The Denim Jacket

The totem of youth that will not fade away

Three men pose for picture together wearing matching hats and denim jackets. by NormskiMuseum of Youth Culture

An Icon of Many Times

The denim jack is everywhere - first making an appearance with the Rockers of the 60s, it has since become with synonymous with scores of youth tribes. This exhibit will chart the near constant presence of the denim jacket in the foregrounds and backgrounds of British youth culture. 

Nigel and Mark on a bench (1980s) by Gavin WatsonMuseum of Youth Culture

Dressing For The Scene

In documenting and illustrating British Youth Culture from the last hundred years, we have seen how music has been a major thread in the tapestry of young peoples' lives.

However it has not been the only element. Running a very close second : clothes.

Man and woman bending down (1993) by NormskiMuseum of Youth Culture

Important Signifiers

Clothes have been vital signifiers in youth culture. They are shorthand for political leanings, for sexual orientation and for class. For where we are and for where we want to be.

They are clear signposts and sharp symbols of the lives, the dreams, the tastes of the person beneath the fabric.

Rod Hood sitting in the train with sunglasses (1980s) by Gavin WatsonMuseum of Youth Culture

A Certain Kind of Cool

Certain clothing tropes have bobbed to the surface of the occasionally murky and treacherous sea of visual coding in youth culture.This exhibition will focus on one such item of clothing that has flitted in and out of the light: The Denim Jacket.

Cyborg and Girl Kissing (1980s) by Gavin WatsonMuseum of Youth Culture

In British youth culture, the Denim Jacket has been there since soon after the end of World War Two, hanging across the shoulders of the newly emerging teenagers, the young men and women keen to escape the dark shadow of a war they had little connection with, eager to rebel against their parents reverence and war driven austerity.

Many symbols and behaviours have been adopted to signal this splintering, this drifting away.

A biker smoking at a beach party (1986) by Marcus GrahamMuseum of Youth Culture

A Utilitarian Apparel

The first recorded jean jacket was created in the United States in about 1880 by Levi Strauss, approximately ten years after he had invented jeans as a new type of work apparel intended for use by cowboys, miners, and railroad workers.

Barrymore (1980s) by Gavin WatsonMuseum of Youth Culture

So the Denim Jacket was initially an informal uniform, one for the working man who signed up for the basic structure of human life - work/rest/play.

It was absolutely an American invention, designed purely for blue collar manual labourers.

Young man doing a one arm handstand. by Rebecca LewisMuseum of Youth Culture

The term blue collar actually stems from the image of manual workers wearing blue denim as part of their uniforms. Industrial and manual workers often wear durable canvas or cotton clothing that may be soiled during the course of their work. Navy and light blue colours conceal potential dirt or grease on the worker's clothing, helping him or her to appear cleaner.

Historically, the popularity of the colour blue among manual labourers contrasts with the popularity of white shirts worn by people in office environments.

The blue collar/white collar colour scheme has socio-economic class connotations.

However, this distinction has become blurred with the increasing importance of skilled labour, and the relative increase in low-paying white-collar jobs.

Neville by Gavin WatsonMuseum of Youth Culture

A signpost for rebellion

So how did The Denim Jacket, once a perfect symbol of conformity and traditional values, become so ingrained into youth culture, an instantly recognisable signpost for rebellion, anarchy, counter culture?

Kate (1980s) by Gavin WatsonMuseum of Youth Culture

"(A denim jacket) adds a certain persona to the one who puts them on. In old movies, the blue overall is what the rebel, the renegade and social wallflower character wears. Even the girl next door has her denim jacket."

Keith Vlahakis, pop artist and illustrator

Skinheads at bar (1980s) by Gavin WatsonMuseum of Youth Culture

A Rebel Without A Cause

Marlon Brando had worn denim jeans and leather in the 1953 film Rebel Without A Cause but the jean jacket really made it's debut in Jailhouse Rock.

