The leather subculture denotes practices and styles of dress organized around sexual activities and hedonistic eroticism ("kink"). Wearing leather garments is one way that participants in this culture self-consciously distinguish themselves from mainstream sexual cultures. Leather culture is most visible in gay communities and most often associated with gay men ("leathermen"), but it is also reflected in various ways in the gay, lesbian, bisexual, and straight worlds. Many people associate leather culture with BDSM (Bondage/Discipline, Dominance/Submission, Sado/Masochism, also called "SM" or "S&M") practices and its many subcultures. But for others, wearing black leather clothing is an erotic fashion that expresses heightened masculinity or the appropriation of sexual power; love of motorcycles and independence; and/or engagement in sexual kink or leather fetishism.
Popular and Social Origins
Gay male leather culture has existed since the late 1940s, when it likely grew out of post-WWII biker culture. Early gay leather bars were subcultural versions of the motorcycle club. Pioneering gay motorcycle clubs included the Satyrs, established in Los Angeles in 1954; Oedipus, also established in Los Angeles in 1958, and the New York Motorbike Club. Early San Francisco clubs included the Warlocks and the California Motor Club.
These clubs, like the motorcycle culture in general, reflected a disaffection with the mainstream culture of post-World War II America, a disaffection whose notoriety---and therefore appeal---expanded after the sensationalized news coverage of the Hollister "riot" of 1947. The 1953 film The Wild One starring Marlon Brando wearing jeans, a T-shirt, a leather jacket, and muir cap, played on pop-cultural fascination with the Hollister "riot" and promoted an image of masculine independence that resonated with some gay men in a culture which stereotyped gay men as effeminate. To that end, gay motorcycle culture also reflected some men's disaffection with the coexistent gay cultures more organized around passing, high culture, popular culture (especially musical theater), and/or camp. Perhaps as a result, the leather community that emerged from the motorcycle clubs also became the practical and symbolic location for gay men's open exploration of kink and S&M.
The more specifically homoerotic aesthetics of men's leather culture drew on other sources as well, including military and police uniforms. This influence is particular evident in the graphical illustrations of leathermen found in the work of Tom of Finland. The pornographic films of one of his models Peter Berlin, such as his 1973 film Nights in Black Leather, also reflected and promoted the leather subcultural aesthetic.
Styles of dress associated with gay men's leather culture also had influence on mainstream pop culture. It may be seen in the chains and leather or denim and leather look espoused by heavy metal bands. The first practitioner of this look in a heavy metal context was Rob Halford, the lead singer of the influential NWOBHM band Judas Priest. Halford wore a leather costume on stage as early as 1978, a look he described as originating in the gay leather subculture. The subsequent influence of his costume may be seen in many metal bands, particularly in the widespread and creative appropriation of the codpiece in metal rockers' costumes.
Aspects of leather culture beyond the sartorial can also be see in the 1970 murder mystery novel “Cruising” by Jay Green. The novel was the basis for the 1980 movie ”Cruising,” which depicted aspects of the men's leather subculture for a wider audience.
And lastly, perhaps no figure has more vividly represented the leather subculture in the popular imagination than the leatherman portrayed by Glenn Hughes of the Village People.
Association with BDSM
In recent decades the leather community has been considered a subset of BDSM culture rather than a descendant of gay culture. Even so, the most visibly organized SM community has been a subculture of the gay community, as evidenced by the International Mr. Leather organization. Meanwhile, other subcultures have likewise appropriated various leather fashions and practices.
The Leatherman's Handbook by Larry Townsend, published in 1972, epitomizes the association of the leather subculture with BDSM. This book also encoded what is called old guard leather culture. This code emphasized strict formality and fixed roles (i.e. no switching). Other old guard practices emphasize discipline, honor, brotherhood, and respect, and are said to promote a stricter lifestyle, education, and intra-community privilege based on successive ranks or levels.
New guard, or new leather, which describes an era in leather culture that started in the early 1990s, embraced switching and a greater variety of approaches to eroticism. An increasing number of pansexual clubs evolved as well.
Leather subcultural practices have also become a common, though perhaps not widespread, element of the goth subculture.
Relatively few lesbian women or heterosexuals were visible during the early emergence of the leather subculture. Patrick Califia, who was a lesbian activist in the San Francisco leather subculture, is credited for defining the emergence of lesbian leather subculture. In 1978, Califia co-founded one of the first lesbian S/M groups, Samois. Califia became a prolific contributor to lesbian and BDSM literary erotica and sex guides.
In North America, with the possible exception of Quebec, gay men's leather culture continues to be associated with men above the age of 40. In Europe younger men have combined the aesthetic and exploration of sexual power with the gay skinhead movement and social-fraternal organizations like BLUF.
Today, while some may still use the term strictly in the old fashioned sense (i.e., Old Guard), more than ever the leather subculture in the 21st century represents the activities of several major sub-communities. These include BDSM practitioners, whether high or low protocol, and whether gay, lesbian, straight, bisexual, or pansexual. They also include people who have a preference for aggressive or masculine sexual styles; people who love motorcycles; people involved in kink or leather fetishism; and people who participate in large-scale cultural and marketing events such as Folsom Street Fair or leather-themed circuit parties.
Several major cities host Leather Pride events, including San Francisco's Folsom Street Fair, New York City's Folsom Street East, Toronto's Leatherball and Folsom Fair North, Chicago's International Mr. Leather, Montreal, and Berlin.
Opposition to leather
Some within the leather communities as well as animal rights activists are opposed to wearing leather and point to vinyl and latex as alternatives.
Museums and exhibitions
The 10,000 square foot, two-story Leather Archives and Museum, based in Chicago, has much information and details on the beginning of the leather subculture.
In addition to activities in Chicago, the LA&M serves the leather world by preserving material from various leather communities, and sends traveling exhibits around the country.
In 2005, Viola Johnson started traveling with her collection and telling stories from her 35 years of personal involvement in the leather subculture. (Vi Johnson does not represent the Leather Archives & Museum).