Introduction: The Leather Jacket Legionary

About: Archaeologist. Browncoat. Brewer. Cook. Tinker. Scavenger. My role models included Michael Stipe, Bert and the Wolverine. I've been told that explains a lot.

As advertised, this is a comparatively quick Roman costume build with a leather jacket at its core, augmented by an old kettle, two curtains and two baking sheets. My objectives were to keep costs low while aiming a little higher for quality than strictly necessary, as well as using as much of the material as possible. My budget for this project was 50 bucks. I bought a gladius with it and let creativity fill the gap.

This costume has held up for three years now. The real trick here is recognizing the major constituent parts of the jacket and how they can be fairly simply flipped and lashed into place. Skim the instructions and modify wherever you see fit.

Before I continue, I'd like to give a shout out to laernmoer for his 'romanesque' cardboard creation; this served as a great inspiration, I just happened to have materials at hand to allow a different take. Mortisdei also has a Spartacus costume fitting the theme. Check theirs out, but if you can devote a little more time, you could try modifying this one. Either way, have fun, be safe.


Step 1: Materials & Costs

Tooling Basis

1 Leather Jacket, $5 (garage sale)
1 9x9 baking tin, $2 (thrift store)
1 12x8 cookie sheet, on hand
2 pizza boxes (or any cardboard to size)
1 tin lid, on hand

1 linen curtain, cream, on hand (substitute bedsheet, dropcloth, etc.)
1 linen curtain, wine red, $3

1 tea kettle, $2 (thrift store)
1 vanity mirror light plate, on hand
1 feather boa (7" from a 7' piece; substitute feathers, broom whiskers, etc.)

1 cardboard tube, 3" diameter, on hand

1 small tube Liquid Nails
1/8" steel pin rivets
1/2" grommets w/ setting tools
~3 yards leather lashing, $2
2 VHS cassette tension tabs

Ball Pein Hammer
Tin Snips
Power Drill
Seam Ripper
Metal File
Utility Knife
Rivet Tool
Nail Cutter
(Metal Punch and Dremel would have been very handy, use them.)

Coin Sequins, $2 for 22 count bag
Handful of Notions (collar tips, etc.), 50 cents
Decorative Buttons, on hand

Total Cost: under $20

Step 2: Overview & Basic Design

I've divided the process into three parts.

First off, working with the leather pieces, then on to the helmet, and finally tying it all together with a quick tunic and cloak. What we're essentially doing is carving our jacket to pieces, right along the seams, and fitting them cleverly onto the body, while reinforcing the pieces with cardboard and/or sheet metal.

The helmet is mainly a question of fitting your head into the kettle, which may or may not involve cutting a seam down the back. Either way, my thought was to start with something that looked not entirely unlike a helmet already. A kettle did it for me, though you may have better luck with a bowl or the like. Measure your head circumference. Knowing how large your noggin is will make it far easier to select something suitable. After that, it's just a question of riveting some cut metal pieces and adding flair to complete the look.

Padding may be necessary for a good and/or comfortable fit. Mine doesn't have any and I can wear it for about 5 minutes before it starts feeling like a vise. Still looks cool to carry around.

Finally, the tunic and cloak, which are just curtains cut and sewn or folded into shape. They are utterly simple but will really tie the costume together.

Step 3: Leather Pieces

This jacket was enormous, at least an XL, and was thrifted for under 10 bucks. Probably a good idea to get something significantly larger than your frame. Your jacket design will probably be slightly different, but just take a seam ripper, separate the major panels, sleeves and collar.

Clean up the seams, yank out loose thread, lay it all out and you should end up with something like this. This will help you visualize shapes and fitting and where you might take a different route than I did.

Step 4: Skirt & Shoulder Tassles

Pretty simple, and neither of these use backing material.

