The Iconic Denim Shirt

iconic denim shirt
Cool Hand Luke

Physical work has a kind of tough glamor. Maybe it’s the honesty of a task whose difficulty can’t be faked or avoided. As weightlifters say, the iron doesn’t lie. Maybe it’s the self-knowledge which comes to those who master the material world in some small way. Or maybe it’s how society pays back in style—if not in money—those who shoulder the heaviest loads.

Whatever the reasons, that glamor rubbed off on denim. Since 1870, when a small tailor in Reno made the first riveted work pants in duck canvas and blue denim, jeans have been infectiously popular. Their heavy cotton cloths won acclaim from loggers, ranchers, factory workers, and cowboys. Their connection to physical labor is clear from the early marketing of the major commercial manufacturers, Levi Strauss in California, H.D. Lee in Kansas, and the Blue Bell Overall Company in North Carolina, who would eventually trade under the name of their flagship model, the Wrangler. Each stresses how their product is hard working, robust, and practical—like their customers.
While jeans have always been the primary role for denim, another iconic garment would emerge in the twentieth century: the denim shirt.
Like jeans, the denim shirt was transformed from practical garment to cultural icon when cowboys came to Hollywood. Mexican and American ranchers favored denim cloth for its practicality, as did soldiers in the American Civil War. But it was rodeo cowboys, actors in Westerns, and visitors to Dude Ranches who created demand for denim shirts as leisure wear. The weekend warriors, recreational cowboys, and film enthusiasts didn’t have access to the Southwestern tailors used by professionals, but they still wanted to dress like them.

john travolta denim shirts
John Travolta in Urban Cowboy

In the 1920s, Miller & Co in Denver became the first company to make denim shirts commercially. Levi’s followed suit in the following decade, and in the 1940s another Coloradan, Jack Weil, became the first to use snap fasteners rather than buttons. His business, Rockmount Ranch Wear Manufacturing Company, created the Western shirt as we know it today. Those fasteners were copied across the industry, and in 1954 another icon was born through Levi’s offering, the Sawtooth Western shirt, named for its pointed chest pocket flaps.

Commercial Western shirts were always imitations, in the sense that they were made for people other than the professionals. By the time the open range gave way to regulated cattle grazing in most of the United States, the most famous cowboys were actually actors. The 1920s had Tom Mix, with his absurdly large hats, and endorsements for “Yankiboy play clothes” for children. Then came Gary Cooper, Clayton Moore, Clint Eastwood, John Wayne, Paul Newman and Tommy Lee Jones. More recently we have the cinematic arc from John Travolta’s Urban Cowboy to Brokeback Mountain. In Hollywood, the cowboy never died. Thanks to Hollywood, neither did their clothes.

Why did rough cotton work clothes come to dominate American and world fashion? One possibility is that denim tapped into a distinctly American mythology, that appealed to people far beyond its borders. By the Second World War it stood for a much larger cultural project, one that American labor was underwriting. It came to signify work which is hard and sometimes violent, but has the power to create the world anew. Think of Marlon Brando in Levi’s 501s, or Norman Rockwell’s iconic painting of Rosie the Riveter. The myth is individual and yet universal. It is the promise that anything can be achieved so long as we have energy and sweat left to give it. Like any good myth, it could mean different things to different people: its individuality and cool could be expressed in different ways by Bob Dylan, John Wayne, and Marvin Gaye.
In the same way, the denim shirt has been re-worked and reimagined for different places and purposes, from “heritage” revivals of workwear through to highly refined tailoring. Here are some ways to enjoy denim shirts today.

Workwear & Heritage

A few years ago the New York Times asked if the blue-collar shirt was still blue collar. In one way the answer is clearly no: a blue Oxford shirt tells you nothing about a person’s profession today. But on the other hand, most mass-market workwear-inspired clothing is a softer, more domestic version of the real thing, and has little connection to practical workwear. You wouldn’t get far in a lumbermill or on a building site in H&M stretch denim.If you want the closest thing to the original, Rockmount will sell you a very classic fit denim Western shirt, as will any number of nostalgic cowboy retailers like Crazy Horse West. But if you want an original that has evolved rather than ossified, good candidates include two models from Levi’s, the Barstow (single point pockets) and Sawtooth (classic double pointed pockets), as well as models from Lee and Wrangler.
More sophisticated is Ralph Lauren’s RRL line of neo-Western workwear themed around the Laurens’ ranch in Colorado, the spiritual home of the Western shirt. The RRL Buffalo shirt has a modern fit but plenty of classic details. An Italian take on the same theme is the Barbanera denim Western shirt.
Finally, like all denim products, Japanese reinterpretations of Americana can be fantastic. If you want a reinterpretation in heavy 10oz denim, look no further than Bryceland’s Japanese-made Sawtooth Westerner, or go even heavier with a 12oz model by Iron Heart.

