When San Francisco wholesaler Levi Strauss & Co. introduced the first jeans, then known as denim "waist overalls," in 1873, these rugged-but-comfortable pants with tougher riveted pockets were an immediate hit with working men on the West Coast. The company's first "working blouse," something akin to a light denim jacket, quickly followed.
In 2008, denim historian Mike Harris, author of "Jeans of the Old West," discovered the earliest known denim jacket to date: the Triple Pleat Blouse, which features the namesake pleats, box stitches, and round-bottom pockets. The jacket was subsequently found in the Levi's archives, sketched for an 1874 catalog.
To be clear, while it introduced jeans to the world, Levi's was not the first company to make denim men's workwear. For example, Herman Heynemann, a San Francisco businessman who sold his clothes under the Can't Bust 'Em brand, was selling denim work clothing in the 1850s, during the Gold Rush, but his company focused on the popular bib overalls of the day.
After the debut of Levi's jeans, denim workwear companies opened all over the U.S.: Hamilton Carhartt in Detroit (1884); OshKosh B'Gosh in Oshkosh, Wisconsin (1895); the Neustadter Brothers' Boss of the Road in Northern California (pre-1900); and Hudson Overall Co., the makers of Wrangler, in Greensboro, North Carolina (1904). Retailers like Montgomery Ward, JCPenney, and Sears, Roebuck, and Co. began offering denim workwear in the first decade of the 20th century.
The second known record of a Levi's denim jacket is found in a 1905 catalog. In the early 1900s, Levi's offered the 206 "blouse" with cheaper denim, an oilcloth label, and no pocket flap, as well as the pricier linen-sewn 506 jacket, made of Amoskeag denim.
In 1889, oil baron Henry David Lee established his H.D. Lee Mercantile Company in Salina, Kansas, where the last of the Western frontier was being conquered. The Lee Company started selling its own denim waist overalls and blouses in 1911. Then, in 1913, it introduced a new product into the market, the Lee Union-All, which put the denim pants and jacket together in one continuous garment. Lee's invention was employed by the U.S. Army in 1917 during World War I, and thanks to a national ad campaign, Lee's quickly expanded, becoming the biggest workwear company in the country.
Shortly after the superintendent of the U.S. Census declared there was no longer a clear American frontier line in 1890, Americans began to mourn the end of the Old West and roma...
Levi's hopped onto this trend and began marketing its products to cowboys. Their strategy worked: In the 1920s, denim jackets became staples for Western actors like William S. Hart and John Wayne. Lee also jumped on the cowboy bandwagon. Introduced in 1925, Lee's Prestige 401 jacket had front pleats and a single pocket—similar to those of the Levi's 506 of the time. But in 1932, Lee one-upped Levi's with its Slim 101J jacket, which was shorter and sexier than the pleated and baggy 506. The following year, Lee introduced the 101LJ, a winterized version of the slim 101J jacket with a wool-blanket lining and a corduroy collar called the "Storm Rider," which became an iconic look for celebrities for decades to come.
While other makers began to produce Western clothing with Levi's once-patented rivets, Levi's continued to churn out a huge amount of advertising, and in 1936, distinguished its products again by adding a red tab. The rising popularity of dude ranches and rustic vacation resorts, which let urban folk experience the "Western" lifestyle, gave Levi's another venue to promote its products, including a new Riders jacket, introduced in 1938. Because many women stayed at dude ranches in Nevada long enough they could secure divorces from their husbands, Levi's introduced a denim line for women as well.
During World War II, the U.S. government asked Levi's—who produced a relatively small volume of the jeans market, selling only to stores on the West Coast and through mail-order—to scale back. The company's 506 jacket became simpler, losing its pocket flap and using less elaborate "doughnut" buttons. Lee, a much larger denim company with factories in multiple states, was asked to make military wear. Even though it wasn't producing its cowboy line, Lee kept advertising its Western image throughout the war.
In response to the fabric rationing of the early 1940s, American designer Claire McCardell started to create fashionable women's clothing, including dresses, suits, and jackets, in simple fabrics like denim and calico. McCardell's mission was to put "comfort first." In 1942, "Vogue" featured work clothes for Rosie the Riveters—including denim pants, cover-alls, and jackets. Still, it took Lee and Wrangler until 1949 to produce denim lines designed for women.
Speaking of Wrangler, a bib-overall company named Blue Bell purchased the brand in 1943, and in the late 1940s employed Philadelphia western clothing designer Rodeo Ben as a consultant. In 1948, the company introduced its first cowboy jacket, the 11MJ with front pleats and an "Action Back" designed to give horse riders more freedom to move.
