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 At trend level has the chambray superceded plaid to become the new uniform of the post-hypester?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.


6 thoughts on “DONKEY JACKETS”

  1. Hi,
    Just stumbled across your blog while looking for a donkey jacket!

    There’s a couple of points which I’m not sure your blog addresses; On the whole, authentic donkey jackets were usually given out by the employer, not bought by the wearer so, especially in the 60’s and 70’s the protective shouldering was made from leather as it was much more hard wearing than PVC and didn’t cost the employee anything. In fact, I had a donkey jacket issued by Bristol City Council when I worked on the bins that had a single piece of leather that not only covered the shoulders but also the entire back. I also remember some trades having donkey jackets that had a protective leather layer starting at the cuffs and finishing at the elbow. If my memory serves me right then the PVC ones didn’t start appearing until the late 70’s and only the ones that you could buy from army surplus/workwear shops had a tartan lining.

    Hope this helps.

    Pete Rose.

    1. Cheers for the comment Pete – it figures using leather would ensure longevity for the jacket and be cheaper in the long run for councils handing them out. I remember working in a landfill site and being given the most tattered one on the premises – it stank too. As a result, I have a love-hate relationship with the donkey jacket! My punishment for being a temp. Oddly, since writing this blog, I’ve leant a whole lot more. Maybe i need to update it…

  2. Hi
    Thanks for your piece on donkey jackets. I can confirm that John Key produced them in Rugeley at his Keystone factory. I worked there and we operated a piece-work system being paid a poor basic rate but with higher earnings possible depending on individual output. Consequently we learned how sew up a jacket – all peices from start to finish in about 25 mins. An essential aid to this was a sharp pair of scissors which we took to be sharpend each Friday night and picked up on the way to work on Monday mornings. The donkey jacket was a servicable coat for workmen which kept them warm and dry. Making it up was a breeze there being few pieces – back, fronts, sleeves, collar, interfaces and pockets. It never pretended to be a fashion item. Conditions at the factory were very basic; wood flooring, old hand and foot operated steam presses, no rest facilities and good old fashioned lining up for payment in cash on Fridays.
    Keys made the bulk of their fortune with the donkey jacket but also made a longer, white version ‘Freezer Suits’ for Birds Eye.
    Keys did have a high-end activity making bespoke uniforms. Naturally only the elite workers were involved with this part of the business and the nearest we ever got to it was to watch the very skilled guy at the back of the factory cutting out the patterns.
    John Keys was taken over by Partridge and the factory relocated to another part of the town from where the famous waxed jackets where made.

  3. Hey!
    I was happy to come across this piece. I’m currently studying fashion technology and we were talking about ‘Donkey jackets’ in class today. The term amused me and I had to know more!
    Now i’m going to go to class tomorrow with new found knowledge about a so called ‘freezer suits’ (thanks Kath), which btw, i too would really like to see! 🙂

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