How To Make A Cheap "Leather" Jacket Look Like A Million Bucks

Mine only cost $20 (shhhh), but I style it like nobody's business!
Publish date:
April 10, 2014
etsy, Forever 21, asos, leather jackets, madewell

This past year I’ve started searching for the perfect leather jacket. I’m surprised I didn’t do this sooner, considering how a leather jacket improves every outfit I wear. In fact, I wish I had started searching sooner because it’s been surprisingly difficult to find the perfect one.

To be fair, that’s mostly on me. Turns out that I am surprisingly picky about leather jackets. My list of don’ts is long and persnickety, so here’s a short version: no colors (sorry, black only); no embellishments like studs, belts, colorful linings, or quilting; no additional fabrics (like those awful jackets with knit arms or a fake hoodie); and no peplums or ombre for god’s sake. You might think some of these are random or arbitrary stipulations but I’ve seen some horrors out there and a girl has to have standards. Important things like fit, price, and quality are factored in too, of course.

I’m looking for a very specific fit. It can’t be too long, and that includes the sleeves -- I seem to have very short arms. I also like to be able to push the sleeves up. It can’t be cropped either, though. It has to hit at the perfect spot. It should be roomy enough that I can layer under it and zip it up over my chest comfortably, but not bulky.

As for price and quality, I’m struggling to find a jacket where a reasonable price intersects with good quality. Leather or really good-looking faux leather is always expensive, whereas cheaper jackets often look like wrinkled, rubbery garbage. Unfortunately I am very much on a budget right now and can’t justify spending upward of $100 on a leather jacket.

For now, I compromised. I found a $20 jacket from Forever 21 that was several sizes away from my regular size but fit really well regardless (never trust a tag -- always try stuff on!). It’s not great quality, but it doesn’t have many features that anger me. I figured I can wear this one while I continue searching and saving for the perfect leather jacket that will be worth the money.

In the meantime, I’ve been having fun experimenting with all the different ways a leather jacket can be worn.

1. For running errands and kicking ass.

My style is pretty classic, with a twist depending on how I feel and what I’m doing that day. In the spring I opt for pretty dresses but in chillier weather I live in black skinny jeans and scuffed up ankle boots (when I’m not at work). Adding a leather jacket with a gray hoodie layered under it for warmth makes this the perfect outfit for running errands, getting coffee, going to the movies, you name it -- all while looking effortlessly cool and comfortable.

By the way, this is why I hate jackets that stick a faux hoodie on top. Let’s examine why this is so silly. What if you want to wear an actual hoodie under your jacket? Then you’ll have two hoods sticking out. Why can’t you just wear a real hoodie under the jacket in the first place? And it makes the jacket much less versatile -- you can’t pair it with a sexy dress and heels when you have a hood sticking out. OK, hoodie rant over.

2. For date night at the dive bar.

Speaking of a sexy dress and heels, I love breaking out a hot dress for a night out, especially after living in jeans all week, but I hate showing up at my local bar feeling overdressed. This is where a leather jacket comes in.

With a leather jacket thrown on top and the sleeves pushed up, an outfit like this takes on a much more relaxed vibe -- well, as relaxed as you can be in four-inch heels. It’s also helpful when wearing a dress like this one from Zara, which looks a bit like a nightie on its own.

3. For looking cool even when your skirt is being blown up.

Some weeks my style veers from sullen teenage boy to wannabe pin-up girl. OK, I wouldn’t go that far. My body type is pretty straight up and down so it’s hard to achieve pin-up girl curves, and I don’t like to wander into costume territory anyway. But I do love a good, flirty day dress. For a coffee date, I love pairing a polka dot dress with red lipstick and sexy socks (gotta show off the sexiest part of my body: my knees).

The leather jacket gives it a modern edge. If you’re not into the chunky ‘90s heels, feel free to swap them out for T-strap flats instead for the same effect.

At the library where I work, I often opt for a sweater and a pleated midi skirt with low heels. I take the jacket off when I get there and instantly become work-appropriate, but after work I can throw it back on and not feel like the stereotype of a 60-year-old librarian when I meet up with friends for drinks.

4. To look like Audrey Hepburn if she were still alive and had a regular job.

If you’re not into having your skirt blown up by the wind, I think a leather jacket adds an interesting twist to cigarette pants and ballet flats. This is another outfit I often wear some variation of to work, and the leather jacket helps inject a bit of youth into an outfit that Audrey Hepburn would probably gladly wear if she were still alive.

Those are just a few of the ways I’ve styled this jacket so far. I also like to pair it with a minimal white dress, ripped boyfriend jeans and a flowy maxi dress and black loafers because, as you can see above, I love the juxtaposition of nerdy and cool.

Hopefully I gave you some fresh ideas on how to style your leather jacket, if you own one. If not, here a few nice ones that I have my eye on right now:

The vintage jacket breaks a few of my rules but that’s unavoidable if you decide to go vintage. After hours of sorting through ugly jackets on Etsy or at the Salvation Army, jackets that even your dad wouldn’t have worn in the 80s, you start to throw the rules out of the window. Seriously, I found not one, not two, but THREE fringed leather jackets with red roses. So who cares if this one is a little bulky and doesn’t have lapels?

Finally, Asos is a good place to look if only because of the massive expanse of options. A quick search turned up more than 200 real and not awful-looking faux leather jackets, and a lot of them come in petite and plus-size options.

Would you wear a leather jacket in any of these ways? And do you think I’m being too picky about this? If you know where to find the perfect leather jacket, help a girl out.

All photos (except for the collage) by Joshua Kirby