16 SHARES

And we continue our Iconic Series–the threads and seams that define what it means to look American. 

This week: the denim–call me “jean”–jacket.

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No other fabric embodies the breadth of American society more so than denim. The cotton textile has spanned economic and social gaps in the United States since the early 20th century, from Walker Evans’ portraits of Depression-era sharecroppers to Bing Crosby tailored in brim-to-heel jean–his baritone voice swimming. 

It is urban and rural. It is John Wayne and Jackson Pollock. It is jailbird-tough and soccer-mom soft.

But while denim pants have conceded to a degree of normality, settling as much above the waist as below it, its upper body counterpart has maintained its edge, reinventing itself with every fad and craze throughout the history of American style.

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The jacket first slipped onto the shoulders of pop culture through the Western impulses of the mid-century, when everyone wanted to be a cowboy: a Marlboro-smoking and dust-covered ten-gallon hat who could put any son-of-a-bitch on the ground with his red right hand.

Soon after the denim jacket became a symbol for the modern outlaw–the Cool Hand Lukes and Steve McQueens–the outsiders who rode motorcycles rather than horses, going up against a growing society of urbanization, wealth, and conformity.

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And then Marilyn put one on and the whole thing changed. 

When she curled into a jean jacket, with her blonde hair resting on the corduroy-frilled collar, for the filming of “The Misfits” in 1961 it was no longer a man’s game. The Blonde Bombshell became denim blue, and the jacket’s tough exterior showed female grit and individuality in a male-dominated society.

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And the list goes on: arena rock in the seventies to garage punk, metal and grunge, to Pony Boy and Soda Pop in Coppola’s “The Outsiders;” whatever wave or kick American fashion is on the denim jacket has been there. And for every culture-defining movement to come, based in creativity, emotion, expression, and freedom, the denim jacket will be there–because who you are will never go out of style.