Recently I pondered aloud, via the medium of Twitter – the best outlet for self-important blusterings to noone in particular as to why, we Brits in particular, are so prone to penning lengthy paens to the joys of the chambray shirt. Yes, there’s Gap, there’s Flathead, there’s Workers…but more often that not, I’m seeing paragraph after paragraph of the same point reiterated. At trend level has the chambray superceded plaid to become the new uniform of the post-hypester? It left me pondering as to why we don’t celebrate our own history of working class style enough.
Then I realised we do. Our greatest style subcultures (think casuals, teds and mods) have been born of clean living under difficult circumstances, whereas, with many honourable exceptions (b-boys and girls being one) lately we’re more prone to look toward the attire yankees were sporting while working rather than dressing up to get lashed after a tough week. I also read a press release on American prison looks that mentioned the donkey jacket – surely there’s none more British?
Earlier in the year Jason Jules recently excavated information on East End brand Bolenium but for the most part, I associate British workwear with the defiant anti-glamour of the donkey jacket. Not earth coloured duck twills, not detailed little button branding, not a cord collar, but what’s largely a grim takedown of the chore coat’s hard-slog intent. In my lifetime this has been an item that defines no-frills, that makes no concession to style and isn’t engineered for a day spent frantically emailing and networking over lunch. It’s no surprise that the donkey jacket’s influence has made itself known on catwalks – even Burberry make a variation that exaggerates the shoulder panelling but lacks the utilitarian functionality.
I don’t think there’s actually a donkey jacket in this picture. Originally I thought the chap on the left was sporting one. Still – too good a pic to remove.
Woolen fabric, a fit over the waist, a check lining, chunky buttons and a PVC (leather for the big spenders) panel on the shoulders makes for utter matter-of-factness. Bought dirt cheap or handed out on the job, they’re versatile enough for most manual labour, taking the bumps and blows and keeping the wearer warm. You can still buy a UK-made number for around the £28 mark. Any more would feel deeply inappropriate.
The donkey jacket’s origins are shrouded in debate. What we do know is that it’s a UK invention that modified a bog-standard jacket and added reinforcement. There’s three creators in the running – John Key of Rugeley, owner of a draper’s shop, was apparently given the brief circa 1889 from the Manchester Ship Canal Company. John Partridge is credited as the inventor elsewhere – notably, the John Partridge shooting jacket (currently clogging up a TK Maxx near you) was once an item of relative prestige, taking credit from some quarters for inventing the waxed jacket. John also gets credit for creating the duffle coat, using Belgian duffle fabric later in the century – once again, the brief apparently came from the Manchester Ship Canal Company cited dates range between 1870 and 1890.
PVC would’ve been a no-no as it wasn’t invented until 1926, and leather is hardly cost-effective, so accounts claim the shoulders were waxed instead. Our third potential inventor is the unnamed owner of the Keystone Works who could well have commisioned it from one of the two named businessmen. The donkey name, is said to come from the term ‘donkey work’ as a term for gruelling, menial labour – but several accounts mention the navvies manning ‘donkey’ engines on the Manchester ship canal, which is more likely the source of the jacket’s animal prefix.
Since then, the donkey jacket has become a ‘people’s jacket’ of sorts, found on the far left, on the backs of socialists, espusing their working man credentials and occasionally, in certain skin and oi! factions, the far right – that’s not to tar all skins with the right wing generalisation, and it certainly made a defiant, no-frills anti-fashion statement there, regardless of politics. It was reputedly on the backs of football fans sneering at the fancy outfits of a new breed of clobber conscious hooligan too.
From ‘Brookside’ in its heyday to ‘Boys From The Blackstuff’ it’s made grim televisual appearances. Like Hugo Chávez’s bland red jacket, for anyone chasing working class solidarity, the donkey jacket makes no lavish statement, instead complimenting an everyman stance.
They can certainly be establishment too – repeat viewers of TV plays like Alan Clark’s ‘Scum’ will recognise them as standard borstal issue for outdoor work, and they were handed out to prisoners for outdoor labour – regulation in dreaded jails like Dartmoor, and described in oddly loveable criminal (blame Roger Daltrey) John McVicar’s self-titled autobiography,
“Davies was in the next room but before they handcuffed me I heard him say, “Make him wear a jacket.” A few moments later a nice sort of screw came over holding a prison donkey jacket. He said apologetically, “Mac, put this on.”
It was my turn now. “You’re joking ain’t yer,” I said, “Tell Captain Wanker to put it on himself.”
The donkey jacket. British. And really fucking depressing.