A leather jacket isn’t a garment, it’s a decision.

Look at a man wearing a glossy black-cowhide bomber and you can almost hear the dialogue that went through his head before he put it on: I can’t pull off a leather jacket. Wait a minute. You know what? Screw it. I’m going to be the guy who looks good in one.

You can see that he toyed with the idea for a while before he mustered up the nerve to pull the trigger. You can picture him slipping it on, looking in the mirror, and thinking to himself, Cool. What he failed to consider is that a leather coat makes a statement. And regardless of the jacket’s cut or color, the statement is not one any man in his right mind would make upon introducing himself.

The bovine trench coat says things that could get a man arrested. Even a Buddhist monk could recognize it on sight as the kind of oily attire worn by pimps, unstable Huggy Bear acolytes, and Matrix freaks. As is often the case with tragedies, its existence can’t be explained.

The leather blazer—an abomination that had its heyday, if it can be called that, around the turn of the century, when ’N Sync and 98 Degrees were lodged in the Top 40—cries, “I am cheesy!” This jacket is genetically incapable of saying anything else. Envision one on a guy considered a bulletproof contemporary style icon, like George Clooney or Jude Law. Pure, Day-Glo-orange government cheese.

The bomber speaks more softly. And it’s the specimen that drives many thirty-plus guys to act on their burning desire to wear a leather jacket. When they do, they have a handful of celebrities in mind—most notably Marlon Brando, as he appeared in the 1953 movie about a motorcycle gang, The Wild One. David Thomas, a British stylist based in L.A. who has dressed Oasis and Snow Patrol, makes a point about the Brando-style jacket that sums up the main problem with the average guy’s co-opting it. “Brando was wearing that jacket on a motorcycle,” he says. “It looks good if you’ve got a helmet and you actually ride a bike, like Ewan McGregor or Brad Pitt. Otherwise, it’s costume-ish.” Costume-ish is precisely how the cowhide cloak looks on one relentlessly beatific fortysomething actor with a snow-white perma-grin. The bomber—and various permutations of it—became this man’s second skin in the eighties, when he starred in a melodrama about cocky young pilots. Two decades later he has yet to take it off.

If you’re going to blame someone for condemning the leather jacket to clichédom, blame him. You can also aim some resentment at Nick Lachey, Aaron Carter, David Hasselhoff (it was cool in Knight Rider, okay? On an aging loose cannon, it’s alarming), and Bruce Willis. “The only people who can really wear leather bombers are hipper, younger kids,” says Kevin Harter, men’s fashion director at Bloomingdale’s. “Old guys wearing leather jackets look like they’re having a midlife crisis; young guys look like boy-band rejects,” David Thomas adds. And all guys look like a threat to the opposite sex. Embedded in the straight-male subconscious—despite ample evidence to the contrary—is the idea that tanned-skin coats are catnip to the ladies. On the contrary, walk into a bar in a leather blazer and every woman there will immediately have a vision of you asking her where she’s been all your life and possibly groping her ass. She will avoid you. “You’re not going to meet a girl worth knowing—or a boy, for that matter—in a leather jacket,” Thomas says. Who knows? Maybe a 21st-century superhuman style icon will emerge and degrease the leather jacket. But even if he does, he and he alone will look good in one, and he will wear it like a heavyweight-championship belt. You still won’t be able to get away with it.