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Before the 1940s, leather motorcycle jackets were seen as culturally neutral, utilitarian garments. At the time, American motorcycle clubs were considered like any other social club — they were loosely organized associations through which young people could bond over shared interests. Taking part was considered a normal, healthy activity.
That all changed in the summer of 1947, when about 4,000 motorcycle enthusiasts roared into the small California farming town of Hollister. They came for the annual Gypsy Tour, a three-day carnival of races and field events held over a Fourth of July weekend. Hollister was completely unprepared for the attendees that summer, since nowhere near that number showed up to previous years’ carnivals, and consequently, the small rural community was thrown into chaos.
Over the course of three days and nights, bikers representing groups such as The 13 Rebels, The Pissed Off Bastards, and The Galloping Goose got drunk, brawled in the streets, smashed up bars and storefront windows, and participated in illegal drag races. They slept in haystacks, on sidewalks, and on people’s lawns. Hollister’s seven-man police force tried to keep things under control, but they mostly watched in horror as crazed, drunken crowds took over neighborhoods. By the end of the weekend, after state troopers were called in, about fifty bikers were arrested and sixty people were injured (one person had a skull fracture). The streets were awash in urine, beer bottles, and debris.
Shortly after, Life Magazine published a story about the event titled “Cyclist’s Holiday: He and Friends Terrorize Town.” One of the main photos was of a young biker, later believed to be Eddie Davenport, slouched astride his Harley Davidson, shirt open, and surrounded by broken beer bottles. He was wearing what looks to be a naval deck jacket, possibly a clue that he was one of the many ex-servicemen who joined motorcycle clubs after returning home from the Second World War. There’s some debate about whether media coverage afterward exaggerated the amount of violence and damage, but nevertheless, the event forever clouded the lens through which the non-riding public would see black leather jackets.
After 1947, black leather jackets became the second skin of rebels — a symbol anti-conformist lifestyles, restlessness, and lawlessness. Small town residents worried about motorcycle “hoodlums” and potential rampages. Marlon Brando cemented the image of the leather-clad rebel in his role in the 1953 film The Wild One. “Brando’s pebble-kicking stride, his insolent sneer, the rakish angle of his cap, and the casual straddle of his bike, identify him as a challenger of society’s values,” Bruce Boyer wrote in his book Rebel Style. “[The Wild One] clearly shows the opening chasm between the middle class, concerned with refinement and decorum, and the outsiders who show their disdain for the status quo.” The Twilight Zone later had an episode where three leather-jacket-wearing, motorcycle riding strangers invade a peaceful neighborhood (they were later revealed to be aliens). Leather jackets have been part of every rebel subculture since — bikers, rockers, and outlaws; beats and beatniks; modernists and mods; hippies and bohemians; punks and skinheads.
Those rebel associations hold remarkably strong today, even when conservative, establishment figures such as Cindy McCain and Sarah Palin wear black motorcycle jackets on TV talk shows. They’re also the reason why guys often pause when buying their first leather. They’re expensive, for one, and there’s always that nagging feeling that you might not be a “leather jacket kind of guy.” We like them because of their dark and dangerous associations, but worry that we’ll just end up looking like poseurs.
So, what to do if you’re interested in a leather jacket, but aren’t sure if the style is right for you? Like reading formality in suits and sport coats, there’s a language in leather jackets that can swing them towards different aesthetic directions. Whether you prefer something a little more fashionable and modern, or traditoinal and conservative, there’s assuredly something out there for you. Here are some things to consider:
Pick a General Style
The first thing to remember is that leather is like any other material, such as wool, cotton or linen. It can be used to make nearly any style of outerwear, from dressy to rugged, traditional to the avant-garde. Broadly speaking, most leather jackets will fall into one of two traditions:
Flight Jackets: Flight jackets were originally made for the hide-busting activity of piloting aircrafts, but civilians have been repurposing bombers for almost a hundred years. The original pilot jacket was the A-1. The American Air Force originally spec’d it in a lighter weight capeskin, then finished the collar, hem, and cuffs with a knitted trim. The style’s most distinguishable characteristics include the button-front, which runs from the hem to the collar, and the stand-up knitted collar that helps frame the face. The A-1, however, was only used for a few years before being replaced by the more familiar A-2.
