Leather Jacket: The Rebel Icon That Lost Its Gall

by Joshua Katcher

james_dean

Since the first Harley Davidson Motorcycle Jacket appeared in the United States in 1919, there might not be a symbol that resonates more clearly in almost every subculture than the leather jacket. From rock stars, punks, bikers, to hipsters, fashionistas, greasers, goths, metal-heads, and even the not-so-subcultured like military aviators and the police – the leather jacket has largely defined ‘cool’ since the word cool was made to mean something new by jazz legend, Lester Young, in 1933.  In addition, many fashion experts regard leather as having unsurpassed sex-appeal – so much that it has one of the most https://i0.wp.com/www.boston.com/bostonglobe/ideas/brainiac/ramones.jpgpopular fetish followings. Originally made for its functionality of durability and protective properties, it has come to suggest masculinity, and strength – and more recently as high-end designers cash in our desires to look cool and strong, wealth.

Sid Vicious’ suicide note instructed: “Bury me in my leather jacket…” Images of James Dean, Elvis, Marlon Brando, The Ramones, The Sex Pistols, Michael Jackson, The Fonz, Cathy Gale, Indiana Jones, and even the Black Panthers and the Russian Bolsheviks come to mind when we think of leather jackets.  Hollywood helped launch the leather jacket as a symbol of intimidation and rebelliousness early on with Jimmy Stewart and John Wayne in Leather Bomber Jackets, and films like The Wild One, Easy Rider, Grease and Mad Max .

What is a leather jacket? Well, to be simple, it’s the preserved skin-organ of an animal, torn from its body, treated with chemicals, dyed, and cut up into pieces to be used as a “fabric”.  Like all flesh, without the toxic tanning process, leather would rot and decompose. Horses, goats, cows, calves, lamb, sheep, pigs and “exotic” animals like crocodiles, ostrich, and many kinds of snakes are all used for their skins. Other species are hunted and killed specifically for their skins, including zebras, bison, water buffaloes, boars, kangaroos, elephants, eels, sharks, dolphins, seals, walruses, frogs, turtles, and lizards. Dairy cows are also turned into leather once they are “spent” and their calves become expensive calfskin once slaughtered for veal. According to the Food and Agricultural Organization of the United Nations (FAO), the global leather industry slaughters more that a billion animals and tans their skins each year, globally.

tannery pollution in Bangladesh

The tanning is especially problematic. If a billion animals are killed for their skins per year, you do the math on how many gallons of toxic chemicals are used to turn that into leather jackets. Communities surrounding tanneries in India, Kentucky, and Sweden report high instances of leukemia and cancer, and the chemicals used to tan leather, including heavy metals like chromium, find their way into water supplies and river systems. Animals on factory farms in the U.S. produce 130 times as much excrement as the entire human population, without the benefit of waste treatment plants. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has even acknowledged that livestock pollution is the greatest threat to our waterways. Turning skin into leather also requires mineral salts, formaldehyde, coal-tar derivatives, and various oils, dyes, and finishes, some of them cyanide-based.

Eco-friendly leather is a myth and a travesty. Based simply on the amount of resources it takes to raise animals – from feed crops, pastureland, water, and fossil fuels, to the record-breaking amounts of greenhouse gasses emitted by cattle (livestock production is the #1 cause of greenouse gas emissions), even if, at the very final stage of this environmentally devastating process, a “vegetable-based” tanning process is used, it does not erase the colossal leather boot-print that raising livestock has on ecosystems . What also becomes clear is the myth that synthetics are environmentally inferior to so-called “natural” materials like leather.

Many people see leather as by-product of the meat and dairy industry, and justify wearing it with the rationalization “ The animal is dead already, so we may as well make use of the skin”. But would the animal be dead if there weren’t a demand for it’s flesh and skin in the first place? According to the USDA,  the skin of the animal represents “the most economically important byproduct of the meat packing industry.” So it isn’t just someone making use of scraps – it is a profitable industry in itself.

https://i0.wp.com/upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/1/1b/Cow_slaughter.jpg

It’s clear that the leather jacket is a force to be reckoned with, but as our relationships to animals and ecosystems evolve, what does the leather jacket really mean, now? It all boils down to power – like Keanu Reeves in the Matrix, the leather trench represents his potentially intimidating and powerful appearance. Much like the meaning of fur, which has come to represent arrogant indifference towards animals, leather is headed down that same path, towards being a symbol of ignorance and indifference.

