Hundreds and thousands of gay men (and generally glbt people today) wear leather gear and participate in leather events. But why leather? What’s the story behind it? In this article, we will cover why gay men wear leather, passing from its original meaning, and today’s social trends.
Table of Contents
- Why gay men wear leather today
- What is a Leatherman
- The history of Leather Culture in post-World War 2
- Leather in pop culture
- The problem of non leather folk wearing leather as fashion statement
- Hankie Code and Key Chains
- The original meaning of Leather wear to a Leatherman
- Why do you wear Leather?
Why gay men wear Leather today
Most of the people outside the “community” find Leather hot and sexy, even when they are talking badly about leather-folk to their peers. At the time of the update of this article, in 2023, things have slightly changed to a wider acceptance and welcoming to any kind of “look”, as wearing Leather has been reduced to little more than a fashion statement, due to the growing economical interests of events organizers in welcoming as many people as possible in the scene, regardless of their adherence to what Leather is actually supposed to be about.
I think, though, that an explanation is needed both for the people gravitating towards the community and also for those ones already inside of it. As I stated many times on this website, there is no sense in doing the WHAT if there is no WHY. This shows up especially in the typical situation where a man from within the actual scene can tell you why Old Guard Leathermen wear leather, while if you try asking anybody in New Guard “why do you wear leather?”, they won’t actually be able to answer you.
Most of them will actually admit to you they’re actually uncomfortable in it, and that they can’t wait to take it off when they come home from the club (or when they’re finished taking pictures for their social media).
While Leather culture is rooted in a very specific history, nowadays many people wear Leather to emulate a visual stereotype which became increasingly popular in the late 1960’s, when the image of “The Wild One” starring Marlon Brando , heavily visually inspired by Tom of Finland’s Kake.
This kind of “look” was welcomed by part of the gay crowd as an opposition to the standardization of homosexuality as necessarily feminine and frail, as at the beginning of the 20th century, that was the accepted image of homosexuality, when and if homosexuality was accepted at all.
What is a Leatherman
As we have covered in depth in our article that explains what a Leatherman is, being a Leatherman is not about wearing a fabric. If if was all so simple, then gay people wearing a t-shirt would be called “cottonmen”, and people wearing jeans “denimmen”, or something on this level of silliness.
Being a Leatherman has to do with the Roots of Old Guard Leather, which look back at the period right after the end of World War 2. The fact that at the time most men coming from military life would own and ride a motorcycle, is contextual to the fact that all these men wore protective gear, and that gear, was Leather wear and Motorcycle Boots. This is the reason why this visual stereotype exists.
A Leatherman at the time was a motorcycle rider, belonging to a club; each club had specific rules, and to different degrees creeds to live by, codes of honor, and some of these motorcycle clubs were composed by gay or bisexual men. One example above all, was the Satyr’s club.
Today, a Leatherman is a man who still lives by those ideals and rules of conduct, with a lifestyle based on discipline and honor, but we rarely wear Leather, as it’s not about a fetish for the gear. It’s not an “outfit”, it’s gear that is supposed to be contextual to what you’re doing. It’s about the lifestyle of it. The reason why today men still wear full Leathers, will be covered further on in this article.
The history of Leather Culture in Post World War 2
The Leather BDSM community found its fortune and development in the US and central Europe right after War World II. BDSM and the roots of Leather Culture are deeper than that, as beautifully covered in the very first chapter of Urban Aboriginals, by Geoff Mains; but for the sake of staying on topic, let’s say that in modern culture, the explosion (and the beginning of social acceptance) of BDSM happened in that time.
After World War II, life slowly started again to breathe and spread, and there was much more space for opening new clubs, bringing up new ideas and ideals, and meeting different cultures. Motorcycles were very common and profusely used back in the day, and especially US military officials still staying in Europe* were seen going around the towns and the harbors in their uniforms and boots. The culture of the motorcycle is a big part of what defined the Leather Culture. From “The Satyr” in Los Angeles to the “New York Motorbike Club”, the “Warlocks” and the “California Motor Club” in San Francisco, many gay and bi-sexual motorcycle clubs started to sprout across the country; loving to ride a motorcycle, the sense of extreme freedom it gives, paired with the sense of freedom of the end of the war and being able to work up a sense of community around each other’s sexuality, was a great thing. For a deeper coverage on the detailed history of Leather and how it moved from Old Guard to new guard, there’s an article about the History of Old Guard Leather.