During the Second World War, the US military issued thousands of A-2s to fighter pilots. The jacket’s design replaced the button-front of the A-1 with a zipper and storm flap, and then changed out the stand-up knitted collar in favor of a shirt-style leather collar. The shoulders were given passants; the hem and cuffs retained their windproof knitted trims. The A-2 is one of few clothing items that can legitimately be called iconic — for many, it is the leather jacket. Like most bomber styles, the traditional A-1 and A-2 have blousy, slightly rounded silhouettes, although they generally look great on most men regardless of age or fitness.
By virtue of its popularity, the A-2 is also so unobjectionable, it can border on boring, but a well-cut A-2 is a great entry point into leather jackets. The A-1 makes more of a statement while still hewing traditional. For something a little less common, you can hunt for a G-1 or MA-1. The G-1 started as the Navy version of the Army A-2, but while the Army version sometimes includes a detachable fur collar, the mouton (sheepskin) collar is standard on the G-1. The G-1 also omits passants and the storm flap, and it features button-through pockets rather than snap pockets. The MA-1, meanwhile, was originally a nylon, synthetic-fill, knit-collared jacket developed for the pilots. MA-1s became popular with punk rock kids and skinheads in the 1970s and early 1980s, and in leather form, they become a little more fashion forward.
Motorcycle Jackets: Classic leather jacket styles often come out of the very practical purpose of driving or piloting some large piece of machinery. For moto styles, the earliest forms were actually repurposed A-1s, which drivers used to wear over their suits and sport coats. But as motor vehicles improved in performance during the inter-war years, and more men drove them, there was greater demand for tougher garments and different styles. Soon, Harley Davidson started producing a variety of “genuine” motorcycle jackets, and big retailers such as Sears, Robuck & Co., Montgomery Ward, and JC Penney added a section of “sport leather jackets” to their catalogs.
This is when we start seeing things such as the double-rider and cafe racer. Double-riders derive from “lancer-front” motorcycle jackets, which feature a kind of double-breasted closure (where one side of the jacket overlaps with the other). Eventually, this style made it into asymmetrical zippered form, most iconically represented through Schott’s Perfecto (pictured on George above). Sometimes these styles have details such as snap-down passants, metal-buckled belts, D-shaped pockets, and fur collars. All things equal, the double-rider, particularly in black, is the most “aggressive” of all leather jacket styles, if only because of its connection to motorcycle culture and rock ‘n roll, but in softer leather forms, it’s also commonly used for fashion purposes.
If double riders are too much for you, try a cafe racer, which is notable for its visual minimalism. The style was originally worn on circular or oval race courses comprised of wooden planks, where oil slick tracks demanded some kind of protection. Racers often wore flimsy, tight fitting, unlined leather racing shirts, which at some point metamorphized into the famous Buco J-100 and eventually what we now call a cafe racer. The style is typically sculptured to give a close fit, although not as close as early 20th-century shirt-style versions, and features zippered body pockets, zippered sleeves, and a simple, symmetrical zip front. Some have a reverse box pleat at the back to allow for easier movement on a motorcycle, although it’s not uncommon to see a plain back on fashionable cafe racers.
Other Styles: Flight and motorcycle styles aren’t the only leathers. There are about a dozen more that reach various categories. To run through a few.
- Classic and Contemporary: Varsity jackets, baseball jackets, and trucker styles occasionally come in leather. These styles are traditionally made from softer materials, such as cotton or satin, but in leather, they can feel a little more rugged or luxurious, depending on the detailing. Generally speaking, these styles are better suited to classic or contemporary wardrobes.
- Fencing: Adopted from a softer style of outerwear worn by fencers, leather fencing jackets usually have asymmetrical closures and a high collar. The style is much more avant-garde than what we normally write about here at Put This On, but goes well with dark, arte povera-inspired clothes from brands such as Rick Owens, Carol Christian Poell, and M.A+.
