A leather-clad history
From Andy Warhol to Foxy Brown, we dive in.
How funny, to discover that the photographs I most associate with leather pants show none at all: as shot by Richard Avedon, having first been shot with a real gun by Valerie Solanas, Andy Warhol appears as a kind of leather daddy Frankenstein in three black-and-white images from 1969, the most iconic of which only shows his torso. In two of the three, he wears a high-necked leather jacket, and in all three — although I could have sworn he was head to toe in black skins — he wears black jeans, maybe Levis. When we see his face, he wears a blank expression somewhere between undead and erotic, and he thumbs his bandage down as if revealing something more X-rated than a scar. What connects these images with the idea of wearing leather trousers in my mind is, I think, their inherent, brazen kinkiness; the way that Warhol, who is scarred as the result of an attempted murder, nevertheless looks as if he might have been lashed with an especially savage whip. Black leather pants, a look that’s easier to associate with Robert Mappelthorpe than Richard Avedon, read in their ideal form as tough, or queer, or sadomasochistic, or as louche and cowboy-ish and hot. They are the sartorial equivalent of announcing the fact you have survived a bullet fired from a .32 Beretta, and emerged scathed, but a little horny.
Warhol, it turns out, did not think much of Mappelthorpe, or of his proclivity for full-body leather. “He’s so dirty,” he complained. “His feet smell, and he has no money.” Those who do have money, as well as an additional budget for dry-cleaning, might do worse this winter than to invest in a pair of leather pants themselves. “The news in trousers?” Vogue declared after the Autumn/Winter shows. “Leather is your new go-to.” At Bottega Veneta there were motorcycle pants, loose-fitting like a second skin halfway through being shed, and at Tom Ford there were leather palazzo pants, an S&M take on a shape worn by Marlene Dietrich. At Louis Vuitton the cut was boxy, and at Isabel Marant and Alberta Ferretti there were harem pants, high-waisted, apt to give the front row flashbacks to Balmania. At Hermes and Roberto Cavalli, there were narrow cigarette pants. Whatever the style, the colour palette remained achromatic — which is to say, black as the proverbial midnight on a moonless night.
I cannot say that I was not relieved, since having lived through both the nineties and the noughties, leather trousers in some colours make me nervous, the way skirts worn over jeans are apt to make me sweat. There are, of course, exceptions to the rule. I had forgotten until re-watching it recently that in Olivier Assayas’ 2017 supernatural thriller, Personal Shopper, coloured leather pants become a catalysing object — Kristen’s Stewart’s Maureen, the titular personal shopper for a monstrous supermodel by the perfect, bratty name of “Kyra,” is seen fingering a pair in bright, tomato red while in the showroom at Chanel. “Please bring them back as soon as you can,” begs the PR, “otherwise I will be in big trouble.” It’s Kyra’s refusal to return them that makes Maureen furious enough to start rebelling at her job, sleeping in Kyra’s empty bed and masturbating in her evening gown. Too valuable to be a press gift, and too desirable for the supermodel to relinquish them, the Chanel trousers become representative of Maureen’s burning hatred for her work. Her powerlessness, her unsuitability for life on Kyra’s terms. Of course the pants, as well as being leather, are bright red, a dangerous colour meant to draw the eye. Of course they were Chanel, a brand synonymous with unattainability. Their outlandishness, their unhinged expensiveness, bestows on them a near-shamanic power.