You would be hard-pressed to find an American adult who hasn’t owned a denim jacket at some point. Even now, you can find them in most clothing shops year round. Why? Like its cool counterpart, denim jeans, it’s a classic American wardrobe staple. With its long history, it has stood the test of time as first, an industrial uniform shirt that could hold up to heavy labor to a fashion statement to an expression of anti-establishment rebellion to the abundance of options we have today that can suit any taste.
It’s remarkable that we still have a piece of clothing that everyone loves from teenagers to musicians and celebrities to farmers and cowboys to runway models. It crosses every cultural divide. How did one article of clothing accomplish this? Let’s look a little deeper at how it came to be.
In the late 1800s and early 1900s, American blue collar workers didn’t have many options for work shirts or jackets. Jackets were designed for the office executive, not the factory worker, miner or railroad conductor so Levi Strauss decided that if his popular jeans could withstand a lot of abuse, why not create jackets out of the same material? What manifested were durable jackets and work shirts that would stand up to the physical labor of hard work and provide better functionality. The originals even boasted the ability to create more room for the wearer by removing horizontal seams when needed.
“We spoke with Tracey Panek, a historian at Levi Strauss & Co., who said that the denim jackets were ideal for laborers. ‘Our denim jacket was incredibly durable for various types of manual labor,’ Panek said. ‘The horizontal seams holding down the pleats could be removed to give the wearer extra room.’”
From there, the denim work uniform for cowboys (think: John Wayne movies) and industrial workers was adopted by celebrities like James Dean and Bing Crosby who brought it into mainstream culture’s fashion awareness.
As American society began to lean more into consumerism, materialism and conformist ideals, Hollywood “bad boys” in the 50s and 60s rolled up their denim jacket sleeves and became icons for sticking it to the man. Wearing denim started being equalled with juvenile delinquency and was even banned from being worn in some schools.
Following in the 60s through the 80s, rock and roll and punk rock renegades (and their followers) got a new look with bands like Nirvana, The Rolling Stones and the Ramones deconstructing the jackets, sometimes cutting off the sleeves, shredding the material and adding pins, patches and paint. The versatility of a denim jacket continued to earn its keep as a staple.
In the past few decades, pop and hip-hop artists alike have continued to uphold the denim jacket’s timelessness by proving that over 100 years later, the jackets may have been distressed or ripped but the versatility and self-expression these simple jackets have given have remained.
Fast fashion rules much of our clothing decisions, but when it comes to pieces that have stood the test of time (hello, little black dress, jeans, and white tee), we know we can’t go wrong with the self-expression and innate coolness of the classic denim jacket. It has earned its place in our closets for the long haul. Thank you, Mr. Strauss.