The Most Practical Impractical Jacket: The Denim Jacket (Part One)

April 12, 2018

On balance, denim sort of sucks, especially for outerwear. It’s stiff when new and wears out reliably, ripping at stress points and busting at the seams. It’s neither particularly warm in the cold nor comfortable in hot weather. It doesn’t seem to give when you want it to, but all of a sudden is too stretched out to wear.

And yet. Denim jackets are second only to leather jackets (motorcycle and bomber jackets, in that order) in their particularly American toughness. All the obvious good things about denim apply to jackets: its particular shade of indigo, its forming to your body with wear, the outlaw history, the fades. And a jacket’s crotch will never blow out at an inopportune time.

I’m talking about the classic, western style, short denim jacket, versus chore coat or french work coat styles. Tapering in width from the chest to the waist, the cut is flattering on most men, and can be worn slim or slightly oversized. If you’re thinking of picking one up for the in-between times of year, those perfect days where you can wear a jacket but don’t necessarily have to, you’ll need to make some decisions.


Martin Sheen acrobatically dons his Levis type 2 in Badlands.


Denim Jacket Styles

Levis Type 1: The OG denim company also made the great grandfather of the modern denim jacket; the type 1 was officially introduced in 1905. The original had a yoke across the chest, a shirt style collar, single front pocket, stitched-down pleats (that can be released for more room), and a buckle back to cinch the fit. The fit is a little boxy compared to later versions.

Levis Type 2: A relatively short-lived model, introduced in 1953 and superseded in 1962, but interesting in its own right. Added a pocket, removed the buckle back.

Levis Type 3: The basic unit of denim jacket–trim, tapered, with pointed pocket flaps, contrast stitching, and, later, hand pockets. The cut and details have varied a lot since its introduction, but the basic style has stayed much the same. Heddels has a great guide on how to date vintage Levis denim jackets. Vibewise, I get more of a workwear/old prospector feel from type 1s and 2s, and more cowboy/rebel style from type 3s.


L to R: Type 1, type 2, type 3.


Lee 101/Riders Jacket: Lee’s version, introduced in the 1940s, seems to have influenced the type 3, as it had higher pockets and more decorative stitching, both of which showed up in Levis Type 3. Lee jackets, at least prior to some design changes in the 1980s, are quite short, even for denim jackets. They have distinctive zig zag stitching on the placket, and slanted, high chest pockets.



Reproduction Versions: Levis Vintage Clothing almost always has some version of its denim jackets available, relatively faithful to vintage originals, but in fresh denim (or distressed, sometimes absurdly). Lee, likewise, often has a reproduction available. The usual repro  suspects, like Real McCoys, reliably offer detail-obsessed versions.

Designer Versions: As jeans went from rebel style to everyday everyone style in the second half of the 20th century, designers making ready-to-wear outside the workwear setting began using the style in their work, and jackets quickly followed. In the 90s and 2000s, in particular, men’s designers like Helmut Lang, Hedi Slimane, and Rick Owens reinterpreted the denim jacket and made it a luxury item.  Lang’s are known for their clean, Levis-influenced design, Slimane’s, like his jeans, were long and lean, and Owens added higher collars and leather sleeves. It’s common to find some take on the jacket in many modern brand offerings, from J. Crew to Our Legacy to Robert Geller.

Coming tomorrow–more on how to pair your denim jacket.