We look at the history of the leather jacket in military use during the 20th century. Is it awkward for us to wear it? Read on.
History is rarely simple. A common historic trope is the quote, “History is told by the victors,” meaning that it’ll be rare that you can trust certain history books fully as they’ll have an intrinsic bias. Of course, there’s plenty of counter narratives you can seek out, but the issue remains that you will have to seek them out. This makes history awkward. Even the history of a clothing item can be awkward. Take the leather jacket, for example.
According to Mick Farren’s book, “The Black Leather Jacket,” the leather jacket, as we know it, was likely to have first been made for German aviators during World War I. However, the perfecto jacket–essentially the best private order of all time–was created in 1928, some years after WWI.The jackets were created through a partnership between Beck Industries, a Harley-Davidson distributor, and Irving Schott. It is reported that Beck asked Schott to design him a leather jacket that could withstand extreme weather and most types of accidents. Upon receiving the jacket Schott decided to name it “Perfecto” after his favorite brand of cigar. The real interest of this anecdote is that the jacket was essentially a shortened version of the leather jackets worn during WWI. However, the design varied slightly in that Beck Industries specifically asked for a zipper, presumably because the majority of the popular leather styles of the time had buttons.
When World War II happened, the use of leather jackets had spread with the U.S. Army Air Corps creating the A-2 leather jacket in 1930. But the German military had a more revered use of leather now, with high-ranking officers wearing it as a symbol of power. The longline double-breasted leather jacket was a favorite of the highest in command, including Hitler and his commanders. Variations of the leather jacket were used by their famously conspicuous secret police, The Gestapo, as well as The SS Panzer division, Luftwaffe fighter pilots and U-Boat crews. All in all, it’s fair to say that the German military liked a leather jacket.
The question now is, how do we deal with this awkward history? The popular method is to simply pretend that the 20th-century leather jacket* has nothing to do with the German military. This impulse is understandable. If you’re writing for a brand, you’re hardly likely to put “appropriated from The Gestapo” in the “About Me” page. If you’re writing for a magazine or any other outlet, then it’s understandable that an editor would not want anyone thinking about Hitler when they pick up their magazine and/or visit their website.
But this approach creates issues: there’s the whole “History is told by the victors” thing. Then there’s the fact the sheer horror of what happened during those wars makes talking about anything to do with it horrific by proxy. But if history is never simple, then you have to be able to embrace the awkwardness of this fact, even if you use fashion, clothing, or style as escapism from the world. No matter how much we want to, we cannot airbrush history.
History isn’t simple; the world isn’t simple. No matter how much people want to boil things down to a bite-sized Instagram quote, and that leather jacket you’ve got in your wardrobe has connections to German WWI fighter wear.
In times like this, when watching “The Cosby Show” reruns poses a moral dilemma, we’re all just going to have to deal with that jacket in our closet having a slightly awkward back story.
Editor’s Note: Due to questions regarding the historical accuracy of this piece, we have listed the sources here. We would also like to clarify that this article is only speaking of the history of the leather jacket in the 20th century. Lastly, we are in no way implying that any of the mentioned brands have direct ties to the moments in history which were previously referenced.