Iconic Leather Wearers in Music and Art

Posted on 29/07/14

It’s sometimes surprising just how deep the link between artistry and fashion goes. Even the most jaded and sceptical of artists tend to have a strong, unique wardrobe that perfectly fits who they are and what they want to achieve in their artistic endeavours. Some pull it off effortlessly; some have to be more painstaking in creating their image, their persona.

These six artistes are icons of the musical and artistic worlds, all of which have more than a few things in common.

David Bailey

Born in the East End of London to a tailor’s cutter and a machinist, David Bailey is one of England’s greatest photographers, if not one of the world’s greatest, working with a who’s who of celebrity and modelling talent, past and present.

His photography style is one of clean, simple backgrounds and dramatic lighting. His style is one of honesty, it’s intimate, unconventional, but above all, timeless. In interviews he comes across as a man that is refreshingly unwilling to put on airs and graces for the sake of the press. He’s candid, passionate and unflappable.

David Bailey by Steve Pyke (1984), courtesy of the National Portrait Gallery

David Bailey by Steve Pyke (1984), courtesy of the National Portrait Gallery

Aneurin Barnard as David Bailey in BBC Four's "We'll Take Manhattan" (2012)

Aneurin Barnard as David Bailey in BBC Four’s “We’ll Take Manhattan” (2012)

It is no wonder, therefore, that his taste in fashion shared that same simplicity and confidence. As a young working class man in 1962, it was Bailey’s then-employers Vogue magazine strongly suggested that he should forgo wearing his leather jacket to his first assignment abroad, at the stuffy St Regis Hotel. He ignored the suggestion, cementing his place in the new generation of laid-back fashion.

Run DMC

Run-DMC are a group with a whole host of “firsts” on their CVs. The first group in the hip hop genre to have an album go gold and platinum, to be nominated for a Grammy Award, to have videos shown on MTV, to appear on the cover of Rolling Stone, to play at Live Aid – the list goes on.

A lot like David Bailey, Run-DMC were trailblazers – redefining hip hop for a new generation in the same way Bailey forever changed the fashion industry. In direct response to the hip hop heavyweights of the 80s, they ditched their glam styling and adopted a streetwise sense of style that was uniquely their own, making them instantly recognisable in the process. Their lyrics were complex, their delivery distinctive – using alliteration, polysyllabic and internal rhyming presented as a booming, overlapping exchange between Simmons (Run) and McDaniels (DMC).

Run-DMC Paris

The components and materials that comprised the Run-DMC look varied slightly over their career, but three elements remained constant – fedoras, unlaced shell-toed Adidas Superstars and thick gold rope chains. The release of their fourth studio album signalled a shift from black Adidas shell suits to full leather tracksuits or leather trouser-blazer combos. Ironically, though their paired down leather look might have been intended to let their rhymes and beats speak for themselves, it is their fashion that is perhaps remembered most fondly. Well, that and their brief collaboration with Aerosmith.

Andy Warhol

Andy Warhol sits comfortably in the pantheon of America’s best 20th Century artists. A lot like Run-DMC, Warhol’s legacy is sometimes defined by his style rather than his actual artistic output.

Known as one of the leading figures in the pop art movement, Warhol was fascinated by the cult of celebrity, exploring the link between celebrity, artistry and advertising throughout his career. His constructed appearance represents what is arguably the most striking of his commentaries addressing celebrity directly.

Andy Warhol sunglasses

Donning his iconic silver wigs, which he still had trimmed regularly, along with a pair of circular thick-rimmed sunglasses or translucent-rimmed glasses, and a leather jacket, Warhol wanted his image to be replicable, replaceable – timeless, even. French philosopher Jean Baudrillard wrote that Warhol “never aspired to anything but this machinic celebrity, a celebrity without consequences which leaves no trace”. “A kind of hologram”, almost, the “perfect artificial personality”. A tad verbose, perhaps, but a philosopher is as a philosopher does.

Andy Warhol

Warhol’s appearance could be seen as an active attempt to objectify himself in the Baudrillardian sense. This is important because in Baudrillard’s view, a human subject might try to understand a non-human object, but will never be able to because the object can only be understood according to what it signifies (in this case, fame).

