Particular Pieces – Denim Jackets

If there’s something that’s more quintessentially American as a good, broken-in denim jacket, I haven’t found it yet. There’s just something so satisfying about putting a cute outfit together and tossing on a light jacket because the leaves are turning colors and some cute boy asked you to go pick apples with him at the local orchard. I mean, everyone needs to have at least one in their closet (if you don’t, stop reading this and go find one) because it pairs with everything.

However, denim jackets are nowhere near a “new” trend in any sort of way. In fact, the first proper denim jacket was created around 1880 by Levi’s founder, Levi Strauss. About ten years previously Strauss was credited with making the perfect pair of jeans and marketed them to cowboys, railroad workers and miners as a garment which could hold up to the incredibly tough work conditions they would be put through. Naturally, he decided that there should be a top made of this same material and the denim jacket was born, though in that time it was called The Triple Pleat Blouse.

Levi’s 1880 Triple Pleat Blouse Jacket

Now the image above is obviously not of the original jacket. Hardly any of those exist anymore, and if they do they’ve been through so much wear that they hardly qualify as a jacket anymore. However, this is the next-best thing, being made by Levi’s with the same pattern and quality construction as the original, and featuring the triple pleat on both front panels. This was designed so that, if the wearer needed more room, they could just snip the stitching and make it a better fit across the chest. This jacket is also made from 100% plain selvage denim from Cone Mills in North Carolina (whom they’ve worked with for over 100 years).

That being said, this was the original denim jacket. It’s the one that almost all others are based on, and it’s the reason that Levi’s has been held as the gold-standard in denim garments for almost 150 years. But obviously since then there’s been a massive increase in the amount of styles, cuts and colors that denim jackets are offered.

So yeah, denim jackets were used from the 1880’s forward, but they were never really the popular choice for kids to wear out when they get drinks (R.I.P. Covid) until 1953. This was the beginning of the change.

I doubt anyone who reads this blog was around in the 1950’s but if you were, you’ll remember a movie called Rebel Without a Cause which was released in 1955. Starring James Dean, Sal Mineo and Natalie Wood, the movie was a cultural critique of troubled youth and the parenting styles which created them. Now please bear with me as this is a bit off-script.

James Dean, starring in Rebel Without a Cause

The jacket from that movie is a red nylon bomber jacket. It’s not denim in any sense of the word. However, the attitude is what began to catch people’s attention. It was the sense of “fuck the establishment” that the character and his clothes portrayed that captured the imaginations of every young person who’s watched it since it came out. The denim jacket came along a little while later in a little music video called Jailhouse Rock, but it rode the coattails of the revolution created by Rebel Without a Cause.

Elvis Presley, in Jailhouse Rock

I mean. There really isn’t a more iconic 1950’s era image out there (when it comes to male fashion at least) than this. This music video catapulted the humble denim jacket from simple work wear to a piece of fashion that everyone could wear. They’ve become such a key part of our nation’s fashion identity that even now, when we make movies or shows about the 1950’s, there’s bound to be several denim jackets which make appearances. Once Upon a Time In Hollywood is a prime example, with Brad Pitt’s character wearing a lighter-washed denim jacket in several of the key scenes of the film.

So yes, they’ve established themselves as a cultural icon. However, they’re more than just a piece of fabric you wear to keep the elements off you as you get coffee at the overpriced shop downtown.

If you go to any rock concerts, environmental rallies, bars, or any other “anti-establishment” location, you’re bound to see at least a handful of denim jackets floating through the crowd. Since Elvis they’ve been adopted as a symbol of revolution by everyone from long-haired “punk” kids to environmental advocates who march through downtown Washington D.C.. Denim jackets are a cornerstone of revolutions, and they’ve been adapted by almost every group around the world as a symbol that these groups don’t accept the status quo.

Brad Pitt, starring alongside Leonardo DiCaprio in Once Upon A Time In Hollywood

One last thing about denim jackets and then I promise I’m done.

In the beginning, denim was created as a working man’s jacket. It was designed to keep the wearer safe in conditions that no woman (at that time) would ever be caught dead in. But since the Jailhouse Rock revolution, that’s changed dramatically. Denim jackets are now seen as a unisex pieces of clothing, being worn by some of the fiercest female figures on the planet (Rihanna, Marilyn Monroe, Ashley Graham and Demi Lovato just to name a few).

So I guess, in closing, I could just say that the trajectory of the denim jacket through America’s history mimics that of our nation as a whole. It’s become, through the course of it’s life, a symbol of stereotypical “manly” fashion, a revolutionaries wardrobe staple and a unisex piece which has dominated closets and coat hooks for a century and a half. A denim jacket has the special property of being able to take the character of the wearer and accentuate it, no matter who that person is.

I know this was a longer post than usual, but I absolutely love jackets and I felt that this was the only real way to do the subject justice. If you liked it please leave a like and follow me for more updates because I’ve got some fun things in the works for winter! As always, thank you for reading and let me know if you have any comments, questions or other ideas for future posts!

(P.S. A special shout out for for being a fantastic reference and for inspiring this blog.)

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