Leather Jackets, Fringes, and Fashion, oh my!

Where Did the Fringe on Leather Jackets Come From?
A History of Fringe Jackets, Fringes, Leather Jacket Fringes and Fashion
  Madeleine Jacobs
Leather Jackets, Fringes, and Fashion, oh my!

 I have a beautiful light blue leather jacket with fringe along the shoulder and on the under seams of the sleeves. Growing up in Wyoming, I have to admit that I’ve always been a bit partial to these kinds of jackets. Although you don’t see many of them worn today, since it is no longer currently the ‘in’ style, these jackets are still around, as are vests, chaps and gloves.

    But I wondered…where did this particular style come from? I decided to do some digging……

    I started out my research with the assumption that leather fringing began with our nation’s western era. If you thought that as well, you’d be wrong! You and I need to go back much farther than that….

    Fringe on clothing to show style and class was actually popular in Mesopotamia (1). It didn’t matter what economic status you were, what ‘class’ you were. You showed style if your clothing was embellished with  leather fringes.

   While you don’t see fringes on clothing, or the fancy, expensive leather jackets like you used to, the fact remains that a few decades ago, fringes on leather was a definite style. Western movies and western tv shows were in abundance, with the hero or heroine wearing fringes.

   Actually, in the 1600’s and further back east, fringed coats and gloves were found on woodsmen, having adopted similar clothing that many Indians in their surrounding area wore. But why the fringes?

   It was a lot of work to get leather. Hunting was a forgone given since meat was needed to feed families and hunters’ themselves. After hunting and skinning, the hide was tanned. This was quite a process involving many steps and a lot of time. Given the expenditure in energy, it made complete sense to waste as little as possible….of anything. Meat or leather.

    Extra leather was cut into strips and worked into the seams of the jacket to make the seams as flexible as possible as well as to increase needed insulation and to protect the wearer from rain, snow and wind. Old timers today, and I’ve actually heard them state this!, swear by the fringes acting as a ‘wick’ to draw off rain and snow allowing easier and more efficient run off. Who knows? It may actually be true. And it does actually make sense.

   If you’ve ever used or worked with leather, you understand how flexible, yet strong and tough, the smallest piece of rawhide or buckskin leather can be. In our current culture, with our ready made homes, cars, near by lumberyard or hardware store, we can get whatever supplies we need in an emergency. But on the frontier, these tiny scraps of leather could be just thing you needed in a pinch, or worse, an emergency. These extras strips were often found on saddles, in saddle packs or in frontier homes. In a REAL emergency out in the wild, the fringes on your jacket could do just fine.

Depletion of the Meat Supply

Over-hunting has it’s effects and the east coast in the 1600’s was no exception. Hunting for meat and clothing was one thing, but a demand for anything can produce a shortage of supply. Noticing that the deer were being over-hunted to provide not only meat, but the fashionable fringed jackets, the first law was introduced to protect deer that were being over-hunted. Endangered deer were protected beginning 1646 and there would no longer be hunting between the months of May and November so that the deer population could again replenish itself. The demand for these jackets, though, continued. But where to get the hides??? Obviously if the deer were not as plentiful in the east, they must be so in the west and thus began the shipments from the Western frontier to supply the demand for fashion. 

Practicality in the West

While many men in the west wore cloth shirts, leather coats and pants, they changed their clothing style showing a preference for leather wear because of it’s practicality.  It’s a given that cloth shirts and pants wear out rather quickly and given the expense and the long time involved in ordering items from the east coast, it made much more sense, and it was more financially feasible, to wear clothing made from materials at hand. Local Indian tribes wore these types of clothing and had for many generations. Why not adopt the same mode of garb? Even better than saving the shipping and product costs from back east was the fact that leather clothing goods would stand up to heavy wear for years. The buckskin fringes held the added benefit that pieces could repair tack or saddles in an emergency, or repair their own clothing. Who knows what other uses they made of it? But if it was needed, it was certainly handy as they wore their emergency supplies on them. Far from being a fashion statement, these items of apparel with their fancy fringes might even be a case of  ‘life or death.’

Where Are They Now?

You don’t see as many leather jackets as you once did. Fashion come in style, and just as quickly at public whim, it goes out. What you do see carries a heavy price tag. I still have my own fringed jacket, baby blue leather, but even I don’t wear it as much. Thought I love the jacket and it’s warm, I’ve given it up in favor of things much easier to wash and wear. But when the occasion demands it, that lovely jacket comes back out of the closet to shine on even the tiniest occasions. (2)
 

(1) I found several references to Mesopotamian fringed clothing, but no other citations giving actual proof such as carvings, drawings etc. I have no reason to disbelieve this being true, though, as any idea a person might have had has usually been thought of or implemented in one way or another at an earlier time. “Great minds think alike.” I guess!

(2) You might find it interesting to see one of Custer’s jackets, which was donated to the Smithsonian Museum in 1912 by his widow. He was a flashy sort of fellow, and he wore the dress he adopted (frontiersman clothing) very well. I have not checked if his gloves are in the museum but you can find photos of him wearing fringed gear. I have never been to the Smithsonian, but it’s very possible that many of their items are on display online as well.