- Workwear: Nearly every leather jacket roots back to some utilitarian design, but styles such as the grizzly jacket, field jacket, Cossack, and more unusual moto styles such as those inspired by the Belstaff Roadmaster are often more rugged than most.
- Tailored: Mostly relics of the 1970s, styles such as the leather sports coat, leather trench, and three-quarters length leathers are true high-risk, low-reward items. It’s possible to wear these things well, but they require such specific requirements, it may be better to look for something else.
Tip: If you’re not sure about leather jackets, stick to the A-1, A-2, and cafe racer styles. Depending on their details, those can be more conservative and classic than most, making them suitable for casual offices and nights out on the weekend.
Pick a Material
The styles listed above are just the general templates for leather jacket design. The rest comes down to the material and detailing, which can swing a jacket towards different directions — classic or fashion-forward, dressy or rugged, aggressive or conservative. Let’s first start with the leather:
- Lambskin: Typically the softest and lightest of all leathers, lambskins are supple and luxurious feeling. They usually have very little grain, which makes them very smooth (with some exceptions, such as Rick Owens’ blistered lamb). They can be a little fragile, but unless you’re actually piloting planes or riding motorcycles, they’re fine for most lifestyles. Just don’t, you know, go scraping this against a stucco wall.
- Calfskin and Goatskin: A lot can depend on the tannery, but generally speaking, calfskins and goatskins are a little harder wearing than lambskin. They’re still fairly lightweight and supple, but they’re more tear resistant (although, at the same time, they don’t have the same buttery feel of lambskin). Calfskin is generally a smooth leather unless it’s been put through a finishing process. Goatskin, on the other hand, typically has a visible grain. Much like how Scotch and pebble grain shoes are a little more casual than calfskin footwear, goatskin leathers will also look a little less refined and dressy than lamb.
- Cowhide and Horsehide: The toughest and hardest wearing of all leathers. Original flight and motorcycle jackets were typically made from these heavier leathers, as well as goatskin, so they could offer more protection and stand up to daily use. These leathers will generally develop more “character” over time, whereas lambskin looks best when it’s in like-new condition. Cowhide and horsehide are good for guys who really want to feel their jacket on their shoulders, have something they can wear in tougher environments, and see how the leather breaks in over time.
- Suede: Almost any leather can be made into a suede. Sometimes it’s a reverse suede, which means it’s just the underside of a smoother leather; sometimes the top of a smoother leather has been sanded down to reveal its fiber core. Suede jackets are a nice way to add texture to an outfit, and they can look a little more approachable, but they stain easily and aren’t easy to clean. Be careful of getting one in a style that doesn’t lend itself well to patinas.
When choosing a style, think of how a jacket’s design template and material come together in a way that works for your lifestyle and wardrobe. A rugged jacket, such as a goatskin bomber or cowhide cafe racer, can be worn with jeans, fatigues, and workwear-styled chinos. Dressier, slightly more conservative designs, such as a lambskin A-2 or cafe racer, on the other hand, can be worn with tailored trousers and dress shirts. In the photo of the Stoffa jacket above, you can see what a difference lambskin can make even for the most rugged of all styles, the double rider. Suddenly, the jacket transforms into something else — less workwear, a little more refined.
Tip: Again, if you’re worried about whether a leather jacket can work for you, pick a softer, more approachable leather, such as lambskin, calfskin, or even suede. Those will generally look less “aggressive.” A heavier, more rugged leather such as cowhide, can be paired with a cafe racer or A-2 bomber style for a very classic look if you’re cautious about looking overly fashion forward.
Pay Attention to the Fit and Details
Lastly, pay attention to a jacket’s fit and detailing. A very traditional style, such as a cafe racer, can be modernized with a softer, lambskin leather, bell-shaped sleeves, slim-fit body, and long, diagonal chest zips, such as the Margiela jacket you see above. The same style can be made from a heavier leather, fitted with a traditional silhouette, and come with traditional detailing, such as an Aero Board Racer. The first will be more contemporary and easier to wear with both jeans and tailored trousers. The second is a little more classic and better suited to traditional combinations, such as jeans and t-shirts.
