With hardcore denim fandom a worldwide phenomenon, what is there to know about denim that's not yet known? At this point, we all know that "denim" refers to "serge de nimes," a French term that roughly translates as "Marlon Brando's butt," famously coined by Claude Levi-Strauss, the inventor of jeans.
Haha, just kidding! There's no way denim was invented by the French. What's certain is that denim is a rough cotton fabric, the legitimate practical applications of which - ranch-work, motorcycle riding - caught cultural fire in the middle of the 20th century. Office drones like you and me wanted to capture a little bit of that badass spirit and did it by buying indigo twill pants with five pockets. And occasionally pairing them with a denim jacket, for a matched set that, I’ve been told, some Canadians consider to be formalwear.
But the most common denim jackets - Levi’s type I and III, Lee’s Rider jackets - represent just one piece of the denim outerwear puzzle. I’ve listed below some items with vintage roots, how to wear 'em, and where to find em.
Source: Post O'Alls Blog
Chore coats/Engineer coats
Original denim “overalls” were just that; people wore them cut big to fit over their other clothes while doing dirty work. The denim would get worn and dirty and their clothes would stay fresh and clean (not counting, you know, sweat, industrial grade body odor, and anything that could bleed through denim). Chore coats are like jeans for your torso--long enough to cover your top half, often cut generously, with plenty of pockets. Designs evolved incrementally over the 20th century, with form truly following function, so certain details on vintage items denote certain eras--a buttonhole/pocket for a pocketwatch, for example, often means the jacket is pretty old, although some makers (like Big Mac) held onto those details until the 1970s.
Vintage: Chore coats are common on the vintage market--second only to Levis Type III jackets. A nicely worn in vintage chore coat looks most at home with straight or wide leg indigo denim and work boots. They’re also great canvases for intricate repair work using sashiko or other stitches--an overpatched jacket in various shades of indigo may have been indicated a thrifty blue collar worker at some point, but today that guy probably just reads Styleforum.
Post Overalls: Post Overalls are masters of the tweaked version of vintage workwear, and often make one of their work-influenced jackets in denim. Check out Takeshi Ohfuchi’s amazing blog--he posts his original designs from the past two decades, as well as inspirational vintage pieces, accompanied by bone-deep knowledge of every detail.
While the roots of chore coats are in outdoor work, the longer shop coat is for the indoor kids: guys who worked on cars, shoes, carriages, or in other workshops. The shop coat doesn’t assume you’re wearing jeans, too, and protects more of your clothes than a chore coat, and they’re usually twill, chambray, or denim; not white like, say, a lab coat. They share details with the chore coat though--work-style metal buttons, seams often triple stitched, simple patch pockets--but also have belts and often a lapel instead of a shirt collar. Auto shop-specific versions sometimes included covered button plackets so, when leaning across the hood of a fine automobile, you wouldn’t scratch the finish. The robe-like length of the shop coat, combined with its light-ish weight, make it a practical transitional season jacket, but have maybe held it back from having the universal appeal of something like the Lee Riders jacket.
Vintage: A rarer bird than the chore coat. More common in chambray, twill, and covert cloth than denim--but they’re out there.
Engineered Garments: Engineered Garments is always on the leading edge of awesome awkward length clothing. They’ve done several denim versions in the last few seasons.
Denim jackets outside of work settings were unusual before the 1970s or so; according to Post Overalls’ Takeshi Ohfuchi, the qualities of denim we value so much were considered less positively: “Denim was not suitable for many things due to its unfavorable character back then – bleeding and fading.” But you do occasionally see denim applications in outdoor wear, both modern and vintage. Maybe it’s to spite outdoors enthusiasts who like to criticize people for hiking in denim, just because it’s heavy when wet, takes forever to dry, isn’t a particularly good insulator, etc., etc.
Vintage: Denim is more useful as a midlayer (jacket, vest) than true outerwear in most outdoor sports applications, so don’t look for down jackets in denim. Jonathan of the Bandanna Almanac swears a friend has a vintage Montgomery Ward denim parka.
Kapital: The brand that specializes in the indigo-ification of everything has created a denim parka for this fall.
Supreme: Last year the cult skate label made a North Face jacket with Gore Tex and denim. Take that, part time REI store associates.
Wearing a used denim jacket (especially a repaired, patched piece) both embraces and winks at concepts of authenticity--it’s the real thing, alright. But you, it says, are probably not. And that’s OK! Wearing vintage, or even gear like Kapital’s or Visvim’s, acknowledges the functional DNA of workwear, the borderline folk art of denim repair, and the hard living of previous generations, while borrowing a little of their hard-won good looks. Bonus: on an authentically oil-stained shop coat, what’s a little dribble of wing sauce?