Slick, shiny, black leather is sexy. It’s sleek, it’s tight, and it carries a connotation of power. The ethos of leather, if you will, was utilized by genre films around the turn of the millennium to cater to a certain cyberpunk aesthetic. But, more than aesthetics, these films also tapped into the historical use of leather in queer and kink communities to subvert hegemonic ideals of masculinity and sexuality. Films such as The Matrix, Blade, and Underworld, while all horror or sci-fi action movies, dress their protagonists in leather to create symbols of rebellion against seemingly unstoppable regimes.
While leather dominated that era of genre filmmaking, the iconic material emerged as a kink subculture after World War II. Gay men met each other after being drafted into the war, and when they returned home they formed gay motorcycle gangs that incorporated leather and BDSM practices. Avant-garde director Kenneth Anger centered much of his oeuvre on that subculture, as seen in his films such as Scorpio Rising. The leather community eventually began to include lesbians and trans people in the 1980s.
Leather subculture is classified as part of BDSM, where self-identified members practice safe, kinky sex through various acts of play, from dominant/submissive relationships, knife play, breath play, and more. Leather is often incorporated into BDSM scenes. Importantly, leather and BDSM, while born out of gay communities, has since transformed into a more inclusive subculture for all genders and sexualities. Heterosexual couples engage in BDSM, meaning that it is not necessarily always a queer subculture. However, there is a lot of overlap in these communities, as each is about pushing the boundaries of normativity. Leather becomes an image of non-normative sexuality, an image of kink, and a life that does not conform to what society deems “normal.” It is resistance, a statement against hegemony.
With leather’s history in mind, it may seem silly to group The Matrix, Blade, and Underworld together, particularly as narratives that speak to queer and kink communities. They are all borderline-ridiculous films that have all gained cult followings. But, they also all utilize leather — paired with a character’s gender, race, sexuality, beliefs, or a combination of the four — to make their central protagonists into images of revolutionary power.
Their release dates are also a key factor in the use of leather. All of these films were released around the turn of the millennium, a time of massive change and uncertainty. Technology was rapidly changing, 2000 marked the election of George W. Bush as President of the United States, and the specter of the AIDS crisis still loomed over America. It was a tumultuous time, marked by conservatism and an almost radical patriotism that wanted to reinforce stereotypical gender norms. Each of these films reflects a rejection of those norms as their protagonists fight to topple quasi-fascist regimes that dominate their respective worlds.
Stephen Norrington’s Blade, released in 1998, follows the titular character (Wesley Snipes), a vampire but not really. He’s a daywalker, a unique human-vampire hybrid that isn’t hurt by sunlight and consumes a special serum to curb his bloodlust. He uses his supernatural strength to fight the vampires secretly controlling humanity and prevent the execution of their bloodsucking schemes. And he does it clad in a sleek leather ensemble.
Blade and Karen (N’Bushe Wright) are the film’s only characters to don themselves in leather. They’re also the only Black characters that fight against droves of predominantly white vampires. While the race of these characters could be enough to set them apart as different, it is their clothing that ultimately sets them apart as rebellious figures. Clad in cold, hard leather, Blade bursts into vampire parties and coven meetings, ripping apart their soft fabrics of luxury. His vest, pants, and boots stand in stark contrast to the way other vampires choose to live, setting him apart from his supposed kind.
While Karen is not a vampire, she is bitten by one, which places her in a strange liminal state, not unlike Blade. As she becomes familiar with the world of blood-obsessed monsters, she throws on a black leather jacket as she follows Blade throughout the city. While not as visually striking as Blade’s well-curated garb, she still adheres to a similar aesthetic. This places her in association with Blade’s mission and her newfound dedication to fight back against the ancient forces that secretly manipulate their world.
Leather becomes an image of difference in Blade, which spawned sequels soon after, in 2002 and 2004. It’s a fabric that symbolizes not only Blade’s status as a Daywalker, but as someone willing to fight back against those in power — in this case, centuries-old vampires. He and Karen strap on their jackets, vets, and boots to establish their status in the world: nonconforming and ready to push back.