When shopping for your first leather jacket, think of how you plan to wear it. Do you need something with a lot of abrasion resistance, or do you plan to mostly wear this to the office? Would you characterize your wardrobe as classic or contemporary, rugged or refined? Do you want something that you can wear with both jeans and tailored trousers? Do you want something that patinas over time or something that stays looking fairly new and fresh? Will you wear this in the winter time or summer? Do you want something thick and heavy, or soft and light?
Once you have a sense of what you’re looking for, shop first at the brands or stores where you normally buy your other clothes. A trad-y guy in button-downs and flat front chinos may find his perfect leather at shops such as Brooks Brothers and Ralph Lauren. A guy who favors classic-contemporary clothes might want to look at the selection of Golden Bear and Valstar jackets at Mr. Porter and No Man Walks Alone. Workwear aficionados will probably like RRL, Fine Creek Leathers, and Schott.
Tip: Most guys will look good in a Valstarino, which is a citified, Italian version of a traditional American A-1 jacket. It’s a style that goes well with slim-straight jeans, flat front chinos, and even tailored trousers. It’s something you can wear to work and weekends, and it’s light enough for spring and fall. The silhouette is a little rounded, so if you prefer a slimmer look, try a cafe racer. Aero’s Board Racer is great with jeans, while Brooks Brothers often has racer styles that can be worn in more conservative environments. Todd Snyder, Enrico Mandelli, Taylor Stitch, Sandro, and Falcon Garments are also worth a look.
The post Leather Jackets For Guys Who Aren’t Sure About Leather Jackets appeared first on Put This On.
TELLY presenter Anthea Turner is such a dead ringer for Grease character Sandy, it’s enough to get our Kenickies in a twist.
Anthea, 58, looked glamorous in tight leather trousers and a black sequined top.
Anthea dazzles in an all black ensemble, channelling 70’s Sandy vibes[/caption]
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But it also made her the spitting image of Olivia Newton-John’s leather-clad character from the hit 1978 movie.
She was pictured on a night out at London’s Wellington Club.
The telly presenter must have taken inspiration from Olivia Newton-John’s classic look[/caption]
Anthea wore the eye catching outfit on a night out with good friend Lizzie Cundy[/caption]
The TV personality recently took a trip to see new west end musical, 9 to 5, starring Love Island’s Amber Davies[/caption]
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Since the new year is officially upon Us, we’ve been thinking that it’s time to give our essentials collection an upgrade and, of course, our number one staple is always leggings. A style that can easily mix and match with everything in our wardrobe, it’s always smart to have as many leggings options as possible. We wear them to work when we can show off our trendiness, while running errands when we want to look a little extra chic and any time we go out and want to look like we put in a whole lot of effort into our outfit.
At Shop With Us, we’re always on the hunt for a design that highlights our figure while keeping Us as comfy as possible. This faux leather offering is snug but also extremely flattering and we are so excited to add this garment to our collection!
Nothing gets Us going like a sleek design and the Commando Perfect Control Faux Leather Leggings are just the ticket! Made with a buttery soft fabric, this number will feel super soft against our skin for the maximum level of comfort.
We love pants that allow Us to highlight our figure and these trousers are no exception. Made with a high-rise construction, these bottoms sit above the waist to create the illusion of an hourglass silhouette. There is also a shapewear effect that controls and shapes the hips, thighs and rear for a sculpted look.
A great way to serve up a touch of attitude, the unfinished hem offers an edgy look for a stylish touch. The perfect pull-on pant that can easily complement our no-fuss style, these leggings will become an instant favorite!
The bronze style is that one that really caught our eye! A nice change from the typical black style, this metallic option will certainly turn heads. The ideal option for a night out on the town, this design will definitely make Us the center of attention.
We’re also huge fans of the pine (green) hue as an earthy shade that can easily match with our casual and dressy ensembles. A stylish number we can even slip into our work wardrobe, this versatile creation packs a stylish punch!
