Published Apr 21, 2023 by Rick Cundiff
If you want to make a statement with a casual jacket, you have basically two choices – denim or leather. Each denotes a certain atmosphere and attitude. And either can be a suitable canvas for custom patches.
It’s important to consider exactly what you want to say with your choice of jacket material. Are you going for friendly and approachable, or distant and mysterious? Cowboy or biker? Think carefully before you choose.
If you want a jacket you can customize with custom embroidered patches, think about how many patches you want to include, and how you want to attach them. Let’s look at the differences between denim and leather jackets, and how you can customize either one with the right patches.
The denim jacket in the United States dates back to about 1880, the year jeans-maker Levi Strauss introduced his first. Lightweight and comfortable, it was a great piece of work wear for railroad workers, cowboys, miners, ranchers and others who needed sturdy, durable clothing. It soon became an iconic look, symbolizing the American work ethic.
The leather jacket as we know it today first became popular in the early days of aviation. In World War II, bomber jackets, leather lined with fleece, were the best way to keep aviators warm at altitude. After the war, civilians appreciated them too.
Without the bomber’s fleece, leather became the jacket of choice for motorcycle riders who appreciated its durability and the degree of protection it added in crashes. Not to mention the fact that it looked great.
As the number of motorcyclists rose, and biker clubs and gangs began to emerge, the leather jacket acquired a slight air of menace. Actors such as Marlon Brando and James Dean helped promote the image in roles of troubled young men.
The image was part of a total package, a concept Presley understood well. He told Parade Magazine in 1956, “I know why girls…go for us [himself, Dean and Brando]. We’re sullen, we’re broodin’, we’re something of a menace…I don’t know anything about Hollywood, but I know you can’t be sexy if you smile. You can’t be a rebel if you grin.”
By the mid-1950s, the combination of blue jeans, white t-shirt and black leather jacket became the epitome of “cool” for would-be young male rebels. Biker culture cemented the legend.
Motorcycle clubs, particularly those of the “outlaw” variety, went all-in on leather jackets, adding custom patches to denote club affiliation. Large patches on the backs of leather jackets or vests became known as “colors,” a sign of membership.
The social upheaval of the 1960s brought self-expression to the forefront for young people. Baby Boomers entering their teens and 20s became vital contributors to the civil rights movement in the early years of the decade. Protests of the Vietnam War became common as the decade wore on. And the women’s movement brought new forms of expression as well.
One key factor in this expansion of expression was the humble embroidered patch. Originally conceived as a simple decorative item, custom patches increasingly were a means to make a political statement. Denim and leather jackets that once would have been simply fashion wear became political.
Patches were an affordable, and relatively restrained way to make one’s beliefs known in public. From a single patch to a dozen or more covering jeans and jackets, patches were part of the national conversation. They’ve never really left since.
Above all else, denim jackets are versatile. Whether pristine or distressed, denim looks good. It can be worn in just about any casual setting with style.
Denim offers the most flexibility in ways to attach a custom patch. For the most security, you can sew on patches, either by hand or with a sewing machine. If you want an easier attachment method, it’s easy to iron on the patches of your choice. That alone can be the deciding factor between leather and denim patches (see below).
Cotton denim is durable, and holds up well to frequent wear. If you want to show off your patches often, denim is an excellent choice.
Denim is one of the most comfortable materials for jackets. They’re lightweight and easy to wear in cool or warm weather. They move freely and are well suited for outdoor tasks. They might not be warm enough for really cold weather, however.
Denim jackets are easy to care for, requiring little more than an occasional laundering, either by hand or machine. They can shrink when washed, so cooler temperatures are recommended, and line drying.
Leather jackets are typically more expensive than denim styles, due to their higher material and production costs.
Attaching your custom patches to leather jackets is more complicated than with denim. Because leather can’t withstand the heat, iron on patches are not possible. Sewing your patches on is the standard way to attach them. If you don’t want to do the sewing yourself, a competent tailor shop can attach your patches. This will increase the overall cost.
The need for sewing patches on might prompt you to limit the number of patches you choose to apply to a leather jacket. If you’re willing to do the sewing or pay to have it done, you can have a jacket that’s just as colorful and patch-covered as any denim one.
Leather jackets can be considered investment apparel. With reasonable care, a good leather jacket can last decades.
At first, leather jackets can be a bit stiff and uncomfortable. However, with repeated wear, they will become “broken in,” becoming soft and supple. They will be significantly warmer than denim in cold weather, and can provide excellent protection from wind and rain.
Unlike denim, leather requires a greater degree of maintenance. Leather jackets need to be waterproofed before wearing, and require occasional applications of leather conditioner to remain in top shape. They require commercial laundering to avoid damage.
When it comes down to it, the choice of denim or leather jackets is yours to make. Depending on how you want to attach your patches, what statement you want to make, and how and where you plan to wear it, either could be the right choice for your particular needs. And don’t forget, you could always get both!