Words: Angelika Blaszczak
The denim jacket is constantly evolving and reemerging further solidifying its status as a timeless staple, but how exactly did the iconic piece make its way from the fields to our closets?
Originating in 1880 during the gold rush as a durable and breathable layer for cowboys, miners, and blue-collar workers, it was decades before the denim jacket took to the big screens and runways. The denim jacket is often attributed to German designer Levi Strauss, however its origins can be traced all the way to early 19th century France. What was referred to as ‘bleu de travail’ largely resembled the denim jackets of today and aimed to visually separate the working men from their bosses. The humble jacket would go on to revolutionize the world of fashion through blurring social divides.
In the 1950s, denim became associated with rebellion and delinquency. Tracy Panek, a historian at Levi Strauss, suggested some schools banned the jackets that once represented the hard-working lower-class Southerners. The rebellious edge to the jacket was solidified by the dreamy James Dean in the instant hit Rebel Without a Cause, where he played the troubled, rule-breaking lead. The movie later sparked controversy as the first depiction of a gay character in a positive light while homophobia was still rife in Hollywood. The jacket’s rebellious status continued into the 60s, becoming associated with Rock and Roll and being worn by Elvis Presley in the Jailhouse Rock music video. This caused the trend to go global. It was in this era that Levis started producing the Type II jacket. Its production only spanned 9 years and caused it to become a cult classic, now retailing for several thousand dollars.
The denim jacket also started to progress into more wearable high-fashion looks. At the start of the 1960s, Marilyn Monroe debuted the denim jacket as part of the movie star off duty wardrobe. Supermodel of the decade Verushak donned the iconic double denim combo, often referred to as the Canadian tuxedo. Female celebrities incorporating the piece into their wardrobes marked a changing America. Denim jackets were beginning to be worn by all genders, classes and races – marking the transition to a fairer and more equal USA. The 80s highlighted the rise of oversized denim jackets as worn by fashion icon Sarah Jessica Parker. Big and boxy became the desired fit as women were liberated from classic ideals of femininity. Consumerism rose as the Cold War ended and disposable income increased. This demanded a rise in production, resulting in a more slim-lined design named Type III by Levi too faced fierce competition from other brands including high fashion labels such as Gucci, Dior and Tom Ford.
In an iconic fashion moment, Britney Spears and Justin Timberlake strutted the red carpet at the 2011 American Music Awards in all denim looks which have now become a symbol of the blinged-out, over-the-top, y2k era. The same year, Madonna debuted the denim jacket with nothing underneath in her Ray of Light music video, bringing a sexiness to the previously modest piece. Those are my first memories of the denim jacket. However, unlike my other recollections of 2000s fashion, this one does not bring around a feeling of nostalgia. It’s hard to miss something that has never left. My denim jacket which I have now had for 5 years has become my designated clubbing jacket. The kind of jacket which you need to be able to wash anything out of while keeping warm in all weather conditions and still looking stylish. It has survived countless nights out and it always provides a sort of comfort that, when I pick it up from the cloakroom, my night is over and I get to treat myself to some questionable cheesy chips.
Throughout the years, the denim jacket has been a symbol of disobedience, innovation and change. Whether inspired by the 70s hippies, rock stars of the 60s, and supermodels of the 80s, 90s or iconic 00s, denim jackets are still very much on trend and don’t seem to be disappearing any time soon. Their versatility and simplicity are celebrated by all. When looking at the history of the denim jacket it becomes clear that such a timeless piece with a rich past will not be leaving our closets any time soon.