A most famous, smelly leather jacket recently sold for $147000. A remarkable amount of money for a remarkable garment. Levi Strauss & Co. made the jacket. They called it the Cossack. Originally sold in 1931, Levi Strauss & Co. bought the jacket back in 2016. Why you ask?
Albert Einstein purchased the leather Cossack jacket – a brown leather model with a small collar and a simple row of buttons. No embellishments. A simple, straight up and down leather jacket that would look modern today, as it would on someone like Steve McQueen or James Dean in the 1950s and 1960s. Timeless.
Ms. Lotte Jacobi had photographed Einstein in 1928 in Germany and returned to photograph him at Priceton in 1938. At Princeton, she asked Prof. Einstein to invite Leopold Infeld to join him in his office, so that she could photograph Einstein while in a conversation with the colleague. The resulting photographs show a relaxed Einstein wearing his now famous leather jacket with his signature hairdo. The photograph may well be the most famous image of the Scientist and Nobel Laureate, perhaps competing with the Arthur Sasse 1951 photograph of him sticking out his tongue at the photographer.
Einstein bought the jacket around the time when he was in the process of becoming a US citizen, and continued to wear it for many years. He wore it frequently. There are several photographs showing him wearing it, including an iconic April 4, 1938 cover of TIME magazine, a colour illustration based on the Lotte Jacobi photographs from the session at Princeton University.
As a collector of photography, I often wonder what makes an icon, and what best illustrates an icon. Is it a photograph of Marilyn Monroe’s skirt over the subway grate by Bruno Bernard, is it the Dennis Stock photograph of James Dean walking in the rain with a cigarette in his mouth near Times Square? What photograph has that something that makes the subject an icon, or indeed makes the photograph iconic? What makes it cool, and why do these photographs continue to capture the imagination? I don’t know, but Einstein in his leather jacket is the best, it is simply the definition of looking cool.
Einstein started work at Princeton University in 1933. He applied for US citizenship in 1936 and became a citizen in 1940. A colleague at Princeton, Leopold Infeld wrote about the jacket in his autobiography: “One of my colleagues at Princeton asked me, ‘If Einstein dislikes his fame and would like to increase his privacy, why does he … wear his hair long, a funny leather jacket, no socks, no suspenders, no ties?’ The answer is simple… One leather jacket solves the coat problems for many years.” Thomas Venning, who works at Christie’s added that the jacket was “an incredibly worn, rather pungent leather jacket.” And added, “Einstein was an incessant pipe smoker and, astonishingly, 60 years after his death, his jacket still smells of smoke.”
Levi Strauss & Co. will add the jacket to its archive, said Tracey Panek, the company’s historian.