Did you know the denim jacket came before your beloved denim pants? In fact, the denim jacket has been around for 200 years. Not only is each stain and rip part of the garments personal story, the jacket touches on cultural points throughout history.
Mid-to Late-19tth Century: The Japanese Work Coat
Japan is widely known as the perfecter of indigo dye – the ultimate start of the denim jacket. Indigo dye dates back to when the Silk Road was the trade route and allowed the dye to move around the world. The first round of denim jackets were seen on indigo-dyed garments around the 1800s.
During that time, fireman wore ‘chore coat’s known as Hanten. Ancestors to the denim jacket, they were made out of wool (silk and other fine fabrics were forbidden at that time). The indigo dye was used to differentiate the fire squad someone belonged to – and also included symbols of luck and bravery. As you can imagine, these weren’t the best fabrics to fight fire with…
Late-19th Century: “Bleu de Travail”
In the late 1800s, the French used denim jackets to separate the workers from bosses. “bleu de travail” is French for “work blue” and is known as a rich indigo-blue color. Workers would wear “bleu de travail” while bosses would often wear a white or grey jacket.
Though these jackets were made with cotton or canvas rather than the cotton denim we know and love today, they were quite close to today’s denim jacket.
In fact, the word denim actually originated in France, as it refers to the fabric coming from Nimes, France (‘de Nimes’ to be exact) but today’s denim didn’t become popular through France until Levi’s created their Iconic version of the denim jacket in America.
Around 1905: The Levi’s “Type I” Denim Jacket
The design that started it all – the ‘Type’ Levi’s denim jacket. Though it had a different cut and fabric than past designs, the “Type I” jacket – and Levi’s – set the standard for future denim designs. With a simple design, this jacket featured one front pocket and a “silver buckle cinch in the back”.
1919: The US Army
“Working blues” replaced the classic brown canvas and twill Army uniforms. The jacket featured a “five button placket, traditional shirt collar, a watch pocket and two open pockets.”
World War II: The U.S Navy
Though the Navy used denim as part of its uniform in 1901, the trend truly took off during World War II. On-board members wore shirt jackets featuring top open hip pockets, shawl collar, and cuff placket. Sailors even wore lightweight chambray shirts when not on duty.
1951: Bing Crosby and the Denim Tuxedo
When American icon Bing Crosby was banned from a Canadian hotel for wearing head-to-toe denim, Levi’s turned it into an opportunity to make Crosby a custom tuxedo for him – made completely out of denim. (Crosby was eventually let into the hotel after staff recognized who he was).
Levi’s gave Crosby the tux in Elko, Nevada (he was honorary mayor there) but it didn’t rise to ‘cult status’ until he wore it while promoting his film, “Here Comes the Groom”.
1953: Levi’s “Type II” Denim Jacket
An upgrade from the original, the “Type II” is recognizable thanks to its two chest pockets and lack of back cinch. It’s still in a lightweight denim, but rather than rivets, includes bar tacks on the chest pockets and waist straps.
1957: Elvis Presley in “Jailhouse Rock”
While jeans were typically associated with the working class during the second World War, they started to cross over into youth around the 1950’s. Denim jeans quickly rose to “cool status” after Marlon Brando wore the in the iconic “Rebel Without a Cause”. The jean jacket, though, had to wait to shine until Elvis Presley wore it during his “Jailhouse Rock” performance.
Thanks to his iconic dance moves and all denim outfit, Levi’s actually released black jeans under ‘Elvis Presley Jean’s’.
1962: Levi’s and the “Type III” Jacket
Widely known as the “trucker jacket” and the one to rule them all – the “Type III” jacket can be distinguished thanks to the pointed flaps on the front chest pockets. It’s also more tailored and made with 14 oz preshrunk denim rather than the earlier 9 oz version.
Mid-60’s to Mid-70’s: Levi’s Orange Tab
It’s clearly no secret that Levi’s has ruled the denim jacket space over the years. And thanks to the hippie movement of the ‘60s and ‘70s, Levi’s introduced a lower-priced denim line under the “Orange Tab” line. Super close in design to the “Type III”, the Orange Tab Trucker Jacket used minor tweaks that allowed a more simple and cost-effective method.
Mid-‘80s to Mid-‘90s: Designer Denim Takes Off
Thanks to the success of Levi’s, other brands started to cash in on the denim jacket trend. Major design houses like Calvin Klein, Diesel, and Guess all took a stab at designer denim. Rather than marketing the jacket as workwear, these designers turned denim into high-fashion and downtown cool.
Cuts were cropped or tailored, washed – and provocative thanks to models like Kate Moss, Claudia Schiffer, and Mark Wahlberg.
Late- ‘00s to Today: Back to Basics
Designer denim had its run but like everything in fashion, what goes around comes around. Thanks to today’s “Americana” obsessions, shoppers are returning to that 20th century retro look and leaning towards replicas or recreations or what their fathers or grandfathers favored.
Modern-day designers use the Levi’s Trucker jacket as their foundation but apply features or details to make the jacket unique, like an unexpected material or color. Some designers take it a step further and completely recreate silhouettes or cuts while still remaining true to the denim jackets core.
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Inspiration for this article is from Complex.