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A Brief History of Leather Pants, the Rock-Star Staple That Regular Guys Can Wear, Too

If you’re looking to upgrade your sartorial status from well-dressed everyman to certified style force, there’s perhaps no more potent one-step process than by swapping out your denim, chino or even fleece trousers for a pair done up in sumptuous, sex appeal-oozing leather.

That’s right, leather pants—the attention-demanding luxury garment once reserved for rock ‘n roll icons and mega-famous stand-up comics—have, over the last few seasons, become increasingly present in the offerings of our favorite designer and contemporary labels from across the globe. We’ll even go a step further: Against the dynamic backdrop of today’s wide open, anything goes men’s fashion landscape, it’s possible there’s never been a better time to step away from the intoxicating coziness of sweats and into a pair of leather trousers, pants, or jeans.

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But their prevalence at the retail level doesn’t mean leather pants aren’t still a daring style statement. They require a healthy dose of attitude to wear (and crucially, to wear well). So we understand any residual apprehensions and/or lingering ’80s flashbacks you may have about the idea of cowhide (or its more animal-friendly alternatives) cocooning your legs this season.

To ease into this revitalized foray into leather trousers, let’s first run back how they ended up at the top of our 2023 shopping list, before identifying the best modern-day versions to ensure you’re slipping into the pair that’s right for you.

An Abridged History of Leather Pants

Cowboy Cleans His Horse's Shoes Cowboy With Full Gear On Helping His Horse With The Front Shoe. The Cowboy Has A Colt Single Action Army In His Holster, And Fine Chaps With Fringe And Conchos. There Are 30-30 Caliber Rifle Bullets In His Gun Belt And A Rifle In The Scabbard On His Horse. (Photo by Buyenlarge/Getty Images)
An American cowboy cleaning his horse’s shoes in 1890.

Tracing the historical origins of leather pants is a somewhat anthropological undertaking, but in North America, most information (and a decent amount of common sense) indicates they go back centuries to Indigenous Americans, who utilized animal hides for a myriad of purposes both practical and ceremonial. European settlers later adopted the style, and eventually, the cowboys associated with the gunslinging, horseback ways of the Wild West gave us leather chaps. (Of course, no conversation about leather pants is complete without mentioning lederhosen, the 18th-century German answer to the culottes that were popular among stylish French people of the day.)

In American popular culture, fully enclosed leather pants as we know them today are most often associated with the advent of rock ‘n roll—and the geyser of rebelliousness that opened up with it. Eddie Cochran is cited among the first rock stars to wear an all-leather look on TV in 1960, while The Beatles were, according to lore, implored to swap their pre-fame leather get-ups for trim suits to look more marketable.

Freddie Mercury, Slash and David Bowie were among the biggest proponents of leather pants in the ’70s, ’80s and ’90s.
Freddie Mercury, Slash and David Bowie were among the biggest proponents of leather pants in the ’70s, ’80s and ’90s.

Larger-than-life figures such as The Doors’ Jim Morrison and Rolling Stones’ Mick Jagger wore them while captivating the hearts and minds of a new generation. Elvis Presley also harnessed their power for his landmark 1968 comeback special as part of a mission to prove that the king still had some gas left in the tank. Each time a new icon took centerstage in a pair of leather pants, their status as a symbol of confidence and cool became further stamped into the cultural zeitgeist.

As new permutations of rock music sprung up in the ‘70s and ‘80s, from punk to glam, leather pants remained a surefire way for musicians to signal they’d entered (or at least aspired to enter) the rarified air of superstardom. Running parallel to the mainstream spotlight was the more underground leather bar scene in the gay community, which started in the 1950s and served as inspiration for the heightened, muscle-bound depictions of gay life from Tom of Finland and other pioneering artists.

But as youth tends to do, these once immortal rock stars (and their audiences) eventually grew older. At some point, men in tight leather pants started to feel like less like vessels of anti-establishment status and more the tired posturing of a generation still clinging to relevance. Giorgio Armani called them the “narcissists pants of the 1980s,” and it wasn’t long before they were the butt of a joke on Friends.

How Leather Pants Crept Back Into Men’s Fashion

A decade ago it was leather jogging pants, popularized by brands like the now-defunct En Noir, that made the case for a more relaxed, less skinny jean-adjacent riff on the form. It turned out to be something of a false start: As quickly as they rose to prominence, leather joggers adorned with gold zippers faded from our collective consciousness alongside Polaroid-filtered Instagram photos and Best Picture winner The Artist.

Like most Iinternet-age trends, the return of leather pants in 2023 can be attributed to some ethereal combination of nostalgia and fashion’s never-ending cyclical nature. Enough time has passed to forget most of the try-hard ways in which they popped up this millennium, allowing us to look fondly upon the “good times”—and classic leather pant styling—of ‘60s rockers and ‘70s counterculture club-goers. Leather pants were never quite so down and out, but no past trend, no matter how distant or once pilloried, can’t be revived if you allow enough page turns on the calendar or Instagram mood board photos to stack up.

What Do Leather Pants Look Like Now?

The leather pants of 2023 take many forms, from Saint Laurent’s suede track pants to Celine’s five-pocket style.
The leather pants of 2023 take many forms, from Saint Laurent’s suede track pants to Celine’s five-pocket style.