For those who love the classic look, the black offering will fall right in line. We can never go wrong with a dark hue and this option makes styling a breeze. From button-down shirts to peplum tops, we already have a ton of looks in mind.
We can also switch it up a bit with the graphite (grey) tone. A flattering neutral that makes the perfect substitute for our trusty staple, this sizzling find is absolutely worth it!
A top-quality pair of leather pants can easily set Us back, but these trousers are a budget-friendly steal. Priced at $ 98, these leggings are a great piece that will last for years to come and are an absolute must-have.
Nordstrom shoppers totally agree! Many reviewers love the soft and smooth feel, while others appreciate the great texture and superior craftsmanship. Shoppers also dig that this offering looks and feels like real leather without the big price tag. One reviewer shared that the support in these leggings feels firm and flattering without making it hard to breathe.
Ready to hit happy hour with your girlfriends? We can wear this style with a lacy bodysuit, slim-strap sandals, a cross-body bag and a moto leather jacket for a biker babe look. We can also pull out a high/low tunic, mules, a shoulder bag and a suede coat for a polished ensemble. For date night with our beau, we’re pulling out a graphic tee, pumps, a fur coat, a wool Fedora hat and a bold lip.
We can also welcome this style into our casual wardrobe with knit sneakers, a boyfriend sweater and a top coat for an athleisure ensemble. For casual Fridays at work, we can pull out a cable-knit sweater, mules, a wrap coat and a tote bag.
With sizes extra small to extra large available in select styles, you can bet that we are adding every hue to our shopping cart immediately. Timeless and chic, leggings are a great essential that will easily add a trendy touch to any outfit.
Spoil yourself this new year and grab this garment while it’s still up for grabs! We’re sure you’ll love them!
Check out more of our picks and deals here!
This post is brought to you by Us Weekly’s Shop With Us team. The Shop With Us team aims to highlight products and services our readers might find interesting and useful. Product and service selection, however, is in no way intended to constitute an endorsement by either Us Weekly or of any celebrity mentioned in the post.
The Shop With Us team may receive products free of charge from manufacturers to test. In addition, Us Weekly receives compensation from the manufacturer of the products we write about when you click on a link and then purchase the product featured in an article. This does not drive our decision as to whether or not a product or service is featured or recommended. Shop With Us operates independently from the advertising sales team. We welcome your feedback at ShopWithUs@usmagazine.com. Happy shopping!
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About the author: Dave I. has been a Dappered reader for several years. His interest in fashion started with shoes and expanded to encompass watches, suits, and general men’s style. When not thinking about his next purchase he can be found enjoying a pint of locally brewed craft beer.
The search for the perfect weekender bag is a bit like looking for the perfect pair of shoes. Everyone has their own opinion on what constitutes said item, everyone has their own requirements for said item, and finding said item can be at times extremely challenging. This is the situation I found myself in when looking for a weekender bag. With my requirements set, it was a matter of trolling the interwebs until I found exactly what I was looking for.
Enter the Korchmar Twain Leather Weekender. With Dimensions of 22″ x 10″ x 14″ this Made in the USA bag is perfect for an airplane carry-on or for throwing in the trunk of a car for a quick weekend getaway. The interior of bag is lined with signature 6.4 oz yarn dyed twill and contains three interior pockets, handy for stuffing charging cables, sunglasses, travel guides, or anything that might get lost at the bottom of a travel bag. The exterior is made of full grain American leather finished with natural oils and waxes, and complimented with brass clamp down ends to allow for expansion and increased interior capacity. Overall the bag looks and feels good. However, with a retail price of $ 605.00 USD this is definitely on the spendy side.
I recently had the opportunity to take the bag on a five day business trip. Granted five days is a little longer than a weekend, but the Twain proved to be the perfect bag for the job as I needed a bag to fit in the airline overhead bin since I did not want to check any bags. For the trip I took with me two pairs of shoes, two pairs of pants, a set of clothes for the gym, three business shirts, toiletries, underwear and socks. The Twain managed to pack all of it efficiently and with style.
