Much like jeans, the history of denim jackets is defined by the two American brands, Levi’s and Lee. Levi’s was not only the first brand to produce jeans, but also the first to produce denim jackets—meant for cowboys, miners and other manual laborers out West—starting in 1905 with the 506XX blouse (the XX stood for “extra strong”). Made from Amoskeag Manufacturing Company’s 9oz. double heavy extra strong quality unsanforized denim, the 506XX had a short, boxy fit, tacked-down vertical pleats on the front, a single front chest pocket, and a buckle cinch on the back. In 1917, the blouse was
rechristened the “Number One (Type I).” In 1928, a front pocket flap was added and in 1936, Levi’s famous Red Tab was placed on the pocket. It was only in 1938 that the word “jacket” was used to describe the 506XX in the western wear catalog, Dude Ranch Duds. They have been called jean jackets ever since.
While Levi’s was supplying workers in the American West with its 506XX, Lee was producing workwear for midwestern railroad workers. In 1921, the brand introduced its Loco Jacket—also known as a “Railroad Jacket”—which was tested by railroad workers and featured three front patch pockets. By the end of the decade, Lee debuted the first denim jacket with a zipper front, known as the 91. Then, in 1931, Lee introduced the first slim-fit denim jacket with cowboys in mind, the
101J (Jelt). Apart from a trimmer silhouette, the 101J had nearly identical details to Levi’s 506XX. Two years later, Lee produced its now famous winter version of the 101J (dubbed the Storm Rider in 1956), which had a corduroy collar and a striped Alaskan wool blanket lining.
Although both Levi’s and Lee made slight modifications to their denim jackets throughout the ’30s, significant updates would not arrive until after WWII. In 1946, Lee exchanged the single front pocket on the 101J for two button-down flap pockets on the chest, removed the front pleats and added two adjustable tabs to the waist—the back cinch was removed earlier in the decade.
Then, in 1953, Levi’s introduced the first major update to their denim jacket, the
507XX, also known as the Type II. The main updates between Levi’s Type I and its Type II jacket were the addition of a second chest pocket with a button-down flap, the replacement of the back-waist cinch with two adjustable tabs at the waist and the addition of bar tack stitching for reinforcement.
The ’50s was also the decade that represented the propagation of denim jackets through popular culture. In 1951, singer Bing Crosby and a friend were initially rejected from a Vancouver hotel because of their hunting gear, which included Levi’s waist overalls (eventually a bellhop recognized Crosby and admitted him and his friend). Presumably after hearing about the incident, Levi’s attempted to capitalize on the singer’s affinity for the brand, and constructed him a custom
denim tuxedo jacket and matching pants. Made from 501 denim and decorated with a corsage constructed from Red Tabs secured with copper rivets, the brand presented the tuxedo to Crosby at the 1951 Silver State Stampede in Elko, Nevada—where he was the honorary mayor. In fact, the musician was so pleased with the suit he went on to wear it during press appearances for the film, Here Comes the Groom. Elvis Presley also helped spread the gospel of denim during the ’50s, wearing a Levi’s Type II jacket in Hal Kanter’s 1957 film and Loving You denim separates in Richard Thorpe’s that same year. Jailhouse Rock
In 1962, Levi’s introduced its second major update to its denim jacket with the release of the
557XX or Type III. The Type III took after Lee’s 101J, featuring a slimmer fit due to slanted chest seams, and featured two hidden chest pockets with pointed button-down flaps. In 1967, Levi’s gave the Type III the lot number 70505 to match its companion piece, the 505 zipper fly jean. The late ’60s and early ’70s saw denim (including denim jackets) reach new heights of popularity. Ringo Starr appears in a double denim outfit on the cover of The Beatles’ 1969 album , and Martin Sheen Abbey Road wears a Levi’s Type II jacket in the 1973 movie . Badlands
Since the 1970, denim jackets have roughly followed the trajectory of jeans, receiving designer interpretations throughout the ’70s and ’80s, getting bigger and baggier during the ’90’s, and seeing a return to their workwear origins from the mid-2000’s to the present—with numerous designer interpretations to match. Of course, there have been updates along with the way. Levi’s, for instance, introduced hand pockets to the Type III in the ’80s and through their
Levi’s Commuter divison now produce performance denim jackets made specifically urban cyclists— Outlier does the same. Still, the classic workwear versions still dominate the market, as well as fashion designers’ collective unconscious.