Thursday, March 13, 2008

The Nature of Leather:reification and Modern Industrial Culture Wars


What is wrong with the modern concept of the leather jacket? People still buy leather. Despite movements and media coverage away from animal products and social trends which disparage the use of leather, society still seeks out leather to drape over their shoulders. Entire subcultures depend on the look and feel of leather for their wardrobe. Gay or straight, Goth or motorcyclist, leather still serves an important role in the modern fashion lexicon. So what is wrong with the modern leather jacket that leaves us wanting as compared to the vintage jacket? What differentiates a vintage jacket from the 199.00 motorcycle jacket produced in Asia? The answer is not as obvious as it would seem.

Since the dawn of human beings the earliest garments were made of leather. Paleolithic humans draped the skins of their food over their backs for warmth and protection, developing techniques to preserve those skins and make them as hard or soft and pliable as needed so they would serve as excellent protection from the elements or other violent forces. Leather speaks to the primal source of what it is to be human. The vintage leather jacket is the end of that continuum of the hunting gathering human. It is not simply an “old” jacket but the last stop in the era of the hide jacket. Not the junky mass produced jacket that most are purchasing today from the corner leather shop.

Why is a hide important as a concept? Hide implies and imbues all the earliest conceptions of what leather is. Leather is a skin; the skin of an animal. We are hairless, clawless, toothless beings who took the hair, claws and teeth of the animals we feared and revered most and through creativity, invention and respect fashioned our own hair, claw and tooth. Protection from the elements, animals and each other were fundamental to the fashioning of leather jackets. That paradigm stretches far into the 1970s, where North American made leather jackets arguably reach the pinnacles of the representation of those instincts. Where jackets run a perfect gamut of utility meets fashion.

The early process of preserving leather to save and keep those precious skins involved tanning. Tanning leather is the process of preparing the animal hide in a solution which replaces some of the organic components that rot with others that do not to keep the skin preserved and flexible. That process was perfected over thousands of years using organic wastes which contain tannins and soaking the hides in these wastes until the tannins replace the volatile decomposable elements of the hide. Usually the hides are then softened and made pliable through stretching, beating shaping and oiling in a fat solution. The skin is made softer or harder depending on the use of the garment. Protective garments are harder and thicker leathers, like breast plates for Romans or biker jackets for motorcyclists, and fashion garments are softer like fur coats for princess’ or chamois for soft fashion garments. So what has changed? Why is today’s leather different from the leather of early 20th century? In a nutshell we have lost the concept of hides or skin. It became socially incorrect to acknowledge our ancestral heritage of respecting the animals we eat, and wearing their skins. Somehow along the way we lost the importance of animals and their skins, and lost the value of leather as a protective covering. Today’s leather is an industrial product, cheap efficient and more like a fabric than a skin. Whether the reason for this change in the perception of leather was a reflection of changing fashion, changing technology or changing economics, the fact remains that modern leather jackets for the most part reflect a paradigm shift in the perception of leather. That shift cheapens and devalues the concept of the leather jacket and removes the skin from the leather. With the resurrection of the vintage leather jacket there is hope we as a culture can put the leather back in the leather jacket and start embracing our very human history as people who wear and respect hides.







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