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Booted Harleydude's Complete Guide to
Motorcycle Leather Gear

"I ride a motorcycle. I know that leather offers good protection and looks great on bikers. How can I figure out what's good and what's crap?"

This is a question I am sometimes asked. I have ridden motorcyles for more than 40 years. I live in a four-season climate, so I choose leather for all-year protection, cold/cool-weather warmth, and style. I have a fair amount of motorcycle leather gear myself and over time, I have learned a thing or two about it.


I begin this discussion with the following assumptions in mind:

My thoughts below reflect these assumptions.

Quick links to main sections on this page:
A. Leather Gear Essentials (what and how to buy specific pieces of leather gear)
¤ Jackets
¤ Vests
¤ Chaps
¤ Boots
¤ Leather Pants, Jeans, and Breeches
¤ Leather Shirts
B. Where to Buy Quality Leather Gear
C. Care for Your Investment

A. Leather Gear Essentials

A lot of the following content is based on my own experience, plus learning from and speaking with other bikers with whom I ride regularly. Some of the content in this Guide was written by a fellow rider who I respect tremendously, and who served as the Safety Officer in the motorcycle club with which I once rode, as well as who was an instructor for MSF-sanctioned motorcycle safety courses.

Motorcycle riding gear is essential to protect the body against impact with the road or other vehicles. Quality safety gear designed for motorcycling ensures a rider has adequate visibility, comfort, and protection from the elements. Motorcyclists should wear gear designed for motorcycling whenever they ride. Having all the right gear will only protect a rider if it is worn all the time. Don't take risks, even on short joy rides or a trip to the convenience store. Most crashes occur within a mile from home.

It may seem enticing to ride a motorcycle wearing a T-shirt and shorts, especially when the weather is warm. But coming in contact with asphalt in the event of a crash is akin to dragging skin on a power sander. Protective gear will help you stay comfortable while riding in adverse conditions. In a crash, proper riding gear will help prevent or reduce injury.

Covering the body with leather provides a high level of injury protection. Motorcycle leathers are cut longer in the sleeves and legs and fuller across the shoulders to accommodate your riding posture. Special overlaps and flaps help seal out the wind and padding helps protect you in a crash.

Motorcyclists often wear leather because it is durable and abrasion-resistant, giving good protections against injury. The leather used is not fashion leather but protective leather which is stronger, moderately flexible and much tougher. Riding gear that is just right for morning or cold-weather riding may be too hot once you stop. Dress in layers so that the outer clothing may be removed and stored as a long riding day warms.

Here are the basics for someone starting out, or someone interested in some pieces of leather gear that he doesn't have yet. The following are my personal opinions. Your opinions and creative thoughts may be different. By all means, explore your own style and make selections that suit your preferences and needs.

1. Jackets

It is likely that you already have a leather jacket. But make sure you have a good one. A jacket with a zippered front will be more wind-resistant than a jacket with buttons or snaps. A flap of material over a jacket zipper gives additional protection against the wind. Jackets with sleeves tapering to fitted cuffs and waists are recommended to help keep wind from blowing into the garment. Be careful about collar style--a large, loose collar will flap when riding and may irritate your skin or distract you.

There are several types of leather jackets that bikers wear.

A traditional leather "biker jacket" is one that is styled like the jacket worn by Marlon Brando in the movie The Wild One. Traditional-cut (Brando Style) leather biker jackets feature:

This is probably the most common leather jacket that bikers wear, but usually, these jackets are made of cheap quality leather and poor construction. You can find these jackets on numerous websites. Check the label, or ask the vendor -- these days, the vast majority of these jackets are made in Pakistan or India. You can get better quality jackets for a little more money elsewhere (read on.)

Bikers who know comfort and quality choose leather jackets that have less chrome, and more function. A "motocross" or "solid, plain-front" jacket fits the bill. These jackets are made with thick cowhide. They usually have a plain back, on which a club's "colors" can be attached. The front has a vertical zipper and two pockets, closed with zippers. Two more pockets (perhaps what's called a "gun pocket" which is a deep pocket) are on the inside, also closed with snaps or zippers. These jackets may or may not have a belt.


