Well Travelled: The Journey of the Denim Jacket

Man backpacking in the snow wearing a denim jacket
Image credit: Daoudi Aissa on Unsplash

Earlier this year I travelled down to London from Edinburgh, a trip I’ve made many times over the years and one I always look forward to. This time was different, though. On this particular occasion, I was desperate to go. I’d hardly moved further than walking distance from my house in well over a year, so when the call came to head down to the capital, I got packing immediately. 

I feel certain that London has never looked more beautiful than it seemed to me on that trip. It was the summer, so people everywhere were soaking up sunlight on the streets and in parks and at outside tables that spilt out of restaurants onto the pavements and into the bustling streets. Seeing everyone around, I was reminded of all the eerily deserted roads I’d seen back in Edinburgh just one year prior. At that time, I had gotten into the habit of taking long walks in the empty city centre at night and I would often go the entire way without encountering even one other person. The mass of human life I now saw before me couldn’t have been more welcome for its contrast.

I knew long before I’d arrived in London that I would want to buy something to remind me of the journey. The first bit of travel after well over a year of being stuck at home felt like an occasion worth commemorating. As the final day of my stay loomed, however, I’d managed to find a few things for friends and family, but nothing yet for myself. I was staying in Soho and had spent several days in and around the West End in search of a suitable memento when, on my final morning in the city, in the last shop I thought I’d try, I came across exactly what I’d been looking for.

It was a denim jacket in a style I’d been seeking out for a few years now: a vintage, blanket lined number with a corduroy collar. This one had clearly been put through the wringer, though, all without being truly old enough to afford it any actual worth. It was a beater, in other words, and its hangtag suggested as much: It was the cheapest jacket in the shop by some margin. Having discovered that its faded sleeves and threadbare seams fit me perfectly, however, I was more than happy to take it home.

Faded Wrangler denim jacket
Wranglin’ Man: My beat-up 124MJ denim jacket
Image is my own / All rights reserved

The jacket seemed a good metaphor for my trip, which itself felt more than a little symbolic. This was the first time I had packed a suitcase since the start of the pandemic, after coming just shy of climbing the walls in search of an escape. After such a long stretch of pandemic-era life and all that it entailed, it seemed — like it did for all of us in one way or another — as though we’d been through the wars. It also felt like we’d come out the other end of it, or at least seemed well on our way to getting there. We’d travelled a great distance, and we had a way to go yet, but somehow we were still kicking. Like my new, old jacket, we may all have become a little ragged and road-worn, but, happily, a new leg of the journey still beckoned.

There was also something especially satisfying about commemorating a journey with the purchase of a jean jacket. To my mind, there has rarely been a garment more inviting of travel. A hallmark of cowboys, truckers, bikers, and wayward wanderers of every description, it has always seemed like a garment custom made for the itinerant, and, historically speaking, that wouldn’t be far from the truth.

Denim jackets were born out of the gold rush. As people travelled across America’s western reaches in the mid- and late 1800s in search of better fortunes, new economies sprung up around these burgeoning frontier communities. Among the many things these peripatetic prospectors needed were clothes and (after first having a go at selling some tents) Levi Strauss, himself an émigré from Bavaria, proved happy to oblige.

While there were other indigo work jackets that came before (chore coats come to mind, for one), it’s generally agreed that the first denim jacket proper arrived in 1905 with the Levi’s 506 pleat front jacket (or ‘blouse’ as it was called at the time), also known as the Type 1. It set the template for innumerable jackets to follow, both by competitors and by Levi’s themselves (the best-known being the updated Type 2 and especially the blockbuster Type 3, which followed in 1953 and 1962 respectively).

Cowboy wearing a denim jacket
Image credit: Insomnia Cured Here / CC BY-SA 2.0

Over the coming decades, denim jackets would do some travelling themselves, so to speak, spreading prodigiously from one group and subculture to the next. They were variously adopted by cowboys, beatniks, hippies, preppies, and even the military. In music scenes, they’ve been worn by skinheads, punks, metalheads, fans of grunge and hip hop and beyond. Even as tastes and trends began to churn ever more rapidly, denim jackets have nevertheless enjoyed a surprisingly consistent pride of place among clothing enthusiasts, whether their particular poison comes from the streets, the runway, or the heritage wear of yesteryear.

Particularly memorable jean jackets have adorned such style luminaries as Paul Newman, Steve McQueen, and Robert Redford, to name but a few. Elvis wore denim head-to-toe in Jailhouse Rock and sparked a craze for black denim. Bing Crosby, meanwhile, was once denied entry to a swanky hotel for wearing a similar all-denim ensemble, after which Levi’s made him a denim tux as a neat riposte. 

Denim Dudes author Amy Leverton has said that ‘what’s so special about denim is that it can become anything to anybody’. This seems doubly true of denim jackets. They are perhaps even more unisex than the average pair of jeans and have an even greater canvas-like quality. Sure, a pair of raw denims offer you the chance to make a literal impression through time and wear, but jean jackets do all of that and offer the additional appeal of endless customisation, whether it be with pens and pins or badges and embroidery.

Levi’s perhaps put it best, describing the denim jacket as being ‘synonymous with change, independence and freedom’. They should know, too, they made the darn thing. It does also suggest that this garment that is synonymous with travel will never complete its journey. Good thing, too, as I hope mine will be making a good many journeys yet.

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