There has been a significant attention in the leather community in the last few years regarding “earned leathers”.
One of the questions in my contest interview was whether any of my gear was “earned” leather, and my response was roughly “I earned the money to buy my leathers, and I have several items I acquired second hand, but no, not in the traditional sense of the term. However, I have loaned or gifted items to other leathermen in the past.”
“Earned leather” is an attempt to capture one of the (mythical) rituals attributed to “Old Guard” leathermen, which holds that bottoms/subs/slaves/boys enter the leather scene with no gear and acquire it from others along their journey as they pass milestones in their leather life.
The truth behind this myth, of course, is that in an earlier era, there wasn’t a decent shop or two in every major city catering to the gay BDSM crowd were you could go and purchase the gear you needed (wanted). Leather gear was harder to come by and proportionally more expensive than it is today, so not everyone could reasonably have a full wardrobe to choose from, especially a newbie. Pieces were treasured, maintained, and handed down as appropriate; some leather was heirlooms, not mere clothing.
The myth also holds that bottoms/subs/slaves/boys are not to acquire leathers on their own, only from their tops/doms/sirs/masters/daddies. Presumably at some point, when they have achieved enough, they may directly obtain the items they need. Of course, the myth also dictates that everyone comes into the leather scene as a bottom and transitions to being a switch or a top at some point; logically, the transitions from being a bottom and the transition to being “allowed” to acquire ones own gear occur at the same time.
We no longer expect that everyone starts as a bottom (and maybe we never really did expect that) — where would we get those 22 year-old “masters” from, eh? — although we arguably still hold it as an ideal. (There’s the myth in action for you.) And thus I would submit that “earned leathers” likewise is an idealized (idolized?) scenario which only really plays out in the leather world in isolated cases.
When I came into the leather scene in the early 1990s in the San Francisco Bay Area, “earned leather” wasn’t a phrase I ever encountered, probably not until nearly a decade later. (Then again, I only lightly connected with Drummer and related magazines at the time. Maybe if I had been more aware of that piece of the leather community, I would have encountered it, or maybe not.) Lots of other concepts that we embrace strongly today likewise weren’t conversed about in any circles I ran in during the 90s: leather care, bootblacks, polyamory, service tops, and so on. (I do recall that the San Francisco Eagle and the Timberline in Seattle both had bootblack chairs in the 90s, but I don’t think I ever saw them used for that purpose. Not once.)
So for me in my early leather days, the concept that I needed to find a top who would identify leather life milestones and present gear for me when I achieved them wasn’t even in the air. Lacking that in either concept or reality, I naturally purchased items for myself that I felt I needed to partake in the scene — a vest, then chaps (custom fit, and I can still wear them 20 years later!), then non-cowboy boots, and so on). Later, in the 2000s, I have provided items for men I have connected with to ensure they could partake as well — rubber boots for one guy, a vest for my boyfriend and later a uniform shirt when he competed for a national title, a harness and a rubber shirt for another boyfriend, and I have loaned items like vests and harness for boys who I was taking out and about — but these haven’t been “earned” items in the ritualized sense.
Don’t think that I don’t support the idea as a concept, though. I know tops who have been in a “covering ceremony", ritually presented with a master’s cap; a boy who only earned his collar via an extreme display of trust in a scene; a leatherman who lovingly describes being gifted with a special leather jacket from a top now long deceased. The power of ritual is immense, within a couple or as part of a small community, a leather family; it imbues power and value into the object beyond any intrinsically, physically there.
I just don’t support the idea that “earned leather” something that everyone in today’s leather community needs to have experienced, and especially that not having “earned” your leather leather somehow lessens either the items or the leatherman himself. The personal value of the experience of “earning” your leathers does not make you a “better” leatherman. Someone is “better” (both quantitatively and qualitatively) because they have skills or community connections or practical experience or depth of character, not because they have gone through a particular ritual that others have not.
Leather is life, not religion.