Leather police or "cop style" jackets are also a good choice. These jackets are designed for active motorcyclists who want style and protection. These jackets are designed similar to motocross jackets, but usually fit more loosely, allowing for full range of motion in the shoulders, arms, and elbows. Police jackets usually have two outer pockets, two inner pockets (or a "gun pocket"), and sometimes, a thick "Sam Browne" belt. For some bikers, a Sam Browne belt helps with the jacket's fit and also provides kidney protection.

Features to look for:

The fit:    This part is quite important. Make sure the jacket fits you properly! You don't want a big bulky piece of leather - You will look fat. If you can afford custom, go for it. Otherwise try on several different jackets until you find the one that fits you well. It is best if there are lacings at the bottom sides of the jacket so you can adjust the fit.

 Style:   Pick the right style, and you can wear it over and over again. A standard motorcycle jacket is best. Some jackets have lapels and some do not -- get what you like, but if it has lapels, make sure that the lapels snap down so they don't flap in the wind. If it has a belt, choose one with a wide belt that is not sewn onto the jacket and is removeable. Epaulets are your own personal choice. Avoid gaudy hardware.

Quality:   Look at the label to ensure it is made of "top grain" leather rather than cowhide splits. If it doesn't say "top grain," be suspicious. Also, be suspicious of leather jackets made in China, Pakistan, or India. The quality of leather and garment construction from these countries is poor.

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2. Vests

After a jacket, a good leather vest is a fundamental leather item that bikers wear. A biker vest looks like a biker jacket without sleeves, and is simple, but functional. It is designed to provide protection, and to wear on warmer days when it is too warm for a jacket, but wind chill requires another layer. A good biker vest will typically cost US$100-$150.

Features to look for:

Style:    There are plenty of styles to choose from, but your best bet here is a "biker" vest. A traditional "biker" vest is cut longer than a dress vest. It closes on the front with snaps (though some may have zippers, which are not recommended.) It has 2 to 4 front pockets, plus 1 or 2 deep inside pockets to store valuables. Better vests have snap or zipper closures for pockets. A biker vest usually is lined with satin. Biker vests worn with club colors have "plain back" and "plain lapel" features to provide space for patches and run pins. Seams are found on both sides of the back, instead of one seam down the middle.

Alternate vests include bar vests, western vests, or vests worn with a 3-piece suit. None of these are suitable for wear while riding a motorcycle.

The Fit:    Biker vests should hang over your shoulders and not pucker around the sides or at the front of each arm. Many are adjustable using side laces or chains. Since biker vests look better and offer more freedom of movement if not snapped closed, consider getting vest extenders, which allow the vest to be open but still held across your front so it does not flap in the wind while riding.

See this post on my blog for more details about vests.

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3. Chaps

Chaps are the most versatile piece of leather you will own. They are great for wearing on cool mornings when you head out, or to put on when temperatures drop in the evening. You can remove them and store them in a saddlebag or a luggage rack with bungee cords during the daytime.

A good pair of leather chaps will cost you US$200 minimum. They will be fairly functional and usually have a snap or belted front closure with rawhide strings in the back for adjustment. A great pair of chaps will probably run you about US$400. "Great" chaps have pockets on the front, are made of thick top-grain leather, and are made custom to your size, so there is usually one solid band of leather across the back, or if rawhide strings holding grommeted ends together are used, the ends are spaced close together. Great chaps will also have a quality, adjustable closure on the front.

Do NOT buy a US$79-$99 pair of chaps. You'll regret it. They're paper thin, often made of cowhide splits (not top grain leather), and often are pieced rather than made of one solid hide. Cheap chaps are pretty much worthless.

Features to look for:

The Fit:   Go to a quality leather store (see "Where To Buy Quality Leather Gear" below) and try on a pair or two. If you're not sure what you're doing, the salesperson will help you put them on. Wear the jeans you may wear with them so you get a proper fit. And let the leathermaker do alterations so they fit you right. (i.e. length and adjust the waist closure if necessary). Minor alterations shouldn't cost more than about US$20-$30.