Elvis Presley sung the title track clad in a snug fitting dark denim jacket, and youths flocked to buy similar jackets to acquire an instant off-the-peg bad boy look, which the Levi's company had manufactured in response to the demand the film created.

In the 1950s British youth culture followed it's American counterpart closely, not yet having found it's own look and viewpoint.

Elvis Presley himself was not keen on denim jackets.

Lorp and Dimity in bedroom with beer by Gavin WatsonMuseum of Youth Culture

"What’s so special about denim is that it can become anything to anybody."

Amy Leverton, author, Denim Dudes

Lampkin at a Rave (1980s) by Gavin WatsonMuseum of Youth Culture

Raw, DIY look

Denim became the chosen attire of youth keen to show the world that they didn't care what was what expected of them. The uniform of the denim jacket was customised to become a symbol of individuality.

New Order & The England World Cup Squad (1990) by Peter WalshMuseum of Youth Culture

"...the establishment were freaked out because (young people) were not conforming and they were wearing jeans. If you were a 15-year-old boy in 1953 you wanted to be Marlon Brando."

Lynn Downey archivist and historian at Levi Strauss & Co.

Neville on His BMX (1980s) by Gavin WatsonMuseum of Youth Culture

Many schools banned denim from the premises. Such attempted censorship helped cement the Denim Jacket into the fabric of youth culture forever.

Biker (1980s) by Peter AndersonMuseum of Youth Culture

A Countercultural Look

The hippy and counter culture movements that sprung up in the 1960s clutched the denim jacket to their collective bosom as tightly as the 1950s Rebels Without A Cause.

This time around the denim jacket would find itself tossed over t shirts with political slogans, or combined with the brightly coloured psychedelic designs that reflected the hopes and drug fuelled new outlooks of the time. Or even draped over bare flesh, with the jackets arms cut off to display tattoos.

So the Denim Jacket came to represent a wholesale rejection of all inequality., be that concerning class, race, gender or sexuality.

The denim jacket, the coat of the working man became the chosen coat of everyone who rejected division and bigotry.

Tina and Neville holding hands (1980s) by Gavin WatsonMuseum of Youth Culture

The Denim Jacket was one of the first ever unisex pieces of clothing, looking good on both men and woman alike.

It was perfect for the new women’s liberation and sexual freedoms. What could be more equal that a jacket that both genders could comfortably wear without judgement or restriction?

A girl wearing a sleeveless denim jacket decorated with badges and paint splotches (2002) by Suzy Del CampoMuseum of Youth Culture

A Blank Canvas

The Denim Jacket was also the perfect blank canvas for someone to customise with his or her unique style, with pens, badges, embroidery, patches, pins....whatever spoke your language.

Mod dancing at Caxton Mod Club, Westminster, London, 1960s. (1960) by Caxton Youth TrustMuseum of Youth Culture

Sharp Suits Only

However, even The Denim Jacket had a backlash among some quarters; the Modernists ('Mods') of the 1960s rejected the scruffiness of denim in a smart counter rebellion, where tailored suits and button down collars became an anarchic rejection of what had come before. No Mod would consider wearing a denim jacket.

Gary and Neville outside (1980s) by Gavin WatsonMuseum of Youth Culture

But for the skinheads that followed the Modernists, the Denim Jacket made a comeback. The denim was often dipped in bleach for a unique British skinhead look.

Perhaps the youth tribe with the most specific uniform of all was the skinhead. And the Denim Jacket was an integral part of that uniform, hanging proudly in the skinhead wardrobe alongside the MA-1 flying jacket, the Harrington jacket, the Fred Perry polo shirt, the braces and the lace up boots.

Punks (1980s) by Gavin WatsonMuseum of Youth Culture

Making It Your Own

Although the Punk movement was more generally drawn to the Leather Jacket, that other favourite of young rebels, the Denim Jacket provided a blank canvas on which they could rip, tear, experiment and destroy.