Take the lower back panel, flip it upside down, and pull the elastic band round your waist. See the idea? All I did from here was to cut roughly 2" strips a little further than the sleeve cutout, since the back (where the pockets are attached) would probably be covered by a cloak, anyway. The first strip was centered over the center back seam, and I worked outwards from there, ending up with about 14 strips.

To complete, I added two 1/2" grommets in the back of the waistband. Pinch the band together with your fingers to snug it to your waist and mark the points. Then, a simple piece of lashing will pull the grommets together and tighten things up, 'forcing' a waist to your tunic with a simple overhand knot.

Don't bother with a hole punch, by the way. Just cut x's in the material and enlarge them with scissors and/or knife to pop the grommet head though. That elastic sandwich is tough, but it will give.

In addition, I glued little coin sequins to the flap ends. Given the price, I might as well have used nickels, really, but I didn't have that much change to deface. If you want decoration, use anything you can get your hands on.

Optional but recommended is using the collar to lay over the waistband and make it just a little less glaringly obvious that it's, well, an elastic waistband. Attach any way you see fit. I used grommets for convenience, but you could glue, sew or lash it.

As noted, this flap became the shoulder tassles and the bracers. These tassles are a separate piece, not attached to the breastplate like the epaulettes. Use any leftover material that suits. Note the curve cut to fit around the neck. I aligned these pieces on the horizontal to fit my neckline, fastened them with a grommet in front and a piece of lashing in back, then cut strips and decorated as with the skirt. I could have attached it to the breastplate, but decided against it. I had to tug it into place now and then, but it held fairly well on its own.

Step 5: Epaulettes

These shoulder pieces were also fairly simple and they illustrate the technique behind the breastplate to follow. I dry fit the leather pieces over my shoulders and was happy with the way they looked. I just swapped the sides of the upper front panels of the jacket and turned them upside down. As a bonus, I decided to keep the tabs with the button as I liked the look.

I traced their rough outlines onto cardboard and cut them out. After bending each perforation into a nice curve around my shoulder, I cleaned up the cutouts and made sure I could fit the seam flaps over them. Once they did, I glued them down with epoxy. Once dry, they were still pliable, held their shape and were surprisingly resilient.

These pieces however were backed with cardboard and this would not hold a rivet. I therefore used scrap metal (VHS tension bars) to buffer the ends, but washers etc. would also work.

The idea is for the tassles to be long enough to poke out underneath these and hang down your arm/shoulder.

Step 6: Bracers

These were easy. Just shaped a cardboard tube to my forearm, cut it off on the bias and wrapped it in leftover leather from a sleeve. After carefully gluing down the edges, I punched holes along the edges and bound it with a leather shoelace. Repeated this for other arm.

Step 7: Breastplate Pt. 1

DISCLAIMER: Sheet metal is extremely sharp when cut and may well be rusty. Wear gloves and goggles when working with this stuff and for gods sake sweep up when you're done. And get a tetanus booster.

The breastplate was constructed in two parts which were then riveted together. The same principle applied to both. The bottom half for the abdominal section used the 9x9 tin, while the upper, pectoral half used the cookie sheet. I hammered folds flat and hacksawed through the rod lips of the tin, then cut through the corners.

The bottom was pretty easy. I cut off one flap of the flattened 9x9 tin, filed the edges and roughly bent and pressed the piece into shape around my abs for a decent fit. I then used leather from one of the sleeves to cover the tin, cut out the shape while retaining a generous seam allowance, and glued everything together, wrapping the edges round.

The top was similar, but a little more challenging in the fit. I found the easiest way to get it right was to compare the yoke (upper back piece, shoulder to shoulder) to my chest and use the leather itself as a pattern to transfer to the metal. I could then tin-snip the metal sheet and never had to alter the yoke itself. After three attempts at enlarging armholes and neck in the sheet cutout, then bending the sheet into shape around my chest, I arrived at a comfortable shape. Be generous with the cutouts, especially under the arms. The leather covering hid any gaps, and it's a lot more comfortable to not have your shoulder pinched in.