Weight/Thickness: The thicker the leather, the better. You want a heavy weight leather. It looks 100% better. And you don't want cheap looking chaps. Leather that is in the range of 7 to 8 oz. is best.

Zipper Position: As a biker, you want the zipper on the outside (so it won't scratch your tank).

Chaps to Avoid: Don't buy chaps made of anything except real leather. There are some chaps made with other products like neoprene. Bikers should avoid chaps that have zippers on the inside of the leg, because the zippers will scratch the paint on your bike. Finally, chaps that zip part way and close at the bottom with snaps, and whose vendors say "you can cut them off to your desired length" are not a good choice. While you can cut the leather, unless the leather is hemmed with durable thread by a professional, it will fray and fall apart. Don't be fooled! Vendors of junk from Pakistan make it seem simple to cut chaps to fit your leg length and be done with it. Not true!

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4. Boots

Boots are essential for biker safety and style. Boots provide protection and durable soles that provide necessary traction. Sneakers look silly -- even black ones. What's worse, the soles of sneakers do not resist oil, so they can easily slip and cause a biker to drop his bike. Boots with oil-resistant, rubber-based composite soles give a good grip on the pavement and help keep the rider's feet on the pegs. In case of a crash, boots help provide valuable protection against foot and ankle injuries. A stiff sole working laterally helps prevent or decrease crash injuries caused by crushing and shear strain.

You do not have to spend a fortune on boots. Usually those first starting out get a pair of plain black harness boots, which are readily available from a variety of on-line retailers. You may want to consider a pair of engineer boots, which have a more "tough-look" style. The best and most affordable choices are Station Boots (shown to left) made by Southwest Boot Company. Avoid boots made with the Harley-Davidson label, as they are made using cheap methods in China.

Click here for a Guide to Motorcycle Boots.
Click here for a Guide to Motorcycle Police Patrol Boots.

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5. Leather Pants, Jeans, and Breeches

While most bikers wear denim jeans and chaps, there are some bikers who wear full leather -- including leather pants or breeches. Why? Leather apparel made for motorcycling is comfortable, durable, protective, and stylish. Leather pants, jeans, or breeches for bikers have evolved a long way from the tight leather pants made famous by rock stars. More and more regular guys these days wear leather pants, and enjoy the complimentary comments and looks from other bikers.

The differences among leather pants, jeans, and breeches: Leather pants are cut like regular men's slacks. They usually have a straight leg, snap or zipper fly, and pockets. Leather jeans are pretty much the same, but are cut in a style like denim blue jeans. There may be rivets at stress points like you find on denim jeans. They always have pockets and straight legs.

Leather breeches are designed to fit tightly on the person wearing them. The legs usually are cut shorter than leather jeans, because they are made to be worn inside boots and not go so far down as to rub against the ankle bone. The legs are tapered and often have a zipped closure to ensure they remain snug and low on the legs. Don't even think about wearing breeches and short boots, combat boots, or even worse, shoes or sneakers. Breeches are made to be worn inside tall black patrol-style or equestrian boots. Breeches usually have four pockets, plus sometimes a "billy pocket" (designed for a cop's "billy club".) They also may have flares (sometimes called balloons) on the sides of the legs.

Most guys wear leather jeans or pants over boots. If you want to wear leather jeans inside boots, you can do that by pulling the end of the jeans down, rolling a sock up over the end of the jeans, and then carefully pulling the boot on. If the boot shaft is too tight, the jeans will bunch up around the knees and look bad. If your boots are already tight on your legs and you still want to wear leather inside them, either buy boots with a wider calf width, or get leather breeches instead of leather pants.

Features to look for:

The Fit: It is rare that off-the-shelf leather jeans or pants fit right. Often they are baggy at the legs, knees, or butt. It's really best to have leather jeans made custom to your size, and to accommodate your height and the boots you will wear with them. Also, make sure that the jeans or pants fit you well in the crotch and are not too "flat-fronted" which can be either uncomfortable when you are seated or if you have any bit of a tummy, cause your stomach to hang over your belt, making you look fat.

