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  • Writer's pictureDavid Connolly

From Marilyn Monroe to Madonna, Here's a Brief History of the All-American Denim Jacket

Updated: Nov 12, 2022

If jeans are as American as apple pie, then denim jackets are the vanilla ice cream on top: cool, classic, and always appealing.

And while Proenza Schouler, Valentino, and Rachel Comey may have all sent their own trendy iterations down the fall 2015 runways, the denim jacket had already been trending for, oh, just 130 years or so. The first denim jacket was created circa 1880 by denim legend and Levi's founder Levi Strauss. Strauss is credited with designing the first-ever jeans in 1870 as a durable, breathable utility garment for cowboys, railroad engineers, and miners to wear during the gold rush out West. Soon after the runaway success of jeans, he gave the world a top to match and dubbed it the Triple Pleat Blouse. We spoke with Tracey Panek, a historian at Levi Strauss & Co., who said that the denim jackets were ideal for laborers. "Our denim jacket was incredibly durable for various types of manual labor," Panek said. "The horizontal seams holding down the pleats could be removed to give the wearer extra room."


While the Levi's denim jacket has evolved since then, the functionality and innate coolness of the piece has earned it the status as an all-American rebel's outerwear of choice. "By the '50s, wearing denim was often associated with juvenile delinquency," Panek said. "Jeans were even banned in some schools, and denim became the nonconformists' uniform of choice." From James Dean's iconic denim-jacket clad character in Rebel Without a Cause in the '50s to Rihanna's deconstructed versions today, jean jackets buck convention, express individuality, and epitomize anti-establishment cool.

Here's a timeline of denim jackets that will inspire you to pull yours out right now.

Brief History of the All-American Denim Jacket

Circa 1880:

The original Levi's Triple Pleat Blouse designed by Strauss. One unique feature of this jacket is the vertical grain of the fabric. Its name is derived from the three pleats that run on either side of the center front.


James Dean captured the angst of American youth and style in Rebel Without a Cause.


Marilyn Monroe is known for her glamorous red carpet gowns, but her off-duty looks which included jackets and all sorts of denim were just as compelling.


Rock 'n' roll and denim went hand-in-hand starting in the '60s, as epitomized by this street style shot in Zurich.


It model of the decade Veruschka in a denim jacket and jeans.


John Lennon wore lots of denim jackets in the '70s with flares, T-shirts, and always a quirky touch, like this flower boutonniere. Here he is at the Cannes Film Festival.


Big shoulders and boxy silhouettes ruled the '80s, and a 20-year-old Sarah Jessica Parker was on it with her oversize jean jacket.


Bruce Springsteen's all-American denim wardrobe on the *Born in the USA * album made everyone want to dance in their jean jackets in the mid-'80s.


Geena Davis' jean jacket in Thelma and Louise was likely the least obvious indicator of her character's disdain for authority.


Claudia Schiffer defined '90s denim with her sultry Guess campaigns.


Madonna, a fan of the denim jacket in the '80s, got sleeker for her *Ray of Light * video with denim-on-denim— and very little underneath.


Britney Spears and Justin Timberlake expressed their young love with matching denim at the American Music Awards, creating an image now seared into the pop world's subconscious. Note Justin's one-button denim blazer.


Miley Cyrus used the jean jacket to segue her from sweet Disney star to the edgy Miley of today.


Few can go from couture pouf dresses to shredded denim, but Rihanna certainly pulls it off with aplomb.


The Levi's Trucker jacket, derived from the initial 1880 style, continues to be a classic, and the brand offers many variations on it. The latest is the Commuter, designed for those who commute to work by bike. It features reflective zip tape and ventilations to keep cool.


Designer Rachel Comey is known for her inventive plays on denim. For fall, she reinvents the denim jacket by adding shearling and zippers for a moto feel.

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