Last week, I pontificated about crombie overcoats in typically elitist London fashion. Well, that has now prompted a response article from my Yorkshire bro, the Northern Avenger. Here’s his tribute to an unjustly reviled skinhead staple. Ladies and gentlemen, bootgirls and bootboys, I’m handing over to the Northern Avenger…
The humble donkey jacket: one of the mainstays of the British coal miner, binman, and other manual workers and lefties of years past – and (some) skinheads of course. It has a long history with the working class. I will try – and probably fail – to explain some of its history and relevance to the skinhead cult.
Unlike other items of clothing, the donkey jacket doesn’t have much of a recorded history – unsurprising, given that it has always been considered more workwear than fashion item. Unless you count those middle class hipster tosspots with their greasy beards, shitty undercuts and 300 quid donkey jackets that is. I don’t, but more on that later.
Donkey jackets are said to have been invented in the late 1800s by two or three different people: John Partridge, the owner of the Keystone works who worked on the Manchester ship canal, and George Key, a small bespoke tailor, have both been named. In any case, the donkey jacket was originally created for Manchester dockers, making it a bona fide Northern working class clothing item. The name donkey jacket is also said to come from ‘donkey work’, as in laborious and grueling work.
Donkey jackets were then worn by navies, and later by binmen and other manual workers – most famously miners. They were black, navy, and occasionally dark brown. Miners’ donkey jackets often had orange shoulder pads with the letters NCB on the back, standing for National Coal Board, and with reflective strips on the arms and shoulders. The donkey jacket was also worn in prisons.
And of course, Michael Foot was said to have worn one at the Cenotaph in 1981. As his missus said, it was actually an expensive Jaeger coat from Harrods. The story was just another attempt by the rightwing press to discredit the Labour leader. Well, I tell you what: if I were an MP, I’d wear a real donkey jacket to parliament every day.
So what has all this got to do with the skinhead cult, you may ask? Well, there is a muddy history concerning the two. For one, it was probably the only clothing item worn by both skinheads and at least some of their arch enemies, the greasers – although at different points in time.
One fella from the original skinhead period says they were worn with OG-107 ‘jungle greens’ utility trousers and cherry red commando boots from the local army surplus. This was the basic uniform of the Kilburn (North London) mob from 1968 to early 1969, worn during the week and at footy matches until they could afford to buy Ivy clobber from the Squire shop in Soho. Others claim the only time you would have seen a donkey jacket on a skinhead is when he was at work (in which case it would say ‘Camden’ or ‘Brent’ or whatever council they worked for on the shoulder pads) or at evening matches, especially if the wearer had come straight from work.
Donkey Jackets were also said to be worn outside of London around 1970, by Aston Villa and Leicester fans for example. They remained prominent on the terraces of Britain throughout the 1970s, and according to the book Wednesday Rucks and Rock ‘n’ Roll: Tales from the East Bank, the Barnsley Boot Boys of Yorkshire wore NCB donkey jackets in the late 1970s and 1980s.
Although surprisingly little photographic evidence exists, donkey jackets were a skinhead staple throughout the 1980s, when the cult spread across Europe. They also became popular with punks and psychobillies on the continent. Wearing one in London might have earned you the odd comment along the lines of ‘how’s the new job’ – but elsewhere, no such ‘stigma’ was attached to it, if you want to call it that.
The 1980s were also the decade when some middle class students began to sport donkey jackets to look more proletarian – yet of all social groups, the one that really has no right to wear them is the modern-day harbinger of gentrification: the bearded yuppie aka hipster.
So that’s about it concerning the history. It is not near a well-researched subject such as crombies for example. I will now go through what kind of donkey jackets are available today, from the cheap(er) reproductions to ridiculously expensive designer ones (which are rather insulting, looking at it).
Lambretta donkey jacket
What is there to say about this one, apart from ‘not very good’? The connecting PVC shoulders for a start, and I will spare you the misery of the paisley liner. This is what you get when a fashionista alters something: utter shite.
Black 93% polyester 5% viscose 2% elastane mix, PVC shoulders, slim fit, no inside pocket, RRP: £38-65 depending on outlet
Warrior donkey jacket
While the basic cut is okay, the pockets rather ruin the whole thing. I have never seen an old donkey jacket with pocket flaps. The PVC and wool material is different from a vintage donkey jacket’s. In addition, visible brand logos are a big no-no for me; these are meant to be cheap, practical coats, not fashion items. The tartan lining is fine – apparently, some surplus donkey jackets had tartan lining back in the day. A practically identical Relco jacket is still doing the rounds for more dollars.
Black 55% Wool 45% Polyester mix, tartan lining, with or without PVC shoulders, button inside pocket. RRP: £60
Pop Boutique donkey jacket
Another reproduction donkey jacket, and one I once had myself. It has the same problem as the Warrior jacket: the wool-polyester mix and PVC feel more ‘modern’, if you catch my drift. Unlike the donkey jackets of old, it is likely to leave you a bit chilly on the terraces. The pockets are an improvement, but in my opinion, the superfluous arm cuffs ruin it – another detail I’ve never seen on any vintage jacket.
Black 70% polyester 30% wool mix, polyester lining, PVC shoulders, slim fit, no inside pocket, RRP: currently on offer for £20, otherwise £60
Combat (Ben Nevis) donkey jacket
In fairness, this isn’t the worst donkey jacket I’ve seen, apart from the pocket flaps – and perhaps it could be a tad longer. Ben Nevis is a family company that has been around since the 1970s. Their Combat branded clobber is made in Britain and enjoys a reputation for solid quality with the skinhead crowd. They generally seem to be more traditional with their stuff, although the design of this jacket doesn’t seem to be massively different to the Warrior.
