Few garments send out such strong messages as the black leather jacket. A perfectly sensible, utilitarian garment that has been around for about 75 years, it made a strong cultural and fashion statement long before fashion designers coopted this look in the past decade.

Western culture does perceive the black leather jacket as something bad, writes Mick Farren in "The Black Leather Jacket" (Abbeville Press Inc.), a fascinating study well documented with 150 photographs that prove how popular this garment has been with everyone from Australian surf punks to Los Angeles police and movie and rock idols.

"The black leather jacket has always been the uniform of the bad," Farren writes.

In the 1970s, during a sweep of 1950s nostalgia, the TV show "Happy Days" used the character the Fonz, a street-smart greaser, to counter the other rather straight major characters. ABC's in-house censors refused to permit the Fonz to wear a black leather jacket in a show pitched primarily to kids, according to Farren. The Fonz wore a blue nylon windbreaker in the show "until he satisfactorily proved himself such a sterling and universally lovable character that he could quietly slip into his leather jacket without objection or comment." (The Fonz's leather jacket is now at the Smithsonian.)

And, Farren points out, in 1981 the black leather jackets worn by New York City policemen were replaced by blue nylon jackets in an attempt to soften the officers' image. (The same year pale blue and white patrol cars replaced black and whites in New York.)

Farren gives rather short shrift to fashion designers' interpretations of the black leather jacket, and certainly Paris designer Claude Montana does not get the credit he deserves as the first in that crowd to show black leather jackets. Farren's emphasis is on the seamier side of the style, and by comparison, even a Montana outfit looks pretty dull.