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.
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.
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.