*The US military was a strong presence, but the cultural stereotype from where today’s leather worship come from is also about German (yes, Nazis too) military, UK military, Holland military…
Leather in pop culture
So you can imagine how quickly the trend of men wearing leather started to spread, among gay people of a certain community. Wearing leather soon started to become a political statement. It meant identifying yourself as part of bigger community, a community led by freedom, an independent and original (your own) sexuality, the need to create a sense of FAMILY and PACK and live accordingly to a chosen and embraced set of rules.
This dynamic and the arrival of Leather stereotypes in movies and other media threw leather into pop culture, from where Marlon Brando and James Dean where seen by millions of people riding motorcycles, wearing Muir caps and dressing in tight leather and boots. The arrival of the comics of Tom of Finland on Beefcake Magazine contributed to spread even further the “look” of a Leatherman in the glbt scene. You can read our article on the History of Leather Culture for a more in depth coverage of how Leather penetrated pop culture, detaching from Old Guard.
And here you have it: the globalization of a “look”, which has a lot of meaning and history. A history that nowadays most of the gay men wearing leather don’t care about.
The problem of non Leather Folk wearing Leather as a fashion statement or a trend
Indeed, while in the last decades of the last century Leather was being used as a symbol of worship and idealization of masculinity, today the glbt (and especially queer) community is openly aggressive towards masculinity, not to mention towards the traditional understanding of what is masculine and what is not. Therefor, there can’t be even a reference to that.
I have to admit that it’s really difficult for an Old Guard Leatherman to witness this, and I understand how hard it is for newcomers to understand this dynamic. When I got to party and I see guys who are not leather folk wearing a harness, a leather jock strap, or chaps and sneakers and a Muir cap, I see a symbolism that represents my culture, being used for something that is mere vanity, and often a stupid display of disrespect and cultural appopriation.
Literally today each and every queer person have seen a harness onto somebody and / or owns one. Leather shops are not helping in this sense, selling of course all kinds of new “gear” with pipings and random colors* that have no meaning whatsoever. Though, they “look pretty”.
For traditional Leathermen, it is an insult to the strong and brave heart of the community that led us here, and it has to be understood that the globalization and the turning into “fashion” of everything, has consequences. I used to find it difficult and embarassing when non leather folk people dressed in leather approached me and on my polite refusal of sexual intercourse they said “we are part of the same tribe, what’s wrong with me”. No, we are not the same people. And I’m saying this not because I think I’m better than people around me. I’m saying this because where there is lack of WHY, I’m not interested in the WHAT, as I know for a fact that we are not looking for the same kind of experience.
*About colors: did you know why leathermen (but not only them) wear colored items such as hankies or wristbands? And did you know that they have a precise meaning, and also wearing them on the left or on the right has a meaning? Long story short: left top, right bottom. And here is a list of which color indicates which “activity” or, if you wish, interest.
The importance of Hankie Codes, Keychains and more
After World War II, you couldn’t just go around town and sport out that you were gay; even less you could be public about your BDSM interests. At the time, you would have been jailed in the best case scenario, or sent to a mental hospital and forgotten there in the worst one. The standard gay society, on top of all that, was seeing Leathermen as a dangerous, counterproductive negative element, as they were trying to fit in more and more in the eteronormative schemes to be accepted by society.
Leathermen didn’t have an easy life out of their Leather Clubs and had to find ways to protect themselves. We created specific codes to recognize each other and communicate efficiently our identity to the right people in our surroundings. At the time it was perfectly plausible and normal to have a hankie with you, especially from the most rural areas but not only that; So every color of the hankies had a meaning for a specific activity or tendency, and wether it was sported on the right or left it meant which side of the equation one would occupy; also, there were different meaning on how much tucked in or out the hankie was.