Admittedly, it wasn’t entirely Warhol’s appearance that made him difficult to understand and relate to – he was famously evasive and nonsensical in interviews too. The forcefield of relatability around Warhol, and celebrities in general, makes them very seductive to the general public – and so, explaining the public’s fascination with celebrity. It’s not every day a celebrity will let a statement about the very nature of celebrity dictate and define their public persona and façade.

Debbie Harry

Debbie Harry, a true style icon of the 70s, the female face of the NY punk scene – enjoying staggering success in both Blondie, and as a solo artist. Like Warhol, Harry is immediately recognisable. Her razor-sharp cheekbones and wardrobe mingling the vintage with the bespoke all punctuated by her shimmering bleached-blonde hair that soon became her calling card as well as her band’s namesake.

Thought reluctant to view herself as anything more than “sort of a cult figure”, American photographer Bob Gruen described her as “the Marilyn Monroe of her generation” – inspiring young women throughout the 70s, even the squeaky clean Kirsty Young.

Debbie Harry

Debbie Harry with Sid Vicious

With musical influences as varied as 60s girl-pop, punk rock, new wave, disco, even reggae, Harry’s style was as bold and varied as it was uniquely her own. Studded leather jackets reined in statement printed tees – though luxury labels would have been well within her reach, Harry’s wardrobe remained grounded, grungy, even DIY.

Refusing to become a painted mannequin of a frontwoman, Harry’s style was perhaps one of the first to be as accessible as it was stylish.

The Beatles

Continuing the theme of artistry visible through clothing as well as musical or photographic output, it was inevitable that we would come to The Beatles at some point.

The Beatles might be the greatest example of a band’s fashion reflecting their current musical output that there has ever been. Before their breakout performance on the Ed Sullivan show, when they were performing in Hamburg, Germany and Liverpool’s own Cavern Club, they were just four Liverpudlian lads building up their reputation. Their leather jackets and trousers were simply what they felt comfortable in – the 50s had only just come to a close, and they needed to look presentable, without having to worry about dry cleaning. Venues came and went, towns blurred together, it was a whirlwind three years of hard graft.

Beatles early days

It all paid off, of course. Ditching their leathers for their breakout performance on the Ed Sullivan show, viewers tuned in to see four clean cut young men singing pop songs. Clad in their now iconic collarless grey Edwardian-style suits, the Fabulous Four were smart, sensible, the songs they were singing heartfelt and catchy. They were exactly the kinds of men that parents wouldn’t have minded their daughters dating.

As their music became more complex and high in concept, so did their attire. As their music took more risks, with instrumentation, structure and genre influence, their wardrobes evolved, becoming bolder, brighter and Eastern-influenced, before returning to their more casual origins as their music became more raw and grounded.

Joan Jett

Joan Jett is a woman of many talents – rock guitarist, songwriter, producer, activist and occasional actress. Best known for her work with Joan Jett and the Blackhearts, Jett has been a feminist icon throughout her career. She is widely cited as the inspiration for the riot grrrl movement in the 1990s, advocating female empowerment and addressing issues like patriarchy, sexuality and racism.

Jett is one of the most prominent and vocal advocates of leather you could ask for – her guitars are adorned with leather pride stickers, she even wrote an entire song (“Black Leather”) dedicated to leather and its ability to make her feel confident and powerful:

“Black leather, I wear it on stage

Black leather, I’m gonna wear it to my grave

Black leather, I will wear it anywhere

Because my name is JOAN JETT and I don’t care

Just the feel of it on my flesh makes me

Feel wild feel possessed

But I’m not don’t get me wrong

I’m the baddest slick chick just singin’

This song”

Inspired by the loud, proud swagger of other bands local to Philadelphia, Jett picked up her first guitar at the age of 14, but as the story goes, quit soon after when the instructor tried to teach her folk songs. The musical style she gravitated to was one of bristling guitar licks, thumping drumbeats and rapturous sing-along choruses.

Courtesy of Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images

Courtesy of Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images

Joan Jett 2

Her look encapsulates the ‘rock chick’, with leather, chains and studs aplenty. Of course black features heavily in Jett’s wardrobe, but it is frequently accented with shades of red or pink, sometimes even sequins or necklace upon necklace upon necklace – a nod to the glam rock scene she immersed herself in as a teenager. It’s a style of effortless cool, but above all, of strength and confidence – it’s no wonder that she inspired so many young women to go on to become rock goddesses in their own right, because she certainly fits the bill herself.

Recent articles