Like a lot of the clothing guys wear today, the leather jacket got its start as a utilitarian object. There was no need for a bomber jacket, a motorcycle jacket or a racing jacket before the inventions of the airplane, the motorcycle or the automobile.
But leather jackets didn’t make their widespread style debut until after World War II, when the idea of leather for style, instead of purely for function, started seeping into popular culture.
After sky-rocketing to popularity by way of Marlon Brando in the film The Wild One, the motorcycle jacket became such a symbol of youth in revolt that it was banned in schools for an entire year in the mid-1950s. And this helped place them on the backs of guys who wanted to telegraph rebel cool, gaining popularity throughout the 60s, 70s, and 80s.
“[For] everybody from Elvis to The Beatles, to The Stones, every psychedelic band from the Jefferson Airplane to the Grateful Dead, it was like a rite of passage,” said Michael Paradise, a former employee of North Beach Leathers who now owns The Stronghold, a heritage clothing boutique in Los Angeles. “You signed a recording contract, you got your first paycheck, you went to North Beach Leather.”
They’re now an indispensable part of a man’s wardrobe — and guys who work in more casual settings can get away with swapping a minimal black, brown or navy leather jacket for a blazer. It’s more durable, water repellent, and looks just as good over jeans as it does with a pair of tailored trousers.
With so many options on the market, finding the perfect one for you can take a lot of time and research — and it’s worth taking your time. Because unlike other clothing, buying a leather jacket is like buying a piece of furniture. Pick the right version and you’ll have it for years to come. Go with the wrong thing, and you might end up making an expensive mistake.
To help shorten your list of candidates, we compiled our favorites across four major categories. We also spoke with experts about style, fit, quality and care to help inform your purchase. Here are our recommendations, from the save-a-little level to splurges that might break the bank, and a guide to making sure your newest style investment lasts a lifetime.
Recommended picks by Gerald Ortiz.
The classic motorcycle jacket is an immediate marker of rebel cool. In fact, it’s been used in so many movies and TV shows as shorthand for “bad boy” that it should be a tiresome cliché at this point — and yet its magic still works. Throw one on and you’ll immediately embody the rugged charm and sex appeal of every style icon of the last several decades. The best thing about a biker jacket, providing you get one worth its skin, is that it keeps getting better with age.
Deadwood Rover Suede Moto Jacket
Deadwood take on the moto jacket is a shift into sustainability using recycled leathers from deadstock skins and upcycled waste materials. This one, made of luscious recycled suede, comes with all the trapping of a true road-ready jacket with the added cachet of doing better by Mother Earth.
Schott Perfecto ’50s Oil-Tanned Cowhide Leather Moto Jacket
Nearly a century after its inception, the OG motorcycle jacket is still in production. With a belted waist, epaulets, snap collar, map pocket, flap pocket at the waist and, of course, tough oil-tanned cowhide, it’s the moto jacket defined. You can be sure that this will last you another century when it’s still an icon.
The Real McCoy’s Buco J-24 Horsehide Leather Jacket
While authenticity can be had with Schott, you can’t much closer than this legendary Buco jacket from Japanese repro-obsessives The Real McCoy’s. That’s because the storied motorcycle brand has been defunct for decades. But, The Real McCoy’s has gone to extreme lengths to reproduce Buco’s classic jacket from the ’50s with patina-ready horsehide, Talon hardware and quilted lining. Of course, this Japanese-made replica won’t come cheap.
Originally worn by Air Force pilots to keep warm at high altitudes, the leather bomber jacket has come a long way from its pragmatic beginnings. But for the most part, its design has stayed true its roots.
Today, it’s among the most popular menswear items on the market thanks to male celebrities who rely on it to make them look well-dressed, but not dressed up and cool but not too edgy. “It’s a safe bet, like a pair of jeans,” says Jeanne Yang, stylist to a list of guys that includes John Cho, Alexander Skarsgaard and Robert Downey, Jr., among others. “If you’re gonna spend the money, it’s something you know you can keep on rotation in your closet.”
Everlane Bomber Jacket
Extraneous details are nowhere to be found on Everlane’s supple lambskin Bomber Jacket. Clean and straightforward (as a bomber jacket should be), this one comes with flush flap pockets, a convenient two-way zipper and a surprising price tag.
Freenote FJ1 Flight Jacket
Freenote’s FJ1 Flight Jacket is what you would call “a real looker”. Vintage motorcycle jacket vibes emanate from the glossy Italian steerhide, but it’s cleaned up of the hardware clutter. You’ll feel great wearing it thanks to the brushed plaid and satin lining. You’ll also feel pretty badass with the shearling collar.
Todd Snyder Italian Leather Aviator
When it’s not cozying up with Champion for plush sweaters or masterfully tailoring suits, Todd Snyder is crafting some of the best outerwear anywhere and its Italian Leather Aviator is just one of the many great examples. With a more refined, velvety Italian nubuck leather, the jacket is a breeze (and a privilege!) to slip into with its silky Bemberg lining and cleverly comes with more pockets than you think. There’s a certain midcentury cool about it that only Miles Davis could exude. If you’ve got the cash, you can too.
If you’ve ever watched Easy Rider or seen a photo of Keanu Reeves, you know that leather racing jackets aren’t meant for kids. The collarless gems have all the testosterone of a motorcycle jacket — but none of the 1950s Danny Zucko theatrics. Plus, they come in a wide array of styles from pared-down suede numbers to more souped-up versions with quilted shoulders and elbows.