The Twain fit perfectly in the overhead compartment of both flights. On the flight out, overhead compartment space was at a premium as the overhead bins were not very deep. The Twain fit snugly in the overhead bin length wise, with not much room to spare. The return flight had a more traditional overhead bin, with the Twain fitting in width wise and having room to spare.
There are only two issues with the bag – beside the price – and the gripes are minor.
- Snug Strap: The first issue deals with the leather strap that buttons the carrying straps together. The fit is snug. To button up the carrying straps, both straps need to be placed at a certain angle for the buttons to close. This might be because the bag is new and the leather hasn’t been worked in yet, but it did take a little bit of pulling and manipulating to get straps buttoned up together.
- Stiff Leather: The second issue likely ties into the first. Because the bag is new, the leather is extremely stiff. There is no flexibility and the leather shows every little scuff. Over time, this will likely change as the bag gets worked in. It’s concerning to see scrapes and nicks on an expensive bag, but with leather that is the nature of the beast.
Having successfully completed one trip with the Twain, I can easily see more trips where the bag will prove its worth. At $ 605.00 USD this bag is not for everyone. However both when checking in to the hotel, and when getting dropped off at the airport, the porters handling the bag commented on how nice it was. Now this may be because they were looking for a tip. Or it could be because they genuinely felt it was a nice bag. Personally, I prefer to think it was the latter.
Editors Note: At post time, an alternate version, the “Lux Twain”, made from full grain American aniline leather, is costlier at retail ($ 645) yet is marked down to $ 495. That’s less that the regular Twain version reviewed in this post. As far as we can tell, the only difference is that the Lux version is aniline leather, whereas the non-Lux version is not. Looks like the sale is set to expire tomorrow, 12/20/18.
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Pineapples aren’t just good to eat. A Spanish businesswoman is on a mission to convince us they’re also good to wear.
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A BEAR FOR WEAR: Resurgence of slow fashion and putting hands to work, and resting on nearly 100 years of heritage, Black Manufacturing is uniting its “union of makers” with its newest leather-jacket collaboration, colluding in the Pacific Northwest where the “outdoors and industrial collide.”
Fixed on quality and made-to-order utility, Black Bear Brand’s product selection includes leather jackets, heavyweight shirts of wool and tweed weave, knit accessories and collaborations such as that of the latest Black Bear Brand x Langlitz Leathers featuring Horween Leather Co. horsehide, tanned specially for the collaboration.
Since 1914, when George G. Black built the namesake manufacturing center to foster the growth of the label, the emphasis has been on providing product with purpose. And this “union of makers” is tethered to the Black family’s founding mission to dissolve competing sweatshop conditions and place emphasis on worker welfare and emotional resonance.
WWD spoke with Josh Sirlin, creative director, curator and principal at Black Manufacturing, the overseer of Black Bear Brand and its “union of makers,” which is essentially “sharing what’s behind the product” and “participating in the creating,” as Sirlin stated.
Softening production timelines, each leather jacket begins with a “personal consultation with each customer during the ordering process” to perfect sizing
Shell Cordovan is a staple material of fine men’s shoemaking, but you may wonder what makes this kind of horse (!) leather so special that it commands $ 500 or more per pair of shoes.
From the outside, shell cordovan looks quite similar to any other shoe leather – smooth, lustrous, and richly colored in shades of burgundy, brown, and black – but it has some unique properties that make it ideal for men’s shoes. It’s also a far rarer and more labor-intensive leather than cowhide. Let’s investigate what shell cordovan is, its history, how it is created and how to find, buy, and care for shell cordovan once it’s part of your collection.
What is Shell Cordovan?
Shell cordovan is the name for a leather derived from the hindquarters of a horsehide. It’s one of the few types of leather that consumers might know by name.
The “shell” refers to the hindquarter part of the hide once it has been split horizontally to remove the grain. The name “cordovan” derives from the city of Cordoba, and means “from Cordoba”; together the terms refer to this specific type of horse leather.
