The leather culture typically encompasses a lot of different sub-cultures. The practice and style of dress organized around sexual activities that involve leather garments, such as leather jackets, vests, boots, chaps, harnesses, or other items. Wearing leather garments is one way that participants in this culture self-consciously distinguish themselves from mainstream (vanilla) sexual cultures. Leather culture is most visible in gay communities and is often associated with gay men, but it is also reflected in various ways in the lesbian, bisexual, and straight worlds. Male enthusiasts are often called “leathermen”, and female enthusiasts are often called “leatherwomen”; all are often called “leatherfolk” and “members of the leather community”. Many people associate leather culture with BDSM practices. Some leatherfolk however, do not associate their leather lifestyle with BDSM or any form of sexuality, and simply enjoy the sensory experience of leather.
Throughout the history of the leather subculture, a variety of traditions have been observed, often diligently. While most or all are based on military protocols and ritual, these traditions varied widely between regions, causing much debate today over which traditions are the original or true traditions, or whether the “romanticized versions of leather history” ever existed at all.
As time has progressed and BDSM has become more mainstream, the traditions of leather have adapted. The first major evolution has become known as “New Leather” or “New Guard”. However, even this is the subject of some disagreement, as many noted authors and historians assert that there is little or no substantive difference.
Today, the leather subculture is one of many facets to semi-organized alternative sexuality. Many individuals describe long periods of introspection leading to their choice to identify as “leather”. Some do not associate their leather lifestyle with BDSM, and simply enjoy the sensory experience of leather.
In recent decades the leather community has often been considered a subset of BDSM culture rather than a descendant of gay culture. Even so, the most visibly organized SM community has been a subculture of the gay community, as evidenced by the American competition known as International Mr. Leather (established 1979 by Chuck Renslow and his romantic partner Dom Orejudos), and SM Gays in the UK (established 1981). Meanwhile, other subcultures have likewise appropriated various leather fashions and practices.