Do You Have Permission for Those Pants?

I have a friend who, with the onset of the painted-on pants of the mid ’90’s, took upon himself the imaginary responsibility of issuing licenses to wear butt-hugging garments. (People forget there was a time when pants had no lycra !) According to a set of admittedly arbitrary standards, he might be forced to revoke a license, other times to deny it outright, and, occasionally, with the satisfaction of a zealous civil servant, he would confer formal permission upon the wearer and sanction her choice of tight-assed clothes. Tasteless, to be sure, and undoubtedly impolitic, but not off-target: Everyone did not belong in butt-huggers.

Just like everyone does not belong in leather.

It used to mean something to wear leather pants. It’s not so much about the fit-that would be too mean and, really, that’s none of my business. It’s about the implications. It’s about keeping something secure from infringement, like protecting a copyright.

Leather’s loaded stuff; It’s got a visceral impact. It’s animal skin. Wearing it is beast on beast, it echoes a time of pelts and loincloths and generally crude, primal mores. Black leather in particular says something hard-core and edgy, a little something rough and whip-y.

But everyone is in leather. Thanks in part to the numerous varieties on sale at the Gap, lately there’s been the widest appropriation of leather pants the city has ever seen outside of Chelsea. And it isn’t loose buttery suede. We’re seeing burnished, often black, even stretch leather all over New York. This is leather that sculpts the butt and gleams, that hugs the body, that makes you turn around and look twice. There’s just too much unbridled leatherness going on, too much sex walking down the street, on too many men and women.

I don’t mean this in a Wendy Shalit, recall-to-modesty kind of way-although it’s never a bad thing to save some mystery for later, and black leather pants, as a baseline premise, do not . But if girls are wearing leather pants to work, and leather pants to dinner, and leather pants with a pashmina and a tote bag like it’s wool crepe, what will become of leather? It’ll become diluted, disassociated, diminished; just a hunk of animal skin, just another fabric.

Leather used to be for edgy chicks. Unapproachable females with tousled hair who lived in alternative neighborhoods and worked freelance yet still managed mysteriously to afford leather. Leather is what the Maureen character in Rent wore-the Alphabet City hottie who leaves her sellout writer boyfriend for a lesbian activist. The guys who wore leather pants were rocker guys or bikers or gay.

Now leather lives somewhere above 14th Street.

A couple of months ago, a public relations person at the magazine I used to work at, a petite blown-out blonde whom I liked a lot for her spunk and her manicures, showed up wearing black stretch-leather cigarette pants that she’d bought that weekend at Intermix uptown. She looked hot . She knew she looked hot. Platinum blond on black, long strides, molding leather-but this was the office! She lives in Murray Hill! This was wrong.

Some kind of style wiring has been crossed, turf lines have been blurred. Some fashion version of intellectual property has been misappropriated.

On a recent night at the Passerby, a bar with a flashing disco floor in the meatpacking district, two lean, long-haired models with Carmen Kass faces did the two-girls-dancing-together thing for the benefit of the usually impassive indie film crowd. They sort of held hands and laughed, and tossed their hair to a Moby song, both dressed in side-laced black leather pants and airbrushed T-shirts. They belong in leather. On my way home from the bar, I passed a group of overgrown Goths on their way to an S&M night at Mother on 14th Street: A few drag queens, a fleshy, pasty girl with an Angelina-Jolie-at-the-Oscars look, and her surly, face-pierced boyfriend, all four wearing platform boots, frosted eye shadow, and much black leather-in the way of pants, hot pants, corsets and caps. They belong in leather.

Black leather pants for the guy, if he wasn’t a model handler, some kind of creative director, or a band’s frontman, had typically been gay man’s garb (think Village People and Bruce Weber). But the average hetero male has also started venturing black leather–clad into the night and day. Some guys wear leather pants as unassumingly as khakis, loose and casual, an uptown scenester lunching at Nello’s. Others wear them out at night on the bar circuit, in lieu of slacks and as impermissibly tight as a Chelsea boy’s (which might call for a whole new licensing department for the sanction and suspension of crotch-hugging permissions and the issuance of warnings to avert the eyes).

There should be a network of implicit licensing to wear leather pants. There need to be boundaries, illicits, infractions. There needs to be bad stuff that good girls-or just most girls-aren’t allowed to wear. What’ll be left of leather? One media professional I know, in her early 30’s, says she doesn’t feel comfortable shopping at the uptown branch of the trendy Calpypso boutique near her Park Avenue apartment. She says the look is “too hip” for her, but she feels perfectly comfortable wearing leather pants to work. Meanwhile, a neighbor of hers in her early 30’s, a marketing director at a midtown dot-com, went into the office on a recent Sunday wearing fitted black leather pants and a little black cashmere sweater: weekend work clothes. It is a problem if a Miller sister looks like Joan Jett-and it may already be too late.

Everybody at the spring and fall shows seemed to be offering still more leather for the coming year-fringed leather, studded leather, patent leather; and with that, a whole new spectrum of leather-related behavior for the designer customer. If you look at the current ads for some of design’s more venerable houses, you just might notice a big white dog licking the feet of an ecstatic-looking, spike-heeled Ungaro model. Or a prim girl’s rapturous embrace of the Vuitton-shod foot of a man. So, what’s next? Bestiality? Fetishism? Will next year’s Gap ads command Everyone in Muzzles? Everyone Love Feet?

Already little signs of trendy S&M are popping up everywhere, from Barneys New York to Banana Republic to SoHo street vendors: animal print fabrics, grometted and studded clothes, and sweet leather wristbands. More and more spike heels, ankle straps and superpointy-toed shoes. Innocent beaded chokers and delicate midriff chains.

And everyone thought the bourgeois look was back. One look at the new Kenneth Cole subway ads featuring a wan hipster-girl in a miniskirt splayed on a bare mattress, including one close-up of her hipster-boy’s smirking face framed by her legs, and you realize that the bourgeoisie is being lured by big brands and big ad budgets into a naughty neighborhood not their own.

Everyone in one-pocket tees, fine. Everyone’s a Jean or a Khaki, sure. But keep the bourgeois butts out of leather. It’s style plagiarism, which is undoubtedly immoral and in this town, practically illegal. And definitely unlicensed.

Do You Have Permission for Those Pants?