A symbol of youth and rebellion in the sixties, and one of carefree attitude in the seventies and eighties, the denim jacket has always ruled the roost. Perhaps it’s usual unfashionable reputation has been because of the garment’s working class, wild west history.
Frankly, the denim jacket was never meant to be a fashion staple. It was looked upon as a utility garment meant for workers. Around 1905, American jeans maker Levi Strauss and Co. came up with the Levi Blouse, an outerwear shirt that could be paired with work pantaloons. The original model, known as the 506, featured heavy 9-ounce denim. In 1938, the blouse was officially redubbed a ‘jacket’. Strauss produced six versions of the jacket by 1947, making minor additions and variations.
Starting in the late forties and early fifties, the denim jacket graduated from workwear to day-to-day attire after Strauss introduced light-weight coats in its westernwear line. Marilyn Monroe made the piece fashionable for all women – reiterating the jacket’s status as a unisex staple. For men, icons such as James Dean helped to associate the denim jacket with a sense of individualism. By 1962, Levi’s settled on the double-breast pocket featured on most modern denim jackets. Later, the Woodstock-ers and hippies tried out everything from leather trims, distressed to sleeveless denim jackets and shearling lining. This is when the denim jacket secured its place on the fashion charts.
Later, the silver screen and showbiz added to the charm of the denim jacket. The likes of Robert Redford, Paul Newman, James Dean and Dennis Hopper swaggered the denim look in films such as Little Fauss and Big Halsy, Easy Rider and many more. Another item of clothing that garnered as much celebrity status as its owner was Bing Crosby’s denim tuxedo, made especially for him by Levi Strauss & Co. Crosby was not allowed into a hotel in Canada for donning denim from head to toe. When word of the incident reached the denim masters at Levi Strauss, they designed a completely denim tux for Crosby, with a patch sewn inside that said, ‘Notice: To hotel men everywhere – this
label entitles the wearer to be duly received and registered with cordial hospitality at any time and under any conditions.’
Not only actors but also musicians like Debbie Harry and Madonna helped maintain the style’s popularity through the eighties and early nineties. Edgy eighties aesthetics included trim fi ts and punk-inspired spikes or patches; in the nineties, light-hued stone wash styles, oversized cuts and the addition of bold embroidery or sequins ruled the denim scene. As the 20th century progressed, the denim jacket became synonymous with rebellion and pop culture, as people saw rock stars and punk guitarists opting for everything rugged. What made denim appealing was that it was something that was so not formal; anyone who wanted to openly rebel against the ironed suits of the establishment threw a denim jacket on.
Think of The Clash in faded denim with the sleeves pushed up, or Tupac in a denim suit-coat. Flash-forward to 2014 and we saw in London, in what might be described as an act of reverse rebellion, Christopher Bailey gave the often grungy classic a luxury makeover at Burberry Prorsum. His tailored and embellished jean jackets might be high-end, but they retain the youthful appeal that is part of the garment’s heritage. Denim has made a comeback in recent years. Studded denim jackets have made it to the runways of Dolce and Gabbana. John Galliano, Mui Mui and Prada are some other couturiers who have embraced the jacket and placed it on a sartorial throne.
Today’s denim jacket exudes a sense of sturdy individualism, but it took many decades to establish itself as a pillar of fashion. Whether it is bleached, cropped, oversized, distressed or embroidered with pearls and sequins, jean jackets are one staple that will always be fashionable.