Style: Quality leather pants, jeans, or breeches will be made of one solid piece of leather on the front and the back. The seams will be straight on the inside and outside of the legs. There will not be additional seams at the knees. Seams there indicate piece-meal construction, a sure sign of poor quality. Good leather pants will also be made of top-grain leather, and will have a natural shine to them. Some leather pants may have a pebble-grain finish. As long as the pants themselves are top-grain leather, that's okay. Good leather jeans will have double-stitching at all stress points -- side seams, waist, and around the fly. Quality leather pants, jeans, or breeches are usually lined from the waist to the knee. This makes them more comfortable to wear as well as easier to put on. Some leather pants are called "naked leather" meaning that they are not lined so you feel the leather against your skin.

Leather breeches may also have an extra layer of leather on the inside of both legs, and across the butt. This style is a hold-over from horseback riding, as well. However, these added layers of leather can make the breeches more comfortable if they are worn while riding a motorcycle on a long ride.

Pockets on leather pants or jeans is purely a personal choice. Many "five-pocket leather jeans" are styled like denim jeans, including a coin pocket which some guys use to hold a cigarette lighter.

Stripes and Piping: It is very common to find or be offered a colored stripe or colored piping (small strips of leather) on the side seams of leather jeans or breeches. I have reflective stripes on a pair of motorcycle breeches and some other leather jeans and chaps that I wear have piping or stripes of other colors. I like how the gear looks that way. Get what you want. Stripes make the gear interesting but do not mean anything else.

What to avoid: Most leather pants, jeans, or breeches come with a snap fly. Better leather jeans or breeches come with a zipper fly (or you can have a leather tailor install a zipper fly for you for about US$25.) A zipper blocks the wind better and isn't as likely for the fly to pop open when you swing your leg over the saddle of your bike. Don't get a button fly. The buttons holes will enlarge with use and after a few times wearing them, the buttons may pop open with normal activities, like getting up from a seated position or throwing your leg over a motorcycle saddle.

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6. Leather Shirts

Leather shirts come in a variety of styles, and nowadays, colors too. There are two basic varieties: leather cop-style shirts, and then "all the rest."

Leather cop-style shirts have two pockets, shoulder epaulets and a snaps down the front. A high-quality leather shirt will have a zipper covered with a snap-fitted covering (displayed right). Cheaper shirts may have a button closure. I don't recommend a button closure for the same reason that I don't recommend a button fly on leather jeans: the button holes stretch and after a few wearings, don't remain buttoned for long when operating a motorcycle.

You can get leather shirts with long sleeves, short sleeves, or no sleeves. Short-sleeve leather shirts are comfortable and look great. I wear long-sleeved leather shirts as an overshirt when I ride my motorcycle on days when it's not cool, but not hot, either.

Features to look for:

The Fit: a well-made leather shirt will fit well, snugly around your chest and tuck in well at your waist. It should not be baggy around the shoulders or the stomach. It should define your shoulders and back. It should have only one seam down the middle of the back, though it may have added decorative seams on the right and left third of the back of the shirt. If it has seams on each side, then that is an indicator of piecemeal construction that is of poor quality.

Style: leather shirts come in basic black, which is recommended if you will have only one leather shirt. You can also get leather shirts in almost any other color. If you do, I recommend darker colors like grey, blue, olive, or brown. Shirts in lighter colors, like CHP tan, tend to accentuate one's physical size and makes even thin guys look overweight. Contrasting leather (such as black on gray) looks great on epaulets, shoulders, cuffs, pockets, and placket (front closure.)

You can also get piping (small strips of leather) on a leather shirt. Piping runs along the pockets, epaulets, and sometimes across the shoulders or down the sides. This is a purely personal choice. Don't go overboard. If you choose to have piping added to your shirt, keep it simple: pockets and epaulets only, and keep it all the same color.

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7. Leather Gear You Do Not Need

Hat: A "James Dean" style hat looks dorky. No real biker wears a hat like that.