Tailored Denim

The first time I remember seeing a convincing tailored look with dark denim shirting was from the Korean tailor B&Tailor. But in recent years, many more traditional and contemporary brands in the classic menswear space have turned to denim for “in-between” shirts.
Denim brings texture, informality, and the beauty of aging. A light wash denim shirt is perhaps the easiest way to tone down a tailored look without changing the fundamental pieces. In place of a classic Oxford cloth button down, try this washed denim button down by Drake’s from their factory in Somerset; for a more minimalist dress shirt, consider the spread collar model from Natalino in soft Japanese denim. Both are made with unfused collars for a more relaxed look.
If you’re interested in provenance, you can’t do much better than a storied Neapolitan tailor: take a look at Rubinacci’s models, with vivid mother of pearl buttons and crow’s foot stitching. Or if you want the absolute premium option, your best choice might well be the revived luxury Italian maker Marol. Choose from a one-piece collar offering that’s almost resort wear, with silk detail stitching, or the top-end cotton/cashmere/silk denim twill model, with a generous spread collar, hand-cut and hand-stitched buttonholes.

Bespoke, Custom and Specialist

This is where things get interesting. The good, the bad, and the ugly, if you will. If you want to go full John Wayne cosplay, you need to visit Historical Emporium. Now that’s out of the way, anything else is possible through bespoke and MTO shirtmaking. Forum favorites Luxire and Proper Cloth both offer a range of denim options. Proper Cloth have the more interesting fabrics in my opinion (Albiate extra heavy denim, indigo corduroy, and more) but they are only available as limited runs and you have to be quick. The great advantage to Luxire is that they offer on-demand garment washing (fading the finished shirt, not the roll of cloth, giving that familiar aged look), so you can order custom denim in any tone of your choice. (This is something that most bespoke tailors can’t provide.)
The other option is to order your own cloth for (or through) a tailor. The best option is generally to ask your shirtmaker what he has access to, but you can also look at mills and merchants such as Acorn, Albini and Canclini. Of special note is Simon Crompton’s collaboration with Albini, “Everyday Denim”: a pale, almost-business-blue with the richness and aging of real denim, making for a very versatile and subtle shirt.
Finally, I will repeat the advice I received from wiser men: just because you can, doesn’t mean you should. Where you draw the line is a question of your own judgment and style, but I stick to the same rule for denim shirts as I do with jeans: be very careful about pleats.

Further Reading

Steven E. Weil and G. Daniel DeWeese, Western Shirts: A Classic American Fashion (Gibbs Smith, 2004)
Graham Marsh and Paul Trynka, Denim: From Cowboys to Catwalks: a History of the World’s Most Legendary Fabric (Aurum, 2005)
The Wild Bunch dir. Sam Peckinpah (1969)
Urban Cowboy dir. James Bridges (1980)
Brokeback Mountain dir. Ang Lee (2005)

Alexander Freeling’s blog

Alexander Freeling on Instagram

The following two tabs change content below.

Alexander Freeling

Alex is a freelance writer and literature professor based in the UK. These pursuits turned out to share a theme: the history and practice of style. He is very slowly improving at DIY suit alterations.

Latest posts by Alexander Freeling (see all)

1 thought on “The Iconic Denim Shirt

  1. GREAT! article Alexander, filled with historical content as well as practical information and commercial endorsements.
    Denim is a staple fabric and relatively inexpensive, therefore, it offers the greatest possibilities for creativity among a wide range of enthusiasts. The advantage of Denim is the variation in weight, which allows clothing designers to push the limit and crossover to a variety of clothing styles.
    “Just because you can, doesn’t mean you should”, is applicable in many situations, however, the fashion runways reveal that Denim is not subject to that higher standard.
    With regard to drawing the line with pleated denim, a wise man once told me, “Creativity is the mother of invention, and one man’s line simply gives someone else the opportunity to cross over”. LOL

Comments are closed.