Bring back the donkey jacket

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.

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Donkey Jackets worn by workmen, probably 1950s

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.

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Donkey jackets worn by pickets during the 1984-85 miners strike. They were suitable for the cold weather the miners had to endure while defending their jobs against Thatcher’s government.

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.

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Michael Foot wearing his ‘donkey jacket’ at the Cenotaph in 1981

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.

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Drawing of what skinheads wore 1968-69 in Nick Knight’s book Skinhead (1982). This is what original skinhead Jim Ferguson supposedly saw being worn in the original period, although as with most things, it has to be taken with a grain of salt

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.

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Stamford Bridge 1980: donkey jacket worn by skinhead second right

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.

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Dublin skins, probably 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.

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Kevin Russell, the Anglo-German singer of Frankfurt Oi band Böhse Onkelz, interviewed on TV wearing his donkey jacket in 1983: “I’m not a nazi, I’m just proud to be German. I might be British, but I’m still proud to be German”. Er… you wot mate?

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.

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A psychobilly’s donkey jacket with painted Meteors logo

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

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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

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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

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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

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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

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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

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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

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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

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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

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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

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Hipster wearing donkey jacket: an abomination

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

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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

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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

An update

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.

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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.

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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.

20 thoughts on “Bring back the donkey jacket

  1. A comment from a 69er. From 1968 onwards I lived and socialised in S E London. I never saw one single skinhead in a donkey jacket, even at a football match. I never saw one in my occasional trips to other parts of London. I saw one photograph of a skinhead in a donkey jacket in 1969, and no documentary footage, and that was that. To my mind, the subsequent vogue for them was the result of a misconception; if people want to wear them, that’s fine, but if they want to claim that as being a recreation of ‘original skinhead style’ I will express my doubts.

    I’ll offer a couple of caveats: Firstly, if I had seen anyone in a donkey jacket, I would have assumed that he was on his way to/from work, and that the dj did not represent his preferred ‘style’. Secondly, I can only speak for what I saw in (my part of) London.

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    • Well i’m just going by what some users like lasteye has said on style forum, like getting donkeys, jungle greens and commando boots from surplus shops cos they was cheaper, and as they got older and got jobs the dressed smarter.

      Brownie also says they was worn by the mile end boys at west ham too to create a more uniform look.

      I think the one thing about donkey jackets we can agree on – they are guaranteed to cause controversy

      Liked by 1 person

      • I know what Roy said. But we have to ask ourself firstly was it something that was strictly local (i.e. just thinking in terms of London, was it specific to a particular area, unlike Ben Sherman shirts and the Harrington jacket which were general), and secondly was it something that was incidental rather than part of the actual ‘style’.

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      • I understand what you are saying, and we know that it was not the same everywhere, it just seems like a, how can i put it, particular thing for lasteye to mention, especially seeing as he said he wore it with this and that, like it was purposefully done, even if one of the reasons was affordability. local variations are still a part of the look to me in my opinion, like with levi jackets with sewn on patch, cord wranglers etc in the north.

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    • I too wore a Donkey Jacket all through 70’s and part of the 80’s. Let’s get down to brass tacks here, most of the above you can’t call a ‘Donkey Jacket’. Ok the black plastic shoulder ones were the original, I still work for BT, it was the G.P.O. then, our work issue ones had white plastic on the shoulders. All Prisoners of H.M. wore the same, so not to be kept in there we had to hand ours in at the gatehouse. During the 80’s my mate was a storeman at a colliery in the N.E. Me and him with some mates took days leave, and were given Jackets so we could go down to Yorkshire, to stand and picket and provoke the Polis. Reminiscing again Sorry. Oh before I go both jackets were hanging in the garage until 2000 when I binned them.

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    • I actually quite like that, just wish the shoulders arms was pvc or leather, and a good 500 quid cheaper of course.