“The image of leather no longer defines outcasts, rebels, and counter-culture; instead, it is the epitome of mainstream, problematic relationships with ecosystems and violent and exploitative relationships with animals.”

The gorgeous illusions spun by the Goliath fashion industry are, indeed, spellbinding. And it’s no wonder the leather industry, with its orthodox relationship to the oldest, largest and most powerful https://i0.wp.com/www.truelegends.com/images/pce15.jpgfashion houses, has seen such consistent success. We hear writers, journalists and experts avow the nature of leather – how this “material” molds to our shape, breathes, and can withstand extreme punishment. But, it is not a “material” per se (any more than the Jewish hair used to stuff mattresses and pillows from the Nazi death-camps was a “material”). It was someone’s very skin. How can anyone be taken seriously as a compassionate, conscientious, and ecologically responsible individual, while boasting such a powerful symbol of both ecological devastation and animal suffering?

We know better. This isn’t a leap of faith – the evidence is right there in front of us. Not only are there countless documented cases of animals being boiled and dismembered alive, but in India, one of the largest leather exporters, the cows have their tails broken and chili-peppers rubbed in their eyes to keep them moving on their exhaustive journey outside the boarders of India where they can legally be killed specifically for their skins. Snakes and lizards may be skinned alive because of the belief that live flaying makes leather more supple. Kangaroos are slaughtered by the millions every year; their skins are considered prime material for soccer shoes. The conditions and treatment these animals face are horrifying.

Losing its gall. The image of leather no longer defines outcasts, rebels, and counter-culture; instead, it is the epitome of mainstream, problematic realtionships with ecosystems and violent and exploitative relationships with animals. It is woefully ordinary, and painfully tired. When you wear leather, you are no longer saying “I am powerful, individual, and cool“, you are saying “I am environmentally irresponsible and I hate animals“.

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32 Responses to Leather Jacket: The Rebel Icon That Lost Its Gall

  1. Tracy says:

    This piece is very well-written.

  2. mebrandonb says:

    Well put Joshua. This was a good read!

  3. Ari Solomon says:

    Well said! Thank you for this Joshua!!

  4. Matt Lara says:

    Exactly how it needed to be said.

  5. Brilliant. Can’t wait to share this with girliegirlarmy readers!

  6. Gareth Owen says:

    Great article. Eloquent, informative and no punches pulled…

  7. Fallopia Tuba says:

    It was a great read, and in about a generation the message may be mainstream. Sadly, leather (as in “rich Corinthian leather”) is still the mainstream’s idea of luxury. Most people, even vegetarians, believe leather is simply a by-product that needs to be used.

    Of course, I’m circulating this article, but only a fraction of the people I wish would read it ever will.

  8. Aubrey says:

    Even Mrs. Obama has the view that leather is acceptable because the animals die for beef anyway. With that distortion of reality she doesn’t have to give up meat or leather. I’m glad she gave up some fur…but it would be great if she didn’t stop at that.

  9. Jason says:

    That last paragraph hits the nail on the head!

  10. geronimosun says:

    It is difficult turning peoples opinions but we must keep on trying to save the world.

    Animals need rights too, vote Party for the Animals in your country if they are there to get animalrights into your constitution.

  11. lis says:

    Everything too much is too much, why can’t we be moderate about stuff, not like ORTHODOX (i am jewish btw), rigid and unmoveable. So using leather jackets, leather shoes, belts and handbag does NOT make me a criminal, puleaaseeee

  12. Jason says:

    Actually, by definition, I think you could, in fact, be considered a criminal. (For clarification, I’ve included definitions of ‘criminal’ and ‘crime’ below.)

