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The Classic Jean Jacket

Photo: Steve Schapiro/Corbis Via Getty Images


It's called the trucker jacket, but it might just as well have been dubbed the biker, the rebel, the protester, the hippie, the rocker or any other name that says counterculture chic. The Levi's denim jacket was born as work wear, but found its true niche when worn by such brooding antiheroes as James Dean, Steve McQueen and the Marlboro Man. They made it a permanent part of the American wardrobe by exuding cool (not chores) and hinting at danger (not drudgery).

The first Levi's jacket evolved from denim work shirts manufactured by the San Francisco company that made rugged jeans popular in the Old West. In 1905, Levi's debuted a boxy jacket, with one breast pocket and a belt in the small of the back to cinch it. Minor changes followed until, in 1953, a second coming brought two breast pockets and button adjusters at the waist in place of the back belt. Bar-tack stitching had by then replaced rivets on the pockets. More form-fitting, this was the jacket first associated with motorcycle clubs and cinematic juvies.

A scant 10 years later the design would near its fashion zenith with a slimmer version. The trucker—collar turned up and the sleeves slightly rolled—became a go-to rebel garment. Not only was it cut tighter, but details like chest seams that descended from the pockets to the waist in a V-shape, as well as pointed flaps, accentuated the trim lines. The material was a bit heavier and made of preshrunk denim, meaning you could wash it over and over to get the lived-in look. 

If there was any way to give this jacket more attitude, Levi's found it in the '80s when it added hand pockets just above the waist. Now you could tuck your digits away and affect total indifference.

Not that Levi's has a monopoly on the look. Plenty of designers have even sent denim jackets down the runway, either in the classic form or with variations. (Probably the most disturbing are the suit jackets made of denim. Levi's itself made a tuxedo version for the very uncool Bing Crosby.) If you're considering alternatives don't forget that details like sturdy stitching and copper shank buttons with working holes—not snaps—make this look. While you can get it in colors other than the classic indigo blue, a timeworn way to make the look your own is to personalize it with tie-dye or embroidery (a la the hippie culture) or, at the other end of the spectrum, Hell's Angels patches. Bruce Springsteen styled them as vests by ditching the sleeves. The look never suffered in the least.

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