A minority pursuit

When it comes to leather, my intolerant side takes over

There are some things that become fashionable which you can view at a safe distance, knowing you will never have, or want, to participate in them, but enjoying looking at them nonetheless. Two of those trends this autumn will be leather, and Gothic.

I've never wanted to be a Goth, largely because the look involves two key things I was too scared (and am now too old) to indulge in: dyeing your hair a ferociously fierce colour (usually black) and applying lots of white make-up. Also my genes just don't predispose me to looking pale and skinny.

The latter point brings me nicely to leather. While the more liberal part of me thinks anyone and everyone should be able to wear leather, the more fascist rule-making side says leather is for a very small minority only. And I'm afraid leather brings out my less tolerant persona; it is not, at all, a forgiving fabric. Buy cheap and it shows, in the cut and the quality, unless you are phenomenally lucky. Be a pound overweight and leather will shame you. Truly I'm not sure there is a bigger fashion crime than high-waisted, baggy, leather trousers. They make me want to weep in pain.

However, skinny "liquo rice lace" legs encased in leather pants are a thing of paradoxical beauty and have not been out of fashion in the past 60 years. The problem is that very few women outside of the modelling world have this sort of physique, so it's a look best left to thin, attitudey men. The sort who break women's hearts and never settle down. Nice men don't wear leather trousers; nice, middle-aged men having mid-life crises either buy a leather jacket or take up long-distance cycling.

So what do we have left? Leather waistcoats or jackets, for either sex, and skirts for women. I have never, ever seen a woman look good in a leather skirt. Not in real life, not on the catwalk. Not in any colour nor at any hem length. It all looks too "tried at", too "Ooh, isn't leather a sexy material and here I am wearing it, so obviously I must be really sexy". Nope, you're not.

Leather waistcoats are useful things, to mark out the real rejects of society. (I told you leather brought out the less tolerant side of me.) Leather jackets are where it gets trickier, but only by a bit. I have seen people look good in leather jackets, but they did usually ride motorbikes as a pastime (not for a living - that is a different look entirely).

Everyone should try having at least one leather jacket in their lifetime. If you pick well, it's the sort of thing that will become imbued with memories and you'll not want to give it away. As long as it's not blouson-shaped, double-breasted or any colour other than black (possibly dark brown if it's a designer number, but that said, I've never seen a good chocolate leather jacket), I will allow you a teensy bit of personal choice.

Annalisa Barbieri was in fashion PR for five years before going to the Observer to be fashion assistant. She has worked for the Evening Standard and the Times and was one of the fashion editors on the Independent on Sunday for five years, where she wrote the Dear Annie column. She was fishing correspondent of the Independent from 1997-2004.

This article first appeared in the 15 September 2008 issue of the New Statesman, Inside Iran