Leather culture is practices and styles of dress organized around sexual activities that involve leather garments, such as leather jackets, vests, boots, chaps, harnesses, or other items. 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, but it is also reflected in various ways in the lesbian, bisexual, and straight worlds. Male enthusiasts are often called “leathermen”, and female enthusiasts are often called “leatherwomen”; all are often called “leatherfolk” and “members of the leather community”. Many people associate leather culture with BDSM practices. But some do not associate their leather lifestyle with BDSM, and simply enjoy the sensory experience of leather.
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 with pioneering gay motorcycle clubs including 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, while early clubs in Sydney included the South Pacific Motor Club (SPMC). Leather Clubs for gay men started in Amsterdam and Berlin in the 1950s, and in Sydney from 1970. The first gay leather bar, the Gold Coast bar, opened in Chicago in 1958; it was founded by Chuck Renslow and his romantic partner Dom Orejudos.
The June 1964 Paul Welch Life magazine article “Homosexuality In America” was the first time a national American publication reported on gay issues; Life‘s photographer was referred to the gay male leather bar called the Tool Box for the article by gay activist Hal Call, who had long worked to dispel the myth that all gay men were effeminate. The article opened with a two-page spread of the mural of life-size leathermen in the Tool Box which had been painted by Chuck Arnett in 1962, and described San Francisco as “The Gay Capital of America”. The article inspired many gay leathermen to move there.
These gay clubs, like the clubs of straight 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 who were dissatisfied with a culture that 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 high culture, popular culture (especially musical theater), and/or camp style. 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.
Throughout the history of the leather subculture, a variety of traditions have been observed, often diligently. While most or all are based on military protocols and ritual, these traditions varied widely between regions, causing much debate today over which traditions are the original or true traditions, or whether the “romanticized versions of leather history” ever existed at all.
As time has progressed and BDSM has become more mainstream (see below), the traditions of leather have adapted. The first major evolution has become known as “New Leather” or “New Guard”. However, even this is the subject of some disagreement, as many noted authors and historians assert that there is little or no substantive difference.
Today, the leather subculture is one of many facets to semi-organized alternative sexuality. Many individuals describe long periods of introspection leading to their choice to identify as “leather”. Some do not associate their leather lifestyle with BDSM, and simply enjoy the sensory experience of leather.
The more specifically homoerotic aesthetics of men’s leather culture drew on other sources as well, including military and police uniforms. This influence is particularly 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 from Berlin, such as his 1973 film Nights in Black Leather, also reflected and promoted the leather subcultural aesthetic. In the 1970s Berlin had a huge leather scene with several leather clubs in the gay area around Nollendorfplatz. In 1975 Europe’s biggest gay fetish event started, Easter in Berlin Leather Festival.
Aspects of leather culture beyond the sartorial can also be seen 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.
Distinct aspects of heavy metal fashion can be credited to various bands, but the band that takes the most credit for revolutionizing the look was Judas Priest, primarily with its singer, Rob Halford who openly identifies as gay and wears black leather. Halford wore a leather costume on stage as early as 1978 to coincide with the promotion for the Killing Machine (Hell Bent for Leather in the USA) album. In a 1998 interview, Halford described the leather subculture as the inspiration for this look. Shortly after appropriating the leather look, Halford started appearing onstage on a roaring motor bike. Soon, the rest of the band followed.
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 often 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 American competition known as International Mr. Leather (established 1979 by Chuck Renslow and his romantic partner Dom Orejudos), and SM Gays in the UK (established 1981). 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. Townsend described in detail a community of gay males who wore leather and casually engaged in sadomasochistic sex with one another. Recreational drugs and alcohol were frequently used. Pairings were often just for one night or a few days. Participants often took a dominant role in one encounter but a submissive role in another (a practice known as “switching”). Townsend describes very little in the way of social hierarchy or organization within this culture, though he does convey a definite sense of community.
Although gay men are the most visible symbol of the leather community, in 2010 there are numerous women who identify as leatherwomen – and women have the International Ms. Leather (IMsL) event as their corollary to International Mr. Leather (IML). An example is Joan Jett, who has a leather pride sticker prominently displayed on her guitar.
Relatively few lesbian women or heterosexuals were visible during the early emergence of the leather subculture. Pat Califia, who was an activist in the San Francisco leather subculture and identified as a lesbian at the time (but now identifies as a bisexual transgender man), is credited for defining the emergence of lesbian leather subculture. In 1978 in San Francisco, Califia co-founded one of the first lesbian BDSM groups, Samois. Califia became a prolific contributor to lesbian and BDSM literary erotica and sex guides.
Lesbian BDSM groups also emerged in Sydney, Los Angeles and New York in the early 1980s. Groups such as G.O.D. and Wicked Women in Sydney began presenting events and publishing magazines and books. Leather and Lace, a woman’s BDSM support and social group, was founded in Los Angeles in 1980. The women of Leather and Lace learned the “old guard” traditions from the men of Avatar. Leather and Lace had a code of conduct, a uniform that could only be worn once a member earned the right. In New York, there was LSM. Only members of the club were allowed to know that LSM stood for Lesbian Sex Mafia.
In the United States gay men’s leather culture continues to be associated with men above the age of 40; however, in much of the rest of the world, including Europe and Australia, there is a merging of the established older leather community with young leathermen and leatherwomen and kink/fetish/gear communities. In Europe younger men have combined the aesthetic and exploration of sexual power with the gay skinhead movement and social-fraternal organizations like BLUF, from the late 1970s.
Today, while some may still use the term strictly in the old-fashioned sense (i.e., the romanticized 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, low, or no protocol, and whether gay, lesbian, straight or bisexual. 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.
Berlin has a huge number of different fetish clubs open all days of the week. Other cities with a huge leather scene include Amsterdam and London.
Numerous major cities host Leather Pride events, including San Francisco’s Folsom Street Fair, Berlin’s Easter in Berlin (Europe’s biggest gay fetish event) from 1975 and Folsom Europe, New York City’s Folsom Street East, Chicago’s International Mr. Leather, Washington, DC’s MidAtlantic Leather and Amsterdam’s Leather Pride. New leather events kept popping up. In 2004 the San Francisco Folsom Street Fair got a European counterpart in Berlin Germany, Folsom Europe. In the first weekend of September thousands of leathermen from all over Europe, and the rest of the world, gathered in the German capital to celebrate a weekend together. It is a huge street party at the hear of the Berlin Leather scene and in the meantime home to some new kinds of events, such as the Cigar Lounge or the Classic Meets Fetish fetish classical concert.
Museums and exhibitions
Many LGBT museums, archives and libraries collect material relating to leather communities, with many holding substantial collections, including the Australian Lesbian and Gay Archives, established as an initiative of the 4th National Homosexual Conference, held in Sydney in August 1978. There is also the Leather Archives & Museum, based in Chicago; it was founded by Chuck Renslow and Tony DeBlase in Chicago in 1991.
Hall of Fame
The Leather Hall of Fame is a community organization that recognizes people and organizations who have made significant contributions to the modern leather community over time and provides a historical and educational reference for the community. It aims to represent all people in the modern leather community (1950 – present) around the world, without regard to gender or sexual orientation. It first inducted people in 2009.