Frye Calfskin Leather Racer Jacket
If you’re into the worn-in cafe racer look but don’t want to go through years of road time to get there, Frye’s got your jacket. Tastefully weathered, the jacket is as rugged as the competition but just a notch sleeker.
Flint & Tinder x Golden Bear Cafe Racer
San Francisco’s Golden Bear has been in the business of fine outerwear since 1920 and this collaborative effort with Flint & Tinder is one of the finest. The break-in period is nonexistent thanks to the buttery soft grainy cowhide, but, unlike Frye’s version, the patina is left all up to you.
Iron Heart Horsehide Leather Jacket
Iron Heart’s notorious for some seriously heavy jeans, so it’s no surprise the gearhead-inspired brand makes some equally burly leather jackets. This cafe racer is done exclusively for denim deity Self Edge and comes with Japanese horsehide, a beefy flannel lining and major street cred.
Shearling (the skin and fur of a sheep) is nature’s warmest material. Because of that, most jackets cut from it can lean toward the higher side of the price spectrum. They can also be tough for some guys to pull off.
“Shearling is a great look but you have to find the proper fit for you,” says Donnell Baldwin, a New York-based menswear stylist. “Many shearling jackets are long and could be ‘a lot of look’ for a shorter guy. If that’s you, you’ll need to find a short version that complements your height and style.”
Spending upwards of $2,000 on a shearling jacket that you can hand down to the next generation isn’t any more frivolous than investing in a luxurious watch. Here are three worth saving for.
Alpha Industries B3 Faux Leather Flight Jacket
Alpha Industries’ entry into the shearling section might be made of faux leather, but its cool factor definitely hasn’t taken a hit.
Valstar Shearling Trucker Jacket
Towed by the classic denim trucker jacket, Valstar’s furry take on the icon is perfectly proportioned. The front pleats, flap pockets, button front and cropped fit are all there, but rendering it in premium sheep shearling elevates the humble trucker several factors over.
Nine Lives El Rodeo Cashmere Shearling
Nine Lives takes the road even less travelled with their madman approach to clothing that blends couture-level processes with a futuristic outlook on time-tested garments. Their El Rodeo coat, instead of using the usual sheep shearling, opts for cashmere shearling. The swap in materials certainly ups the price tag, but we’d think it’s proportional to how cool this jacket is.
5 Tips for Taking Good Care of Your Leather Jacket
This is the part where we tell you not to throw an investment-level jacket on a pile of clothes — or worse, the floor — after each time you wear it. Your new jacket deserves proper care, and luckily that’s pretty easy to deliver. We asked David Mesquita, co-owner and vice president of Leather Spa, how to give your jacket its best life possible.
An Ounce of Prevention
“Leather is just like our skin, we put moisturizer on in the winter because our skin gets dry. It’s the same with the leather jackets. As you’re wearing it, rubbing up against stuff, the natural oils in the skin are gonna wear out,” Mesquita says.
Leather Conditioner by Leather Spa $13
Before you wear a new leather jacket the first time, spray your jacket with water and stain protector, especially if it’s made of suede. Then at least once a season, you’ll want to condition your jacket to keep the leather from drying out. “If it’s something you wear often, you might have to do a conditioning in the middle of the season versus waiting till the end,” he added. “A good rule of thumb is you can always look at the jacket and you start to see some fading. That could be a sign of it drying out and you should apply some moisturizer.”
But fair warning: it may darken the color of your jacket. If you’re not sure how much to use or nervous about application, ask a professional.
Give it Some Space
There’s nothing wrong with storing your jacket in the back of your closet during the offseason. But you want to make sure it has room to breathe and hang naturally. Don’t cram it into an overcrowded closet or store it folded under heavy coats and sweaters. Marks from creases and folds can’t be ironed out of leather the way they can with other fabrics. So you want to avoid any undue pressure for long periods of time. To keep your jacket next-level fresh, consider keeping a box of baking soda or a sachet of cedar chips in your closet.
Never hang your leather jacket on wire or thin hangers. Instead, spend some money on wooden hangers with adequate shoulder support.
“I wouldn’t let it sit on one of those thin hangers for too long because it stretches the shoulders out and leaves that imprint,” Mesquita said. “The best way to store leather items is in the fabric garment bag you get when you purchase the jacket because they’re breathable. God forbid you have your jacket in a storage unit and there’s some type of humidity or moisture that gets trapped in there.”
Clean it Fast
Spilled beer, motorcycle grease and other kinds of dirt are going to happen. But don’t let stains sit for more than an hour or two, or they’ll require professional cleaning.
“If you get a stain on it or a mark, you want to treat it right away before it penetrates into the pores of the skin and becomes permanent like a tattoo,” Mesquita says. “The best time for any type of care is when you get home just before putting it away in your closet. Look it over, and if you see a little spot or a blemish just rub it right off before it becomes permanent. Or use a little bit of a spot cleaner and then just rub it right off.”
Know When to Go Pro
For anything more intense than a spilled beer or a spot of dirt go straight to a pro. Trying to fix something without the proper training could just lead you down a path to more trouble. Put simply, “If its a jacket that you spent a lot of money on, you’re better off taking it to a professional,” Mesquita says.