Similar to Blade, Len Wiseman’s 2003 film Underworld takes place in the world of vampires. However, Selene (Kate Beckinsale) is firmly within the vampire elite as a death dealer, someone who actively fights against the Lycans (or werewolves as they’re most commonly known). As she fights these lycanthropes, Selene wears neck-to-toe black leather. At first, it does just seem to be a way to show off Beckinsale’s body and lean into the sex factor. However, as Selene’s character develops, her choice of fabric makes sense as she pushes back against her coven’s traditions.
The coven of Underworld is shown as lazy and decadent. They sit on over-stuffed red chairs, smoking cigarettes, draped in lace and other fine fabrics. Selene, however, chooses a more utilitarian approach to her outfits. As a friend holds up a lacy black dress for Selene to wear to a party, she rolls her eyes at the delicate textile. Not only does it go against her usual uniform, but it also connotes a surrendering of power. That dress means she’s following orders from the coven’s male leader, Kraven (Shane Brolly), and she refuses to cater to his tastes. Leather means going against the normative expectations of female vampires, which echoes a refusal to conform to early 2000s gender norms. She will not just lay down, marry the man in power, and give up life as a warrior.
But Selene does not only refuse to conform to gendered expectations. She also goes against the very core of her coven’s beliefs to prove that the Lycan leader, Lucian, is not in fact dead. She also protects a Lycan, which is strictly forbidden by the vampire elders. Despite her loyalty to the coven and the vampire that saved her life, she refuses to blindly follow orders. She instead wants to do what’s right, which makes her a rebel and a threat to the established vampire world order.
Throughout the entire film, she is clad in a tight leather bodysuit that seems like an exploitative way to create sex appeal. However, that bodysuit visually establishes her difference within the coven and even pushes back against gendered expectations of such a character. Her entire body is covered up, with almost no bare skin ever showing. Her sex appeal lies in what she chooses to withhold; she is in control through her iconic leather ensemble.
Then, there is Lana and Lilly Wachowski’s The Matrix, released in 1999. While it may seem like an outlier against two vampire films, it is aesthetically and thematically a similar film in the way it navigates fighting systems of power. It is also a much more explicitly queer movie, with several readings of it being a trans allegory. Perhaps most notable is its use of leather trench coats whipping around in slow-motion that accentuate the film’s beautifully-choreographed action sequences. Those trench coats, though, are all uniforms of rebellion and queerness, markers of a double life.
In the real world, one that is not controlled by machines, the crew of the ship Nebuchadnezzar wear rags. But, when they plug into the matrix, their forms are changed. Neo (Keanu Reeves), Trinity (Carrie-Anne Moss), and Morpheus (Laurence Fishburne) all appear in their iconic black leather as they burst into the simulation as forces of destruction. They stand out amongst the suits of the agents with their outfits reinforcing their non-normative status. There is no blending in for Neo and his crew. Rather, they embrace their difference and wear it quite literally on their shiny sleeves.
There is also the inclusion of the character Switch (Belinda McClory), who was explicitly trans in the original script. Switch was supposed to be male in the real world but present as female in the matrix, which would make the trans allegory obvious and at the film’s forefront. Unfortunately, Warner Brothers removed it from the script. Still, Switch presents as much more androgynous in the matrix. She also wears white leather, as opposed to the typical black. These subtle markers of difference connote the film’s queer subtext and reinforce the use of leather as a rejection of normative identity and expectations.
The leather trench coat is cool in The Matrix. The small sunglasses and variety of leather outfits look, frankly, badass. But, they also become symbols of resistance for the humans plugging into the matrix and fighting to free humanity. As they enter the simulation, their ragged clothes from the real world are replaced with shiny black textiles.
These three films, ranging from fighting otherworldly creatures to hacking the simulation, all adopt similar haptic aesthetics. Blade from Blade, Selene from Underworld, and the entire crew from The Matrix yield leather as another kind of weapon — one of proudly marked difference. Each film taps into leather subculture’s history of pushing boundaries and embracing non-normative sexuality to reinforce each character’s power. They also create queer and kinky subtexts that make these films all the more appealing to those communities. Leather is hot. Leather is resistance. Leather is power.