MARLON BRANDO wore one in "The Wild One." James Dean's rebel without a cause perfected his slouch while chain-smoking in one. The black leather motorcycle jacket, with its sharp collar and industrial-looking zippers, is generally associated with brooding bad boys and burly motorcycle gangs. But it's showing its softer side this fall.

The key is the slim silhouette. The waist-length cut keeps it authentic, but the body and shoulders are narrower, taking away the boxiness and making for a more flattering fit. You can't go wrong with black leather; it's classic, goes with everything and suits fall's dramatic mood. It may seem heavy, but take a cue from the Degas ballerina-meets-Hells Angels way that celebrities such as Anne Hathaway and Rachel Bilson have been wearing these jackets, and you can make a masculine piece feel flirty.

In recent appearances, Hathaway has paired her sleek, fitted version with a wispy, pale pink skirt and black ankle-strap shoes for a successful mix of hard and soft. And Bilson's chosen a hooded leather jacket, slightly more cropped to flatter her diminutive frame. In pairing it with a pastel dress in a light fabric, she added just the right touch of rebellion.

Mixing a leather jacket with a chiffon dress or airy blouse and skinny jeans is a fresh way to wear leather and the perfect layering for fall nights. Justin Timberlake's line of trendy street wear, William Rast, has a classic-looking motorcycle jacket in black leather ($528). Braided epaulets add texture to the otherwise slick piece. For a similar look without the steep price, H&M has a cropped, black faux leather bomber-style jacket for $44.90. It may not be the real deal, but the high collar and banded waistband make it versatile.

When pairing a leather jacket with a skirt or dress, it's best to stick to solid colors. Unless you want to try a floral baby-doll dress with a black motorcycle jacket, which looks '90s grunge -- in a good way. Just don't wear Dr. Martens. A black ballet flat or simple ankle boot will balance the jacket in a more modern way.

If a black motorcycle jacket is too hard core for your taste, Gap has a cropped leather peacoat in a softer shade of dove gray ($298) that can be worn with tweed trousers or a dark trouser jean. With an A line, slanted zip pockets and a funnel neck, Vince's sophisticated mod version ($725) can be worn in lieu of a blazer with a pencil skirt, and is roomy enough to layer over a sweater.

Theory's peacock blue jacket ($895) would add a nice pop of color to faded black jeans and a simple top or a rocker edge to a sweet mini dress. Mike & Chris' '60s-inspired leather jacket ($900) comes in an unexpected shade of moss green, with three-quarter-length bell sleeves and large buttons adding a sense of whimsy.

Whether it's the classic black leather motorcycle style or a more toned-down version in a brighter color, let the jacket be the focal point and make everything else soft and subtle. Delicate gold jewelry or a few layered bangles are fine -- helmet and boots not required.

melissa.magsaysay@latimes.com