Denim also started to shift from country singers to rockers. In 1953, Lee started marketing its jeans to teenage rebels. But teen idol Elvis Presley refused to wear denim because his African American compatriots in Memphis rejected it—it reminded them of the work clothes worn during the sharecropping era. The association of head-to-toe denim with rock stars started with Minnesota-born musician Eddie Cochran, who moved to L.A. in 1951 and created the rockabilly look. Ronnie Dawson and Duane Eddy also adopted the jean jacket as part of their image.
Young 1950s rebels on the silver screen, such as Marlon Brando, James Dean, Montgomery Clift, and Paul Newman, started wearing denim, too—jeans with denim or leather jackets. Thanks to Hollywood, Levi's, which opened its first store outside of the West Coast in 1949, were becoming popular across the United States, not just in California. But in 1950s Western films, the standard cowboy look involved Levi's 501 jeans paired with a Lee Storm Rider jacket. Marilyn Monroe was even photographed in a Storm Rider jacket.
Denim also became associated with counterculture intellectuals and artists. In 1949, Jackson Pollock was featured in a "Life" magazine spread wearing black 501 jeans and a Lee 101 jacket splattered with paint, a look that would be copied by Willem de Kooning and Roy Lichtenstein. Tough-guy writers, like Norman Mailer, also adopted an all-denim look.
Levi's introduced what we think of as a denim shirt in 1938 with its Dude Ranch line, but according to collectors, the definitive denim cowboy shirt is Levi's Sawtooth, introduced in 1954 and named for its W-shaped front-pocket flaps. That same year, Wrangler improved upon the cowboy shirt by replacing the standard buttons on its 27MW with press-stud buttons, which Rodeo Ben developed after seeing a rider's button snagged by a bull's horns. By the late 1950s, Wrangler was preferred by a large portion of the cowboy market.
In 1964, Mods in the United Kingdom clamored for all white-denim ensembles, first Lee's Westerner line introduced in 1959, and then Levi's Slim Fit. After the Levi Strauss outlet opened on Kings Road in London around 1968, Beatles John Lennon and George Harrison started sporting denim jackets. That year, Lennon was also photographed wearing a Wrangler 11MJ jacket during a recording session.
During the 1960s, sales for Levi Strauss were exploding. Jean jackets had already taken hold in San Francisco psychedelic rock scene—by 1966, members of the Jefferson Airplane, Big Brother and the Holding Company, the Grateful Dead, and Santana were all wearing Levi's getups. Both Dennis Hopper and Peter Fonda rocked denim in the iconic 1969 counterculture film, "Easy Rider." At that point, the favored jacket was the slim, pre-shrunk Levi's 557 Trucker, which debuted in 1962 and replaced the two-pocket 507. Hippies usually paired this jacket with Levi's boot-cut jeans, which arrived in 1969.
Even as they went mainstream, denim jackets and vests remained a staple of the American counterculture from the proto-punk scene of Detroit (Iggy Pop, MC5) to the punks of London and New York City (the Sex Pistols, the Ramones) to the metal of the 1980s (Metallica).
By the 1970s, jean jackets became canvases for creativity: With a do-it-yourself ethos, people adorned their jackets with embroidery, paint, glitter, studs, fringe, patches, pinbacks, and safety pins. In the same decade, famous designers like Calvin Klein, Gloria Vanderbilt, Ralph Lauren, Diane von Furstenberg, and Armani, began to create high-end skirts, dresses, jeans, and jackets out of denim. By the 1980s, mainstream mass-produced jean jackets became "distressed," pre-faded, pre-shredded, bleach-stained, or stone-washed. Denim jackets and slim-fit jeans by fashion brand Guess dominated the decade. In 1985, Michael J. Fox famously wore a two-tone Guess men’s jean jacket made specially for his character, Marty McFly, in “Back to the Future.”
As the quality of Levi's and another denim products declined in the 1970s and 1980s, the international demand for vintage Levi's began to swell. In the 1990s, Evis, a company based in Osaka, Japan, began to faithfully re-create vintage dark-denim products including Lee's 101 jacket and Levi's 557. Fighting to keep its market share, Levi Strauss and Co. was, of course, outraged and took action to thwart Evis distribution. Around the same time, hip-hop stars took to wearing baggy dark denim work clothes made by Carhartt and Ben Davis, which like popular brands Diesel and Gap, threatened to topple Levi's denim dominance, as the company began to produce its own pricier "vintage" lines alongside its standard jackets.