When you shop for leather items, you often face a bewildering array of choices. Heck, leather's complexity even scared me off for many years. To help you out, I've put together a little guide. Read on to learn about the different types of leather, leather tanning, leather clothes, and how to match these garments with each other and with your existing wardrobe.
types of leather
Leather is any tanned, toughened (yet pliable), dried, and dyed skin of an animal. Thanks to modern dyeing processes, most types of leather can be found in nearly any color. Some leathers, however, are best known for particular colors.
Buckskin: Pliable leather with a smooth finish from wild stag (deer, elk or antelope).
Chamois: Leather originally made from the Alpine chamois, a goat-like animal. Nowadays, it's culled from sheepskin. Chamois is well regarded for its supreme softness, absorbency and light tan color. It is pronounced SHAM-wa, or parochially, SHAM-ee.
Calfskin: Leather from young cows. It's a smoother leather, but it can be roughened to create "velour leather," or embossed with patterns and other textures. It is considered dressy and is usually found in darker shades (blacks and browns).
Cowhide: Leather from full-grown cows that is used for shoes, boots and jackets. Tough and durable, it can have a smooth or rough finish. You'll find it in all colors, but mostly shades of brown and black.
Lizard skins: Crocodile, alligator and other lizard skins are usually limited to belts, luggage or shoes. They sport a scaly texture and a nice sheen, and can be had in shades of green, grey, red, and brown.
Pigskin: Pigskin is more commonly used in South America. It has little nap (fuzz) and is generally smooth to the touch and tan in color.
Ostrich: An "exotic" leather found on belts or shoes. Ostrich resembles a plucked chicken, and as such, has a "goose bump" appearance.
Suede: Suede is created when the reverse side of calfskin is roughened to the point of extreme softness. The resultant nap almost resembles velvet. Suede goods can be had in all major colors.
To achieve leather's distinctive look, an animal skin is "tanned;" that is, its water is removed and its fibers are sealed together by binding agents.
Vegetable-tanned Tannic acid (or tannin) from vegetables and other plants is used to create a rather supple leather.
Mineral- or alum-tanned: Stiffer leathers are created by bathing the skin in aluminum, zirconium or chromium salts.
Oil-tanned: To create the softest leathers, fatty oils are repeatedly hammered into the skin and allowed to dry, eventually forcing out the water and binding the fibers together.
types of leather clothes
You can buy every garment imaginable in leather: jackets, blazers, overcoats, pants, shirts, underwear, belts, shoes, gloves, and hats. It's all out there.
Of course, they're not all good fashion moves. Men's clothiers have been working with leather for hundreds of years, but only with a few classic garments. Stick to jackets, overcoats, shoes, and belts. Leather pants are only an option for rock stars.
Leather jackets are most guys' sole experience with leather. And why not? Leather jackets work with a wide array of both casual and dressy clothes, and they're a good bet against the cold. Check out the to get the leather lowdown on traditional shoes and boots.
how to match leather
Leather is certainly a striking fabric. In the documentary Comedian, Jerry Seinfeld notes that he won't wear leather jackets onstage; the tough guy image can turn off an entire audience. Nevertheless, not all conventional wisdom pertaining to leather is that cut-and-dry. For every strict leather rule, there's another that's as pliable as calfskin.
Matching various leather items
For business or formal outfits, the type, texture and color of leather jackets/coats and accessories should ideally match, or at the very least, complement each other. Shiny goes with shiny, dull with dull. You don't want to pair a calfskin belt with patent leather shoes.
Similarly, avoid dark leather jackets with dress shirts. For business casual, a brown leather jacket and white dress shirt with a tie can work.
For casual dress, the rules of leather-on-leather matching mostly go out the window (Yes, "belt must match shoes" is an old chestnut, but even that's no longer applicable at all times). It's better to match leather textures than leather colors when it comes to casual wear.
Leather colors for men
Women can pull off brighter and more diverse colors of leather than men. No problem, says I. Fewer colors mean buying and matching is that much easier. Just stick to shades of brown, tan and black for jackets and coats. For accents, you can always expand to reds and greens for belts, watches or wallets.
Matching leather with other fabrics
More rugged leather textures -- such as cowhide or lizard skin -- are more casual, and therefore match well with denim or corduroy.
When wearing jeans and a leather jacket, one doesn't really need to worry about matching colors. A brown belt can go with a black leather jacket, and you can wear either item with tan cowboy boots. It is a plus, though, if two items are at least in the same ballpark (such as the pairing of tan boots and brown belt).
Avoid pairing three or more radically different colors, types or textures of leather. Stick to two similar styles and one accent, if need be.
Use exotic leathers as accents -- in moderation. For example, don't wear an alligator skin belt with alligator skin shoes.
The color of your leather wallet does not have to match your other leather items.
Leather gloves should match the color of your outerwear rather than the color of your belt or shoes.
Some guys consider it rather fussy to try to match all your leather garments by color. You may find it easier to focus on matching leather textures and types.
how to care for leather
As a natural fiber, leather must breathe. Store your leather goods in cool, dry places and away from direct sunlight and plastic (both of which can sap its color and musk).
Avoid cleaning it with detergents or scrubbing it with harsh brushes. Leather is durable, but you can easily ruin its finish.
Ask your drycleaner if he's able to clean leather, and keep an eye peeled for special leather sprays that will protect your garment from water and stains.
And of course, there's that one leather rule that everyone and his grandma knows: Suede should never get wet.
If it does, though, it's not the end of the world. Simply hang the garment to dry at room temperature, and then brush it gently with a soft brush or a suede brush. This will lift the leather's "nap" and remove spots, provided it hasn't been utterly drenched.
know your leather
Hopefully, you've acquired enough knowledge to go out and make an informed decision about this most macho of fabrics. So long as you steer clear of S&M-style leather stores, you should do just fine.