After that, I again carefully glued everything together and wrapped the seam flaps over. Clamps came in very handy here to hold everything down in a curved shape.

I did create a cardboard backing piece for the pectoral section. Not strictly necessary, but this sheet was old, rusted, scaly and generally unappealing to have rubbing on my chest through a tunic. I traced the yoke shape onto cardboard, glued it to the metal, then cut off any overflow.

Step 8: Breastplate Pt. 2

To attach the two pieces together, I drilled 1/8" holes though the leather/metal/cardboard sandwich. A piece of tape will help to decrease the chance of winding the leather onto your bit. With an awl and a bit of wiggling, I fit 1/8" steel rivets through the holes and set them. Initially I wanted rivets all the way around the curve, but these lousy pin rivets just couldn't hold the tension. I settled on two across the flat section at the height of my solar plexus and augmented the hold with glue.

The same idea applied to the epaulettes, with one change. Since the last layer of the breastplate rivets was actually metal, the mushroomed rivets held alright. I aligned the shoulder guards/epaulettes, marked the front drilled through, and set the epaulettes with rivets.

I also set two 1/2" grommets on the lower panel so it could be cinched together from the back.

Step 9: Back Panel & Lashing

The back panel was sort of a cop out. I had planned to back it with cardboard for rigidity but discarded the idea. All I wanted was something that would serve to lash the ends of the breastplate together and attach the shoulder pieces. It ended up being more or less cosmetic, but a good use of the leftover sleeve. I cut out a neckline and armpits (drawn on by a helper when it was draped over my back) and then set 1/2" grommets roughly at the height of the corresponding front points. I also included a pair to tie down the shoulder guards.

This left me with the question of how exactly to lash it all together. The 1/2" grommets wasted a lot of lashing in tying knots big and stable enough to not pop through; used smaller ones if you have them. Basically there were two going across the back, pulled taught through the front and tied at the side. It wasn't too noticeable and most importantly, it worked.

The shoulder pieces were affixed to the back with short ends of knotted lashing (otherwise they'd flap around and look silly, being riveted to the breastplate).

It meant that front and back hung together by the shoulder guards, with the back panel affixed on the left side with stop knots. With a helper, I was able to raise my arms, slip into the armor and then hold it in place while my helper fed the lashing through the grommets and tied them off tightly on the sides. Not ideal but it worked well enough. I'm sure someone cleverer than I could come up with a much improved method. Even zip ties would probably do the trick.

Step 10: Helmet & Flair

Starting with a tea kettle, I first removed the bottom plate. Without a dremel tool, this was essentially a concerted bashing effort. The lip of the bottom plate on the kettle was tightly clamped and it felt like a losing struggle. I eventually managed to pry and bash it off. I then wiped it clean and removed the leftover bits (spout, top etc.) I quickly realized I had to hack a line down the back to fit my head. My workaround was a strip of leather to cover the gap held with rivets.

No bother, it was covered by helmet flair, anyway. After this, I messed around with different shapes to get the look of the helmet right, cutting sideflaps and frontplate from the faux brass vanity cover. These I drilled, riveted in place and snipped off the backing. Use padding if needed to protect your head from pointed metal. I was pretty happy with the look and then just added some flair; a decorative button in the front, and the feather boa piece stuffed into the lid.

I really wanted a nice phalaerae crest for the breastplate, but I ended up gluing a button onto a tea tin lid and slapping it on the front.

Step 11: Tunic and Cloak

Curtains picked up from a thrift store, one eggshell, one red. For the tunic, fold the curtain, staple or sew the sides up to under the arm and cut a neck-hole. The cloak is the red curtain, wrapped round the shoulders and tied off in a soldierly manner. No trouble at all and they do finish the look nicely.

Add a gladius and leather sandals. For reference, the gladius is worn on the right side, so your draw wouldn't interfere with your scutum (shield).