Unlike other leather, the shell is a membrane in the middle of two epidermis layers in the rear portion of a horse butt. The hindquarter portion of the hide used for shell cordovan begins at about 24″ from the tail and extending 24-28″ on either side of the horse. The exact size depends on the particular horse.
Shell cordovan is exceptionally durable. The pores are so dense on the hindquarters of a horse that they are not visible to the naked eye. The hide is naturally resistant to water (though not impervious) as well as stretching. Instead of creasing, shell cordovan ripples.
Since creasing can lead to cracks in the leather, the tendency to ripple rather than crease helps to preserve the surface of the leather and the overall lifespan of the shoe. Furthermore, shell cordovan ages very well and develops a particularly beautiful patina over time. A well cared for pair of shoes can truly last you a lifetime.
The leather itself doesn’t accept dye very well so it’s mostly found in dark shades of brown, black and what is known as “cordovan” color, which is a dark burgundy rose color. It takes approximately 1 and a half shells to make a pair of shoes.
Why is shell cordovan so expensive?
The high price of cordovan comes down to the low supply of hides, the high demand for them, and the long, complicated tanning process. Since horses are only raised as part of the food chain in a few places in the world, the supply of horsehides is small and unlikely to grow, contributing directly to the scarcity and high price of this type of leather. Only a small portion of the horsehide can be used and it can’t be split into layers like cow leather. Tanning alone takes 6 months and a great deal of handwork; very few tanners have the knowledge to tan it.
Shell cordovan is a truly rare and unique material, and prices vary, though it tends to hover around $ 100 per square foot. The cost is warranted considering the factors surrounding its production.
History of Shell Cordovan
Leather has been produced and used by man since 2200 BC, but the first documented use of horse leather was in 7th century Spain by the Visigoths and eventually by the Moors.
The city of Cordoba, from which shell cordovan derived its name, was a noted center for leather tanning.
In the 16th and 17th centuries, skilled craftsmen would create preciously decorated horse leathergoods such as wall hangings, trunks, shields, and armor.
Even today, you can find artisans such as Meryan in Cordoba who still maintain the tradition of Cordovan leather (sometimes also referred to as Cordoban). Because of its qualities, beauty, and durability, it found its way to the Spanish Royalty, who facilitated the spread of cordovan leather throughout Europe and the world through marriage with other royal families.
It wasn’t until the 19th century that shell cordovan was connected with the specific type of tanned horsehide that is used today.
In the middle of the century, German and Dutch tanners arrived in the US with their trade for “spiegelwahre”, which translates to “mirror ware”. The name is a reference to the fact that polished cordovan achieves a mirror-like finish. Their profession became known as “Cordwainers”.
That being said, shell cordovan in the 19th century was a thick, tough leather prized more for its durable nature than for its good looks. It was commonly used for leather razor strops until the safety razor emerged around WWI and the industry had to pivot to a new product. In the early 20th century, American tanners further improved the tanning techniques to make shell cordovan softer and more appropriate for shoes.
In 1910, Wolverine advertised its shell cordovan boots and gloves as being “buckskin-soft.”
Shell Cordovan Today
Today, only a few factories in the world tan shell cordovan. Among them, the most recognized is Horween, which is based in Chicago.
Style-wise, shell cordovan today walks the line between casual and dressy; casual due to its history as a workwear material and, on the opposite side, dressy due to it’s higher price and rarity. Most brands use shell cordovan for shoes such as tassel loafers, bluchers, wing tips and a variety of boots.
The tanning of cordovan is incredibly complex. Six months and more than a hundred processes are required to produce a useable hide, and therefore, very few tanneries remain in the world still produce this kind of leather. At Horween, although roughly 80% of their business stems from tanning cowhides, they are probably most famous for their genuine Shell Cordovan leather.
Tanning is a process that does two basic things: it stops the natural decay process and develops the desired characteristics of the leather. It starts out with salted horse hides. They are sourced from France, despite the common belief that Horween leather is an entirely American product. For more on the subject, read our article about Made in the USA.