It was the perfect vehicle for the Do-It-Yourself attitude of the times and the movement.

Marilyn (1980s) by Peter AndersonMuseum of Youth Culture

Following the Mods, The New Romantics again turned against our hero, dressing up in ways that could not incorporate humble workwear.

But this ambitious movement was short lived. Style magazine The Face wrote a pivotal editorial in 1982, entitled Hard Times, which was illustrated by the new trend of ripped denim.

Men in cowboy hats, Adam Friedman, 1990s, From the collection of: Museum of Youth Culture
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The 'Hard Times' issue (of The Face) ...was the first not to feature a portrait on the cover. Instead, it had a close crop of a frayed and faded denim-clad arse... the issue came at a time when tensions in the UK were running high – we were in the midst of a recession, heroin use was on the rise as the drug started pouring in from Afghanistan, unemployment was rife – and this kind of ‘hard’ look became quite popular; you know, ripped jeans, battered leather belts and layered t-shirts that had seen better days. It was kind of a precursor to grunge.

Paul Gorman, speaking about the 1982 'Hard Times' edition of The Face.

Heavy Metal fans at Monsters of Rock. Donnington (1980s) by Laurence WatsonMuseum of Youth Culture

Customising Your Jackets

In the Heavy Metal scene the Denim Jacket became a staple point of the look. Blue denim, black denim, full jackets or cut off - Denim was integral to the look.

The jackets were like a blank canvas, allowing metallers to show their favourite bands and sounds.

Guru of Gang Starr (1993) by Adam FriedmanMuseum of Youth Culture

Ripped and distressed denim became a look in the 1980s, adopted as a style aesthetic as a way to further demonstrate nonchalance and and a casual attitude. The ripped knees of jeans was a look allegedly first sported by male prostitutes who had to spend many hours on their knees, wearing out the fabric of their jeans.

Bronski Beat (1984) by Peter AndersonMuseum of Youth Culture

Gay men in the 1970s and 1980s wore denim jackets, because they formed part of a hyper masculine highly sexualised look, a look which became know n as The Clone.

All male concert audience (1989) by Adam FriedmanMuseum of Youth Culture

Onwards into the late 1980s and 1990s and the anti-corporate anti-everything stance of Grunge found a fond place for the denim jacket, as long as the jacket was genuinely old and worn and had not been bought in a shopping centre.

It looked great over the faded t shirts and flannel shirts that made up the grunge uniform. Of course big fashion brands embraced the anti fashion look selling distressed denim jackets for those who couldn't wait for their clothes to naturally fall apart.

Jam Master Jay and his Records (1980s) by Laurence WatsonMuseum of Youth Culture

In the 1990s the Denim Jacket found a much more slick style, moving away from the rough and ready look of previous movements. The denim was expensive and designer created. The hip hop musicians and the hip hop fans dressed the same way, in clothes that were clearly not cheap.

Here the denim jacket - sharply cut and possibly designed by a rapper endorsed brand - was draped over box fresh outsize t shirts, teamed with unlaced boots and low hanging trousers.

© Naki Kouyioumtzis. Tine Tempah (2010) by NakiMuseum of Youth Culture

"I can wear a suit, sweatpants, a long tee shirt, and a denim jacket all at the same time."

Tinie Tempah, British Rapper

Credits: Story

Joe Egg is a former filmmaker and DJ who has played records in some of the most iconic venues in London. He is a keen amateur freestyle dancer, and has one of the biggest record collections in Deptford Bridge. He owns one denim jacket.

The Museum of Youth Culture is a new destination dedicated to celebrating 100 years of youth culture history through photographs, ephemera and stories. Launching in 2019, the Online Museum of Youth Culture has been developed by YOUTH CLUB, with support from the National Lottery Heritage Fund.

Credits: All media
The story featured may in some cases have been created by an independent third party and may not always represent the views of the institutions, listed below, who have supplied the content.
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