    At the very least, if you wear leather jackets, shoes, belts, etc., you are guilty of “offense, serious wrongdoing, or sin” against the animals who were robbed of their lives in order to produce the skins necessary for such unnecessary accessories–even if your act/offense was merely negligent (i.e. not checking the label to see what products were used in the making of your jackets, shoes, belts, etc.).

    crim⋅i⋅nal
    –noun
    a person guilty or convicted of a crime.

    crime
    –noun
    1. an action or an instance of negligence that is deemed injurious to the public welfare or morals or to the interests of the state and that is legally prohibited.
    2. criminal activity and those engaged in it: to fight crime.
    3. the habitual or frequent commission of crimes: a life of crime.
    4. any offense, serious wrongdoing, or sin.
    5. a foolish, senseless, or shameful act: It’s a crime to let that beautiful garden go to ruin.

    In closing, I leave you with a couple of quotes from Elie Wiesel:

    “We must always take sides. Neutrality helps the oppressor, never the victim. Silence encourages the tormentor, never the tormented.”

    “A destruction, an annihilation that only man can provoke, only man can prevent.”

  13. lis says:

    ok then, I can only wear elastic belts, canvas shoes (do they come with heels, too?), cloth handbags and nylon jackets.
    No comment.
    And, to follow up your Elie Wiesel comment: I very much did not keep quiet and did take sides:-)

  14. Jason says:

    The quotes were in response to your call for being “moderate.”

    And, if you think all we vegans wear is elastic belts, canvas shoes, cloth handbags, and nylon jackets, I say the following: 1) Those items are very en vogue amongst the hipster crowd. And, 2) If you think that’s all we wear, though, you are seriously uneducated about both what it means to be vegan as well as fashion in general.

    Given the fact that you’re wondering if canvas shoes come in heels, I’ll assume you’re female (or maybe a drag queen ready to try her hand at eco-fabulosity). Therefore, go to girliegirlarmy.com for the low-down on cruelty-free clothes, shoes, and accessories. For fashion advice for your boyfriend (and/or beard), this site–thediscerningbrute.com–offers a ton of options, sweetheart.

  15. lis says:

    thanks, sweetheart, but I think I do prefer Barney’s or Bergdorf:-)

  16. Jason says:

    Oh, okay. . .bourgois is more your style. A more pedestrian, materialistic, and clichéd look is what you’re going for.

    Well, it might be a stretch for you, but Stella McCartney has fabulous cruelty-free clothes, shoes, and accessories at Bergdorf’s. Rachel Roy also has great, classy pieces. And, the dresses from Alice & Olivia are ever-so flirty.

    But I don’t want to discuss women’s fashion this site. . . Your naiveté (it’s not aggressive ignorance, right?) amuses me.

  17. lis says:

    ok, let’s not fight:-)
    I like to live and let live, and I do like animals, and I do like my leather jacket:-)and I so do not like any kind of radicalism:-)

  18. Tracy says:

    I don’t view being kind to animals as radical.

    Check out my short blog post about what actually is extreme:

    http://diggingthroughthedirt.blogspot.com/2009/06/are-animal-rights-advocates-really.html

  19. lis says:

    this is not what I mean by being radical. What I mean is that I do my share in being ecco friendly, I do like animals and I also do like my leather jacket…I would not just love animals or just love leather, but I try to balance, like eat less meat, buy less leather goods, and this is much more reasonable than being totally radical like NEVER eating meat and NEVER buying anything made of leather, and this is much more likely to be sucessful than total radicalism. If every person on this planet would just be half/half, like I am, this would already be huge.

  20. Aubrey says:

    Lis,

    The fact that you admit that you limit your usage indicates that you realize there are many problems with meat and leather industries. Why not simply go all the way? You honestly think it is okay for you to promote brutality because you limit your usage? It isn’t even fashion forward any more- it is archaic.

    Your “half/half” philosophy is pretty weak. It is not acceptable or beneficial for individuals to only make rational, compassionate choices half of the time. If an action is wrong, it is wrong regardless of the other good things a person might do. Few things are as extreme as the assertion that it is okay to brutally kill and then peel the skin off of an animal to make a belt. To advocate the brutality, waste of money, resources and pollution is extreme. To wish for harmony, rationality and compassion is not radical.