The same goes for Motorcycle keys and the keychain. Right or left had the same meaning as above, while keys on the back, on the side or on the front meant wether the person was actually cruising, if they had a place to stay or if they were looking for a place to stay; Wether the key was tucked in or out of the pocket also meant if they were looking at the moment or not. A more detailed and precise description of these traditions will be written in a dedicated article on this website.
Hankie Colors Code (and piping color code too)
While some of the associations have varied at regional level, this is the most widely known match of hankie colors and their meaning; worn on left, it means as the Top or Dominant. Worn on right, means bottom or submissive. There’s also a reference on Wikipedia on the main handkerchief Colors.
|White||Vanilla / Frottage|
|Dark Green||Daddy/son / Ageplay|
|Light Green||Hustler /Buyer|
|Olive Drab||Uniforms / Military|
The traditional meaning of Leather to a Leatherman
As most of you might have noticed, real good quality Leather is expensive. Back in the days we’ve been talking about, there weren’t hundreds of Pakistani, Indian and Bangladesh manufacturers stalking you on instagram to sell you poorly built garments (the same poorly built garments you’ll buy through some of the most recognized and expensive brands in the market, by the way, who source exactly there). Leather was difficult to get to.
That’s the typical reason why, when a newcomer would be allowed to a Leather group, it would own no Leathers at all. It would have a Mentor, or a Daddy, and would work the ropes to understand the lifestyle. When the Mentor would think that the boy/girl was ready to actually start their path in Leather life, a Leather item was gifted to them.
Especially in Old Guard Leather, Leather is an award, a recognition and is gifted as an act of love and mutual validation that “we are part of the same Family”. That’s something else that comes from both Military life and Motorcycle riders lives. Just like Leather Vests and pins were earned and meant significant meaning, also in Leather life, the gear you wear has an outstanding emotional and personal value attached to it. That is also why you don’t need to own expensive leather to be welcomed to the Leather scene. It’s more important that you adhere to the principles and lifestyle; your Mentor will surely gift you or help you purchase your first Leather item, when the time is right.
Why do you wear Leather?
One time I got asked why do I wear my Leather, today. There is surely a tiny bit of fetish in it, it is a political statement but most of all, it’s about tradition and meaning. It is wearing a uniform. It is honoring the roots of the big family I live in.
When you’re wearing your leather you should feel pride, feel power, feel commitment and feel like you’re not alone. Without the structure of a real Leather community, I believe 90% of people wearing leather truly just feel more judged and lonely. Instead they should feel like part of something bigger. In my case, I know I’m part of it because this is my nature, and there’s nothing better than finding your people.
I guess that many people have other reasons to have a kink about leather. From the boots and law enforcement apparel and all it can mean to many of us, the idea of Domination it conveys, and of course Uniforms for Old Guard people.
To me? As an Old Guard Leatherman, to me it’s about Tradition, Honor and belonging. To me it is an honor to wear my Leather.
Is wearing leather a fashion choice or does it have deeper meaning?
With the scope of this question being "withing the glbt scene", wearing Leather is supposed to represent the deeper meaning we covered in this article. Nowadays, it's often less than a fashion choice.
Does wearing leather have any historical or cultural origins?
The cultural meaning of wearing leather goes back to before the year 0, when men used to warm themselves up by wearing the hides of the animals they hunt. In modern history, wearing Leather sprouts from the world of motorcycle riders and Military. Specifically when it come sto Leather as a Lifestyle, it comes from Old Guard Leather as a subcommunity driven by the admiration and romanticization of discipline, camaraderie, masculinity and honor.
Why do some gay men choose to wear leather?
Today, it happens mostly just for social validation or to gain followers online, as sad and empty as this reason is. Of course this is just the larger crowd. Many men today wear Leather because they identify as Leathermen, and are part of the BDSM world.
Do I need to wear expensive Leather to approach Leather folk?
No. Any intelligent person in or outside the Leather scene will never judge you because of the lack of gear; if anything, you might be judged for sporting gear that has no history or identity behind it. Leather is earned as you learn the ropes in the community that you choose to belong to.