Late 1800s Work Jackets part 1
The history of the denim work jacket, in a form that we would recognize today, dates from the early 1870s.
Before the 1870s many workwear garments were, in design, little more than very simplified dress clothes. Work jackets were cut wide in the torso and shoulders and decorative components were mostly striped away. Sometimes rows of irregular pleats would appear on the fronts, sometimes becoming more closely spaced at the placket.
Military clothing of that time and before was better designed for the physical demands placed upon it, but for the common working man this very basic type of work clothing or worn out dress attire was all that was readily available.
A massive demand for durable workwear developed on the American Western Frontier from the 1850s through the 1890s, fueled by the Gold and then Silver Rushes. New advances in garment producing machinery and transport enabled several companies in California, most prominently Levi Strauss, to begin designing and mass producing affordable work garments which were specifically designed to wear longer and more comfortably under harsh conditions.
During this time a recognizably American style of work jacket began to be developed that was an amalgamation and refinement of some elements previously used in European workwear, but with a new focus on adaptive strengthening. Most of these jackets were fashioned from hard-wearing denim or duck, were generous in cut in the torso and shoulders, had expandable pleats and a cinch back to accommodate movement and fit a variety of body types without alteration, were cropped to sit at the natural waistline, and were structurally reinforced at stress points to prolong the garment’s life.
Image 1, a 1886 photograph of Idaho miners, shows two examples of these types of jacket, on the standing, leftmost man and the seated miner on the far right.
Later versions of this type of jacket, typified by the iconic Levi’s types I & II jackets and the slimmed-down Lee 101J, are still recognized the world over. The most familiar version of Levi’s type I jacket, with its higher single flap-and button chest pocket and double chest pleats, appeared sometime after 1907, and was the end result of decades of development and competition by Levi’s and it’s competitors. It was produced by Levi’s in a nearly unchanged form (except for a few years of a simplified design during WWII) for over 40 years, finally being replaced by the trimmer, cinch-free Levi’s 507 in the early 1950s.
Less well known are the pre-type I work jackets produced by Levi’s and some of its competitors in the 1870s through the 1890s.
Late 1800s denim and duck work jackets, from Levi’s and some of their competitors of the day, usually bore two or three pleats on each side of the front of the jacket, a single cinch on the lower back, and a single or double chest pocket (usually larger in size than the type Is single pocket) which usually lacked a flap-and-button pocket-closure (see image 2- a Levi’s advertising card from around 1900). Most of Levi’s pre-type I jackets were riveted, but their competitor’s jackets, due to Levi’s rivet patent, utilized a large number of alternate reinforcement techniques, like dart stitching, overlaid leather patches, and multiple layers of fabric stitched over stress points.
Thanks to several key finds by denim collectors Michael & Charla Harris in recent years, much more has come to light about the earliest forms and evolution of this type of work jacket. Shown here are several Levi’s denim and duck jackets from (images 3 & 4) around 1876 and (image 5) the late 1880s. Also shown in picture 3 is a B. & O. Greenbaum or Cheang Quan Wo pant showing leather reinforcement patches over the upper rear pocket corners and in image 6, a closeup of a leather reinforcing patch on a Wo pant.
Several modern clothing companies have produced jackets based on the details of these finds- LVC (image 7), RRL, Warehouse & Oldblue have all made pleated-front jackets with detailing styled after 1870-1900s riveted or alternately reinforced jackets.
The latest, and my favorite, of these efforts are the denim and duck pleated-front jackets from Whitefeather by DB Mfg. Co. of Austria.
Whitefeather designer Fardin Sefidpar, after consulting with the Harrises, has put into production these two fine models of jackets inspired by early reinforced work jackets, drawing mainly on details of archived pieces in the Harris garment collection from Levi’s competitors B. & O. Greenbaum and Cheng Quan Wo. They are fabricated with American made fabric, Japanese period replica hardware, 100% cotton thread, and patches obtained from scraps of Horween vegetable tanned leather scraps left over from the production of some of Whitefeather’s other jackets.
The denim version is made from a 12.5 oz fabric from Cone’s White Oak plant, and the 12 oz. duck version is sourced from Mount Vernon Mills.
The silhouette of these jackets refers strongly to their 19th century inspiration pieces, with their dropped shoulder seams and wide arms, but has a lengthened and slightly slimmed torso which yields a more wearable, modern fit.
The Whitefeather jackets shown here in the final two images are modeled by Viktor Fredback and Cory Piehowicz at the Harris household in Orange County, CA in February, 2014.