kingsman range. For something a little more elevated, try Brunello Cucinelli or Loro Piana.
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Nota bene: the leather jacket as an “investment piece”
When they’re trying to sell you something, clothing brands will often use the phrase “investment piece”. This isn’t to suggest that it’ll appreciate in value, allowing you to sell it on at some unspecified future date for more than you bought it as per a traditional investment – although in certain cases that might be true; there’s plenty of money to be made reselling deadstock Nikes, for example. Rather, what these brands are getting at is that the garment in question is built to last and may even get better with time, thereby rendering your initial investment more justifiable on a “cost per wear” basis.
This is usually nothing more than a cheap marketing tactic, but there are a few notable exceptions. Certain Swiss watches hold their value exceptionally well, and good quality bench-made shoes should last you a long time if cared for correctly. But when it comes to serious wardrobe investments, the smart money’s on the leather jacket. Not only does the material age beautifully, softening over time as it accrues the scuffs and creases of daily wear, but the leather jacket itself is a bona-fide menswear classic, destined to remain in style for at least as long as you own it. Shop wisely, and this is one garment that you’ll find yourself returning to again and again.