A true testament to human ingenuity and resourcefulness, leather has undoubtedly played a cruical part in the development of civilization. From early man to the mordern say, leather has been an enduring feature of almost every era of design and fashion.
With the word "leather" or "skin" we mean the epidermis of animals in general, freed from hair, muscle fibers, flesh and subsequently subjected to tanning processes with the aim of making it rot proof, resistant and of very long conversation. The history of leather dates back to prehistoric times, when men used animals to feed themselves and skinned them to use the leather as a tool to protect themselves from the cold during winter seasons.
Stone Age Engraving
From the outset, prehistoric men found themselves faced with the problems of preserving leather, to prevent this organic material from decomposing. With the passage of time and gaining more and more experience, they began to discover that there were ways to avoid the putrefaction and preserve it for a more lasting use.
Some principles of these ancient methods are still used today, in fact the leather was exposed to smoke or the hearths of leaves; the same technique was also applied when burning fresh wood. This type of treatment was considered the oldest "tanning" and it is called ALDEHYDE tanning, a name deriving from the use of smoke.
The earliest recorded leather artefacts crafted by primitive societies dated back to 1300 BC when man began to appreciate animal skins as much more than just a food by-product. Early civilizations across the world started to develop their own techniques to soften and preserve their animal hide by-products using methods traditionally passed down from father to son through many generations, such as smoke and anima grease. However, it is thought that the art of vegetable tanning as we know today was originally discovered by ancient Hebrew settlers.
The Ancient Greeks were known to have used leather to craft sandals and other garments during Homeric era in around 1200 BC.
Iron Age leather sandals - from Bergbau Museum
The prevalance of leather manufacturing then started to spread to Egypt, where it was revered and cherished by Pharaohs and Queens, and later to Rome where it was commonly used by foot soldiers to craft protective over-shirts and armoury.
Gradually the appreciation of this raw material also spread to Europe, where it was worked both to produce luxuries items and to provide a material resistant to soldiers during battles. Warriors were fitted with shields and armor made of thick leather, which dampened the collisions of weapons in combat with enemies. Sometimes, even in the military field, decorations with chisels, reliefs and gold plates were not spared.
In Renaissance era, the passion for leather also spread to Italy, where decorations were made for the upper classes, such as chiseled, stamped, wall decorations like in Ducal Palace of Urbino.
The evolution of processing techniques happened in a short time, depending on the geograpical area and technique used, leather took different names:
. Russian or Bulgarian Leather: vegetable tanned with an ethereal smell derived from birch bark
. Boiled Leather: Bovine leathers were heated together with wax, rubber, resin and glue. The final effect is of a rather soft skin, particularly suitable for cases, linings and bags.
. Maschereccio: obtained from heavy bovine leather
LEATHER TANNING TECHNIQUES
Over time, the techniques of preserving the leather evolved. Vegetable tanning was introduced, so called because of the use of subtances obtained in the nature world that allowed to avoid the decay of leather. Vegetable tanning takes place by contacting the leather with tannins from bark of various types of trees (oak, chestnut, mimosa, etc.), depending on the type of tree used, the leather took on different colors ans shades, from light to dark brown.
It was not until the 19th century that an alternative method to vegetable tanning was invented. Chrome tanning involves using chemicals which streamline the manufacturing process so that many of the preparatory steps required for traditional vegetable tanning is eliminated. Today, 80 - 90% of tanning worldwide involves the use of chromium.
LEATHER IN MODERN TRENDS
The present day leather clothing and accessories market is continually drawing inspiration from bygone eras due to a focus on craftmanship and tradition. From rugged leather boots reminiscent of Western cowboys to the vintage aviator aesthetic that epitomises the World War II era, contemporary fashion designers still take reference and inspiration from history in order to design the leather goods of tomorrow.
Ethan James Green - VOUGUE
Due to its ancient heritage, historical styles will always be relevant when it comes to leather fashion. However, designers also regularly seek new, innovative ways in which to showcase this iconic textile and its versatility. Increasingly, exotic rawhides such as crocodile, snakeskin and ostrich have featured on catwalks and the pages of high-end magazines such as patent and suede.
Whilst it may not easy to predict future fashions or trends, it can safely be said that leather will always have a place in modern culture, whether for styles or funtionality.