Leather Gloves for cold-weather riding: Yes, believe it or not, while I like to wear leather, I suggest finding gloves made with water-resistant fabric to wear while riding in cool/cold weather. Gloves made of Gortex or similar fabrics give a better grip on the throttle and the brake and clutch levers. Leather gloves can slip on the controls if they get wet, as well as become heavy and cold. New-age fabrics with insulated linings are the best choice for cold-weather riding.

Fingerless gloves, or half-gloves: Half-gloves became popular in the '70s when made famous by some movies. Fingerless gloves provide no protection for the hands, and only give a little more grip on the throttle, but not on the brake or clutch levers. If you are going to wear gloves, then wear full-hand, full-fingered gloves. If you require the ability to operate a GPS or other touch-sensitive devices, consider ultra-thin all-leather gloves that cops wear, such as made by "Tough Gloves."

Cell Phone or Smart Phone Holster: DON'T wear a mobile device on your belt! Many bikers I have ridden with have had their phone fall out of the holster or get broken while getting on or off the bike. Carry a mobile device in an inside pocket. Do not connect a mobile device via wire or bluetooth to a motorcycle's audio system. Even though it may be legal to do so, a motorcycle operator requires 1000% attention to his ride and those around him. It is not worth the risk of even a millisecond's distraction for a phone call or text. Check messages at your next stop where you are parked safely.

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B. Where to Buy Quality Leather Gear

Most motorcycle shops carry leather jackets, vests, and chaps. Generally, I do not recommend buying leather from a motorcycle dealer. They specialize in selling motorcycles, not gear. Further, some of the name-brand motorcycle dealers sell gear with their company's name on it at a premium price (just for the name.) Most bikers avoid becoming a moving advertisement for the brand.

Also, don't go to stores in the mall that sell some leather goods. These stores sell off-the-rack stuff for the masses, and are more "fashion" oriented than having anything worthy of a biker who needs protection and style for the road.

Despite being tempted by lower prices, DON'T buy leather gear from biker websites. You know the type -- these websites show images of tough biker dudes hanging out with buxom babes (the cheaper quality the gear, the bigger the boobs on the models; they're selling sex, not quality leathers).

Most of the gear found on these websites is almost "one-size fits all" and looks like it. The gear hangs funny on everyone except the model in a tough-looking pose. Jackets, vests, chaps, and pants are often too long or too short, requiring alteration anyway, and the leather is from a country such as Pakistan where quality is doubtful. This is particularly true about Jamin' Leather and Believe me, I have purchased leather from each of these on-line retailers, and have been very disappointed each time. (Once, each; never again!)

I do not recommend buying used motorcycle leathers via eBay, either. Remember, items on eBay belonged to someone else. Leather gear stretches to accommodate the (former) wearer's body. Just because you have a chest size of 40 and the eBay posting says the leather jacket is a size 40, it does not mean that it will fit you. The jacket could be larger from natural stretching. The problem with eBay is that seldom can you return something if it does not fit. Leather gear needs to fit right, or it's not worth the investment. I'm not saying that you should never buy from eBay. Know that you may not get something that fits well and you are stuck with an "as is" sale. Also, used gear is used gear. Don't pay more than half of what the item new would cost. It's not worth it.

However, you say, "I live far away from a store that specializes in crafting and selling leather." (Or I've heard, "I don't want my wife, husband, partner, or parents to find out about my interest in leather.")   "Can I use the Internet?" Well, you can, with care and a thoughtful plan.

The rest of this section is written about buying new leather gear from a reputable vendor of leather gear via the web. I have some of the stores that I have visited and ordered from listed here on my website.

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C. Care for Your Investment

Leather is a tanned and treated animal skin, so keep that in mind. Much like our skin, leather is porous and needs to be treated with care.

Condition it when you first get it: The first thing you should do after you purchase any leather garment is to treat it. You can almost always find leather care products where you make your leather purchase, or at any good shoe or western store. What has worked best for me is Lexol Leather Conditioner. This product comes in a bottle. Just put a little bit on a damp sponge and rub it all over your leather gear. Hang the gear to dry away from sunlight and heat sources (like a heat vent.) Do not use spray treatments -- these products do not work as well because the oils that are in the product that help the leather have droplets that are too large, and tend not to soak in.