The horsehides arrive on pallets and are then cut down by hand. Only the butt portion of the hide is tanned as shell cordovan.
In order to remove the hair, they undergo some chemical treatments described in the tanning process; they are then tanned in pits using Horween’s proprietary tanning solution which consists of chestnut and quebracho tree bark as well as resins.
The horsehides are put into frames that agitate constantly. This ensures that the tannins don’t settle and the hides are evenly tanned.
After thirty days, the horsehides are taken out of the solution and then shaved to expose the shell. Subsequently, it is put into another pit with a stronger solution and tanned for another 30 days.
The two tanning stages cannot be rushed, or the outside skin fibers would only be penetrated by the tannins, while the inside would be still raw.
Once the tanning process is complete, the hides still require another 4 months of work before they become finished leather. The hides are polished and colored by hand, and most importantly, they have to rest.
Horween sometimes has to turn customers down due to lack of supply. When these customers then see the piles of shell cordovan in the factory, they don’t always understand that the shells have to rest.
In order to better understand the whole tanning process, check out the following video which shows the different steps of the cordovan production.
How to Buy Shell Cordovan
The first step is to decide if shell cordovan is the right material for you to buy because it is a significant investment. Personally, I am not a huge fan of shell cordovan shoes because they wrinkle in a certain way, are harder and less breathable. However, I know quite a few people who swear by it. My advice is to check it out yourself – chances are you will either love or hate it. New shoes will feel stiff, but take a trip to the vintage store, and look for the trademark ripples and color of cordovan to try out what a pair of broken-in cordovan feels like for yourself.
Shell cordovan is a great addition to your shoe closet if you appreciate the unique look, feel and durability of the leather. It is especially great for enthusiasts that want a hard wearing, casual-to-informal shoe that they plan to care for and re-sole for many years to come.
You’ll mostly find shell cordovan in shades of brown and black, and of course “cordovan” burgundy. However, this classification can be misleading because cordovan leather has its very own way of achieving a certain kind patina through exposure to sunlight.
Over time, “cordovan” ages from a burgundy tinged brown color to reveal a bit more of the red tone with each passing year. Other shell cordovan colors will also age and darken, with the exception of the black.
Shell Cordovan Shoemakers
Considering the rarity of shell cordovan, it’s not always available and well-marketed shoe releases often sell out quickly. Brands that consistently sell shell cordovan over multiple shoe models include Alden, Allen Edmonds, Viberg, Carmina, and Rancourt, among others.
Expect to find classic, informal shoes such as tassel and penny loafers, and work-boot inspired styles of all kinds. It’s not an ideal material for elegant, sophisticated looks, but for elevated casual and every day looks cordovan is an excellent choice. Considering the cost of the leather itself, makers of cordovan shoes tend not to cut corners when it comes to construction.
Given the sturdiness of shell cordovan, you can buy either new or vintage with confidence. Just note the return policy of the retailer, in case you don’t happen to like the feel of the shoe.
How to Clean and Polish Cordovan
Cordovan is different than other leathers and as such, many claim the treatment is different. In my opinion, you should use an emulsion shoe polish and rub it into the leather in concentric circles with either a brush or a piece of cloth. Some also claim that a shoe bone should be used. Unlike most shoe horns, this bone is actually a hind (leg) bone of a deer.
Apparently, it is used for cordovan because it has the right amount of oil to ensure the surface is not damaged without over saturating it. In my personal experience, the outcome with or without a shoe bone was the same. As you will soon find out, there are many ways to polish shoes and everybody has a little secret.
With regards to shoe polish, Saphir now has a cordovan shoe polish in their portfolio but a regular emulsion cream (not turpentine wax) paste will do just fine as well. Since Cordovan is a very rough leather, you do not have to worry about it and if you go to the lengths of using emulsion shoe polish and a brush, you are ahead of most people out there.
Shell cordovan’s special qualities aren’t for every person’s closet or budget, but they are a cornerstone of classic men’s footwear. What shell cordovan shoes and accessories do you own?
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