Shopping for leather pants today feels like a genuinely exciting exploration of the versions that first took over the scene 60 years ago combined with the fits and finishes of the modern era. For one, elastic waist leather pants are staging their cautious, not-quite-so-flashy comeback. At the same time, if you’re scouring the market for a true-to-form retro pair that’ll make you feel ready to bust a guitar solo in front of thousands of screaming fans, know that Saint Laurent has been quietly stocking a slim-fit, 5-pocket pair in its permanent collection since Hedi Slimane took the reins in 2013. (Slimane also cooked up an almost identical pair for the label he currently helms, Celine.)

But if you’re feeling, like we are, that the pants see-saw is tipping towards roomier, more thigh-friendly silhouettes, then you’ll find yourself awash in options no matter how expansive you’re willing to get. For example, Bottega Veneta’s ultra-luxe pair comes pre-belted with copious amounts of leg room, like a business class seat for your legs.

Also notable is that today’s pairs don’t just come in black. In late 2021, Tres Bien Everywhere (the in-house label of the popular online retailer) started turning out pairs in red, blue and green—and soon they sprung up at Paris Fashion Week on the hindquarters of one rap’s most stylish figureheads, Skepta. (Naturally, he wore his blue leather pants alongside a luxurious Louis Vuitton monogram jacket in, what else, leather.) Of course, if a simple color swap still isn’t enough excitement, Acne Studios makes a patchwork, hybrid denim pair that are so intricate they teeter on modern art.

But perhaps most indicative of our more conscious times is that many of the best new pairs—even those made with the utmost care and which fetch luxury-level sums—aren’t necessarily being made from leather at all. Hungarian label Nanushka has built its brand on its sophisticated use of alt leather, seen in no better place than its recycled polyester workwear pants, a sexy take on the double-knee trousers that have taken over hip downtown wardrobes. Our Legacy, a Swedish brand that’s seemingly always on the forefront of menswear’s next zig or zag, also makes a faux-leather pair that are pre-crinkled for extra casualness in addition to their decidedly straight fit.

How Do I Wear Leather Pants?

Recently, stylish guys from model Richard Biedul (far left), rockstar Lenny Kravitz and actor Morgan Spector have all seamlessly incorporated leather pants into their wardrobes.
Recently, stylish guys from model Richard Biedul (far left), rockstar Lenny Kravitz and actor Morgan Spector have all seamlessly incorporated leather pants into their wardrobes.

Despite the vast array of different leather pants available for purchase, if you’re a first timer—or returning after an extended hiatus—know you can’t go astray with pairs that are black and cut just like your most trusted pair of straight or slim-straight dungarees. If you’ve already left calf-hugging skinny jeans behind, why would you squeeze your way into any circulation-hindering trousers just because they’re cut from leather?

Ultimately, there’s no secret to be uncovered here, just a simple truth: If you don’t make a big deal about wearing leather pants, it won’t be. Sport them like you would jeans or chinos, which is to say, with everything you own: sneakers or loafers, T-shirts or polos, trucker jackets or a sport coat. As long as they fit and you remember that rocking leather pants is all about attitude, then you’ll still feel like you, not you doing sold-out arena tour cosplay.

While we can’t guarantee wearing leather pants will help you book a gig, we can say this: In a world where stretchy chinos that pull double duty at the gym feel ubiquitous, sporting something as objectively impractical as leather trousers once again feels rebellious.

The 10 Best Pairs of Leather Pants to Buy Right Now

Gant Leather Jeans

Gant Leather Jeans
Gant Leather Jeans

Buy Now on Gant: $825 $412.50


Nanushka Alt-Leather Workwear Trousers

Nanushka Alt-Leather Workwear Trousers
Nanushka Alt-Leather Workwear Trousers

Buy Now on Nanushka: $645


Tres Bien Everywhere Five-Pocket Pant in Leather

Tres Bien Everywhere Five-Pocket Pant in Leather
Tres Bien Everywhere Five-Pocket Pant in Leather

Buy Now on Tres Bien: $590


Saint Laurent Skinny-Fit Leather Trousers

Saint Laurent Skinny-Fit Leather Trousers
Saint Laurent Skinny-Fit Leather Trousers

Buy Now on Mr Porter: $3,290


John Elliott Cast 2 Skinny-Fit Leather Trousers

John Elliott Cast 2 Skinny-Fit Leather Trousers
John Elliott Cast 2 Skinny-Fit Leather Trousers

Buy Now on Mr Porter: $1,500


Our Legacy Formal Moto Crinkled Faux Leather Trousers

Our Legacy Formal Moto Crinkled Faux Leather Trousers
Our Legacy Formal Moto Crinkled Faux Leather Trousers

Buy Now on Matches Fashion: $301


Alexander McQueen Black Grained Leather Pants

Alexander McQueen Black Grained Leather Pants
Alexander McQueen Black Grained Leather Pants

Buy Now on Ssense: $5,890


Banana Republic Straight Leather Pants

Banana Republic Straight Leather Pants
Banana Republic Straight Leather Pants

Buy Now on Banana Republic: $600


Fear of God Eternal Leather Straight-Leg Trousers

Fear of God Eternal Leather Straight-Leg Trousers
Fear of God Eternal Leather Straight-Leg Trousers

Buy Now on Matches Fashion: $3,200


Bottega Veneta Men’s Belted Leather Curved-Leg Trousers

Bottega Veneta Men's Belted Leather Curved-Leg Trousers
Bottega Veneta Men's Belted Leather Curved-Leg Trousers

Buy Now on Bergdorf Goodman: $4,900

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