Hang It Up: Just like your momma told you, hang up your clothes! This is really important for leather. When hanging leather gear, remember to keep it cool and dry. Always use broad and padded hangers, as metal wire hangers will distort the shape of leather. Leave some space on each side of each piece of gear while it is hanging so air can circulate around it. Leather gear can stick together if packed too tightly, and cause damage that can't be fixed. Remember never to store leather gear in plastic bags or containers because they need to breathe. Sunlight can easily cause leather to fade and dry out prematurely. Keep your gear out of direct sunlight when you store it.

Regular Care: Right before you hang up a piece of gear, check it for dirt, stains, or other gunk and clean it off. If it's generally clean, use something like "Armorall Leather Wipes" or "Lexol Leather Wipes" and give the gear a light going-over, ensuring you cover stress points like knees, crotch, butt, shirt sleeves, and anywhere else that your body moves and causes the gear to crease.

Spot Mud, Dirt, Salt, and Stain Removal: Use a damp sponge moistened with water only -- not saddle soap or detergent -- and rub it on the gear, particularly heavily soiled spots, in a circular manner. If a stain is stubborn, rub off as much of it as you can from the leather, then use Lexol Conditioner on the spot. You may need to treat the gear several times. Be persistent -- it will eventually come off. Be particularly attentive if the gear were exposed to salt applied to roads during the winter. This salt can quickly dry out leather and leave it permanently damaged.

Removal of Mold and Mildew: Mildew is a name for a variety of common molds, which are in the Fungus family. Mold feeds on dead organic substances, including leather. Mold will cause leather to decompose, leaving thin patches which will become holes in short order. Mold propagates by spores, which are omnipresent; you can't keep the mold spores away from leather, but you can make the environment unsuitable for their growth. Mold will grow when leather is the least bit moist, especially if kept in a dark and warm place, such as a car trunk or storage chest with limited or no air circulation. Thus, the most important thing to do to prevent additional damage is to dry the leather carefully (see below) and then keep it in a dry, well-ventilated place. I provide instructions on how to clean and remove mold and mildew from leather on my "Boot Knowledgebase" page, here.

If Leather Gets Wet: Drying leather the correct way will lengthen its lifespan. Leather gear should always be air dried in a cool area away from sunlight. Humidity and heat will cause excessive drying and result in the eventual cracking of the leather. Hang the wet gear on a wood hangar. Find a cool, non-sunlit but NOT DARK place to hang it. Wet gear hung in a dark place will get mildew very quickly, and perhaps mold that will ruin it. Make sure air circulates in the room where it is hung. If air doesn't circulate naturally, use a small fan to keep air moving in the room, but not to blow on the gear.

What to Avoid: Soaps, solvents, silicone, wax, and harsh chemicals are not a good for leather gear. Shoe polish should only be used on boots, but never on leather garments. Avoid spraying hair care or deodorant products while wearing leather gear. These things can stain and discolor the item beyond repair.

Professional Cleaning: If you find you cannot clean the item yourself, you can get it done professionally. Look in your local telephone directory for a dry cleaner that specializes in leather items. Some dry cleaners are not familiar with the processes involved in the making of leather and the glues used in the making the garments. It never hurts to make a few phone calls to find someone who is knowledgeable in cleaning leather.

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I'm sure that there's a lot more than can be written about leather gear for bikers. If you have something to suggest, if I got something wrong, if this was interesting or helpful, or if you have a comment (and have read this far down the page!), write to me!

Related Links

Boot-Related Information and Guides

Complete Guide to
Motorcycle Boots
Complete Guide to
Cop Patrol Boots
Boot Wiki
General Guide on
Choosing Boots

Leather-Related Information and Guides

My Personal
Motorcycle Gear
Air Travel
with Leather Gear
Guide to
Fetish Leather
Pictorial Guide
to BLUF Leather

Leather in All Seasons--Photos of me in leather during all seasons


Other Major Sections of this website

Home Page
Motorcycle Boots
Work Boots
Cowboy Boots