Black 70% wool 30% mixed fibres, tartan lining, with or without PVC shoulders, very generous fit, inside pocket, RRP: £64
Unbranded donkey jacket
This piece is currently available on eBay for 60 quid. The union jack inside label reads ‘donkey’, though that’s hardly a company. Right off the bat, I think you would be better off buying the Warrior or Combat donkey jackets if you wanted a brand new one instead of a used vintage piece. It features a back vent, which is common with suit jackets and such, and a seam on the back, which in my opinion further ruins it. In addition, it has slanted hand warmers on the outside of the front pockets and flap buttons. All of this makes or a more modern look that definitely falls into the fashion category. Still better then the Lambretta jacket.
Black 55% wool 45% ‘other fabrics’ mix, PVC shoulders, boxy cut, tartan lining, inside pocket. RRP: £60
Peter Worth Bauhaus colour blocked donkey jacket
Another ‘contemporary’ donkey jacket – and it shows. Marketed as a ‘mod take’ on the original item. It features a ticket pocket for some bizarre reason, has wool cloth shoulders, and suffers from the same problem as the Lambretta: joined/overlapping shoulders. It seems that anything that vaguely resembles a donkey jacket these days is called one. The current sale price is 94 quid – you can get a much better, cheaper one.
Plum or navy 70% wool 20% polyester 5% polyamide 5% other fabrics mix, wool shoulders, slim fit, no inside pocket. RRP: circa £100 depending on outlet
Ben Sherman plectrum donkey jacket
I don’t think much has to be said about this one. Just look at it. It’s like something out of a horror movie. While there can be some variations, such as PVC around the cuffs, pockets and on the elbow, this one royally takes the piss.
RRP: used to be circa £200, but currently out of stock
Levi’s vintage collection Donkey Jacket
Among modern donkey jackets, this one is probably the most faithful to the classic models of the past 50 to 60 years. Based on a 1940s design, it is unlined and seems to be made of the correct material. It has leather shoulders. In my experience, this is uncommon with vintage jackets, but is not a bad thing. The only problem: at 500 quid retail price, it is far too expensive for a working man’s jacket.
Navy, boxy cut. RRP: used to be circa £400-500, currently out of stock. Seen used on eBay for £105.
George Keys original donkey jacket
This is an interesting one. Supposedly, an original style donkey jacket from the company of alleged inventor George Key, it however says on George Keys website that their jacket has been reengineered for today’s demands. Therefore, it probably has some features that weren’t there originally. Far too expensive for a workwear item, though.
100% wool, boxy cut, waxed cotton shoulders, RRP: £350
Overpriced designer shite
I’m going to get my anger out of the way with this one. Wearing a designer donkey jacket is like putting lipstick on a pig. You’re still going to look like a binman or a navy, and the point of a donkey jacket in the first place is that it is a workwear item, not something for a greasy, bearded hipster.
The odd ones out
Browsing donkey jackets and trying to document them, you encounter many surprises. Some are vintage, but don’t fit the conventional specifics of a donkey jacket. Others may well have been altered to fit the employer’s needs – this is a guess, but a reasonable assumption to make. I will also include the NCB donkey jacket in here because it’s different to others. The variations mean there may well have been donkey jackets with pocket flaps – but personally, I have never come across a vintage one.
Arthur Miller Donkey Jacket
An original item from the 1960s, this doesn’t fit the conventional donkey jacket mould. It has extended shoulder protection and a completely leather back (not pictured, of course). Like many donkey jackets in the 1960s, it has the company’s name on the collar, so it is very possible they were made to company specification. A nice piece, though.
NCB donkey jacket
One from my personal collection, a rare National Coal Board donkey jacket. These sit firmly in the workwear camp, and you’re guaranteed to get a few looks wearing them in the 21st century. Different companies produced them for the NCB, so they vary slightly. Some out there read ‘British Coal’ on the back, hailing from the time when the NCB became the British Coal Corporation in the late 1980s. Another nice piece.
The prices for these can be steep due to their collectability. Like all vintage donkey jackets, they come in various conditions for obvious reasons. Manager NCB donkey jackets exist in beige and brown.
Sometimes older is better
Look on eBay and get yourself a vintage donkey jacket at a fraction of the cost of the repro jackets. You could try a vintage shop but these sometimes have them at a ridiculous mark ups.
In defence of the donkey jacket
I think it would be great if skins reclaimed the donkey jacket – especially these days, with hipsters hogging them. I find them to be much better looking than MA-1 bomber jackets, which everyone and their mum seems to be currently wearing. Great with a pair of jungle greens to give off a more working class image, and warm too. Their large pockets make bacon sandwich storage a breeze, too.
Text: The Northern Avenger
It appears I may have been slacking in my job as a Donkey Jacket Investigator, as I have found a vintage 1970s donkey jacket with pocket flaps. Also, notice the lack of PVC shoulders, which is something else I failed to mention: they were common without them.
So, kudos to the Warrior and Combat (Ben Nevis) jackets, they get extra points against the more expensive items. Combat emerges as the clear winner among affordable new donkey jackets, given its high percentage of wool.
There is also this piece, an Arco donkey jacket with chest pocket found on eBay. Useful for holding a packet of fags or a bag of spice (sweets to anyone not from Yorkshire). Not that I want to encourage smoking.