    What I hear when you say you don’t like any “radicalism” is that you don’t like compassionate, positive change. That you do not wish to recognize the suffering of others because a stupid leather jacket is more important than life.

  21. Jason says:

    If compassion, kindness, and integrity are radical ideals, then please stamp “radical” on my forehead. I’ll wear the title proudly.

    Lis, we seem to have very different world views. You may say you “love animals,” but at best, you are an animal welfarist who believes in lessening the exploitation of these sentient beings, though they have just as much of a will to live as you and I do. I (and the others on this site) believe in animal rights and believe that human beings don’t have a “need” to exploit animals and should actively, because it’s the moral thing to do, stand up against such exploitation. We believe allowing such acts of terrorism against animals is only adding to humanity’s collective dysfunction.

    This is an ethical dictum by which we live and for which we will not apologize. It’s not a “radical” lifestyle, though, when there is more than a plentiful supply of practical, ethical, cruelty-free options in the world. It’s simply choosing right over wrong, and choosing right isn’t a huge inconvenience–especially in this day and age.

    You may believe that you “do your share” in being eco-friendly, but you’d be surprised how you could dramatically lessen your carbon footprint if you’d cut out animal products. If you wear leather and eat meat (even if it’s less than some of your friends), I can assure you that even if I left my water running all day and my A/C on 24/7, my carbon footprint would be less than yours simply by virtue of the fact that I don’t participate in the needless exploitation of animals. It is, after all, the biggest and most profound eco-friendly stand one can take.

    Maybe, you’re right, if every person on this planet would just be half/half the way you are. . .
    I mean. . . What if Madoff had only taken the life-savings of half as many people? What if those Enron guys had hidden only half their losses and dumped only half their shares? If PG&E had dumped half as much chromium into those ponds, half as many residents of Hinkley would have gotten sick, right? Kambanda only killed about 20% of the population in Rwanda, less than half. Oh, and only 6 million Jews died in the Holocaust, less than half of the world’s Jewish population. Hmmmmm. . .

    You may think we’re radical idealists, and idealists we are. However, we are also realists. We live in the real world; we are acutely aware of the atrocities that go on in it; and, we choose to stand up against those atrocities.

  22. lis says:

    Jason, just half of Madoff, Enron and especially the murdered jews would have been better.

  23. Tracy says:

    Lis, why argue with people who are giving it 100%? Should we be doing only 50%, as you seem to be advocating? Why not spend your time trying to convince people who are at 0% to get to 50%?

  24. lis says:

    Tracy. thanks, I figured that finally someone would agree with that:-)
    So, we do out share and NO RADICALISM!

    • Lis,

      Not only are you misguided in your belief of what is “radical” – but your are ignorant about the cruelty-free fashion options out there!

      What’s more “radical” – consistency in compassionate decision-making? Or an institutionalized, industrialized system that tortures and kills animals and turns them into products like leather jackets?
      Making compassionate choices consistently challenges problematic, mainstream practices. Just because something is mainstream, does not make it neutral or acceptable.

      Your belief that people are more likely to do 50% is based only in your own unwillingness to educate yourself about alternatives, believing all you’ll be left with is elastic belts and canvas shoes. Hello? Designers like Stella McCartney, Matt & Nat, Olsen Haus, Melissa, Beyond Skin, Novacas, Madden Girl, Charmone, Bourgeois Boheme, and even cheapies from Alloy.com, DSW, TopSHop, and Forever 21 show that there are more than just a few choices. There are so many others that make amazing cruelty-free and eco-friendly shoes, accessories, and garments that it could make your head spin. All it takes is a little bit of effort to find it. So Lis, give it up. Your leather habit is exactly that – a habit you continue to rationalize by claiming there are no options and a commitment to compassion is dangerously “radical”.

  25. lis says:

    Again, I believe 50% is just more realistic.
    thanks:-)

  26. […] PS – We totally agree! Good guys don’t wear leather. Wanna know why? Click here. […]

  27. dre says:

    I bought a leather jacket today, and I LOVE it, ahahahahaha

  28. dre says:

    My friend bought it too 😀

  29. lis says:

    enjoy:-)but remember, in order to be kind and fair, do not buy more than one leather item per season;-)

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