Bomber pilots wore them in World War II. Marlon Brando, Dennis Hopper and Peter Fonda wore them on motorcycles. James Dean wore one driving a hot rod.
Now Donna Karan includes one in her new catalog of "essential" wardrobe pieces for men. Given her penchant for dressing women in black leather jackets with wool jersey skirts, it's likely that her soon-to-be-published "Essentials" catalog for women will also include a jacket.
Once confined mainly to the wardrobes of adventurers, outlaws, outdoorsmen and military personnel, leather -- especially black leather -- has become mainstream.
Nearly all high-fashion designers now include some version of a leather jacket in their collections, and the fall fashion magazines for men and women are featuring plenty of leather wear ranging from vests to hip-length leather pea coats.
Meanwhile, longtime leather jacket manufacturers such as Schott Bros., the venerable New Jersey maker of the original biker jacket (Brando wore one of theirs in the "The Wild One" in 1954) are adding styles to their lines as new competitors elbow their way into the market.
Coach, maker of prestigious and pricey purses and briefcases, is introducing a line of men's and women's leather jackets this fall. And Timberland, a company best-known for its rugged, waterproof boots, is heavily promoting its 4-year-old leather apparel business with a television campaign.
Though tough economic times have meant lean sales for most apparel makers, many makers of leather jackets and outerwear are apparently enjoying steady sales. Sales of leather apparel nationwide were $3.3 billion in 1992, according to the Leather Apparel Association, a New York-based trade group, up 10 percent from the year before.
"Leather for a long time was considered mostly for men, and mostly for sportswear," said Lili Kasdan, managing director of the Leather Apparel Association. "But the tanning process for leather has improved so much that leather, which used to be thought of as stiff and heavy, can now be much more drapable and softer. So there's a lot that designers can do with it now."
Rebecca Ray, a Seattle designer who often works with leather, says the appeal of top-quality leathers, with their butter-soft hand, is seasonless: "It's like cashmere. It's expensive, but it's heaven to wear. It's a luxury item, no question about it."
It's hard to pinpoint exactly when black leather went from outlaw to chic.
These days black leather can be worn to elegant, dress-up affairs -- especially if it is soft, supple and simply styled. A look that chic women championed a few years ago was to team a fitted black leather vest or cropped biker-style jacket with a white blouse and black chiffon pants or skirt -- an ensemble that could easily go to the opera or a fancy restaurant. And some menswear designers are showing sleek black vests worn with turtlenecks and dark sport coats as a look for an evening on the town. Gay men helped push black biker jackets into mainstream chic when they started wearing them for evenings on the town a couple of decades ago.
Among the most fashionable leather jacket styles for men and women this fall are the hip-length, boxy jackets sometimes called "policeman'" jackets. Double-breasted leather pea coats are also The cropped bomber jacket remains a classic for men and women, though the newest styles are made without elastic at the waist. For motorcycle riders and those who want to look like them, bike jackets with their belts and buckles, big snap-down collars and zipped fronts are always stylish.
Would-be buyers of leather jackets are often concerned about how the leather will hold up to rain. The answer is that it depends on the type of leather and how much rain you're talking about. Some leather is now treated during the tanning process to make it "waterproof." The Leather Association calls these leathers "performance leathers" and says that "the most repellent will cause liquids or spills to bead up and roll off without ever leaving a wet spot. The higher price tag might be justified by the savings on trips to the cleaners."
The Leather Association explains that the other way to protect leather is to apply topical treatments: "Topical sprays applied to manufactured garments generally do not offer the same degree of protection, but do represent a less expensive initial purchase. Treated garments may become wet from rain or spills, but will resist leaving water marks or stains. Sprays need to be reapplied depending upon the wear and care of the garment, and certainly after any cleaning."
Leather jackets and coats don't come cheap. Even the least expensive leather bombers usually cost $100 to $200. Jackets ++ made of softer, high-quality leather that may have been waterproofed at the tannery run $1,000 or more.
Here are tips from the Leather Apparel Association on caring for leather garments, plus a couple of definitions of generic names for leather:
Suede is made by buffing the underside of a hide.
Nubuck is created by lightly buffing the top grain of the leather until it takes on a very fine nap that appears smoother than suede.
Napa is the surface or top grain of a soft leather hide. It may have many different textures.
* Cleaning methods depend on the type of leather; consult a leather-care expert. Never have garments cleaned by normal dry-cleaning methods.
* Store garment on a broad hanger, not wire, to maintain its shape. Never store under plastic, which will dry out leather. To keep dust off, use a cloth or paper cover.
* If wet, simply let the garment dry naturally. Do not attempt to dry with heat.
* Wrinkles will hang out. If ironing is absolutely necessary, cover the garment with heavy paper and use the lowest setting, without steam.
* Avoid spraying perfumes or hair sprays while wearing the garment.
* Wipe away dust and dirt with a soft dry sponge or cloth. Brushes and buffing blocks made especially for suede or nubuck are available.
* Hems may be fixed with a tiny amount of rubber cement.
* All water- and stain-repellent products should be tested on a tiny inconspicuous part of the garment.