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    • I used to wear a donkey jacket sometimes down in Herne Bay early 70s mainly in the winter as Jean jackets and Harrington s weren’t that warm. I got mine from Fosters a shop in Herne Bay some of the other lads had them from work.We also used to wear army jackets but they weren’t that warm a blouson type of thing. My first Harrington was a prince of Wales check one then a black one then a red one. Also earlier as a youngster we used to wear monkey jackets and monkey boots.
      My mum couldn’t afford Levi’s or DMS so for s while I’d where wrangler jackets and Lee or Lee cooper stuff and a boot called Major Domo which was a DM copy basically.

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  2. I certainly never wore a donkey jacket anywhere except work. The full-leather-back ones were sometimes worn by workers like binmen or market porters, because wet smelly dribbles down your back are just disgusting. Those army surplus leather jerkins were often worn by the same people, for the same reason. Donkey jackets were pretty much universal in the building and construction trades, too.

    Lined jackets with no shoulder pads and tartan linings were usually the mark of a foreman or other non-working supervisor.

    Generally speaking, a jacket with shoulder pads would have patch pockets, a foremans jacket might have pocket flaps. Workers jackets had a loose, boxy shape because you wanted free movement of your arms.

    They had pretty much disappeared by the mid-90s.

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    • Exactly. But every time I say the same, somebody comes back with “Ah but so-and-so says different, so I’ll go by what HE says not by what YOU say.” I’ve found it to be a lose/lose situation.

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  3. I still have mine bought in London at Sherry’s now more than 20 years ago. Can’t remember exactly which year it was but Defo mid 90’s. It still fits me too. I remember one funny incident happening when I went out to dinner with one of my old Skinheadmates from Bristol who lived in Tiel, Holland at the time where I am from and a group of English lads( all contract workers) that he knew. We met up with them in Utrecht to go for a curry at the local Indian restaurant. Surprise ,surprise lol. They had been drinking all afternoon before we got there lol and we were walking all together on the street. After a while one of the lads noticed my coat and cried out into a “What the fuck are you wearing? A fucking donkeyjacket?” This produced laughter from the whole group while they burst into the closing tune of “ Auf wiedersehen Pet” in unison loud as fuck in the middle of the street. You know the That’s living Allright by Joe Fagin.
    I turned to my mate and asked if they were taking the piss? To which he replied : “Well Yes they are and they aren’t.” The donkeyjacket is so out of fashion now that it makes em laugh , but then again it is so British it makes em very proud!” I remember now that 2 of the main characters of the above mentioned series were wearing a donkeyjacket constantly namely Tim Healy that plays Dennis and Pat Roach that plays the character of Bomber.
    Anyway I still have all my skinheadclothes and refuse to throw them out even if I have retired from the bovver brigade so to speak.

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    • Many minors sons in Nottingham in the late 1970’s early 80’s wore Donkey Jackets to senior school, some being skinheads / mods, mainly has many parents could not afford a coat for their kids. Many cut the NCB orange shoulder patch off which left a thin orange strip where it was sewn into the seams. I still have my NCB wellies & Donkey Jacket my dad got me over 35 years ago, it never had a orange patch, just NCB printed in white letters on the back which is how the later one’s were just before they privatised or closed the pits. Army & General stores used to sell them with black pvc on the shoulders but were thinner material than the NCB coats. I’ll have to dig mine out, slip on my drainpipe jeans, Doc martins & shave my head again. Me & a mate used ours for years to go fishing in & when asked what NCB stands for, replied
      NO C**TS BOTHERED
      We always thought they were called Donkey Jackets as when they got wet, they smelt like an old wet Donkey

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  4. Fantastic article. I was looking for a duffel coat for this winter (2019-2020) which are made from the same sort of material. Living in London without a tv, radio or bothering with the comics that pass for newspapers these days, I didn’t know they are now a fashion item sold at Mickey Mouse prices. Settled for an ex-US navy peacoat instead. Less than sixty inc postage and very good.
    Was wondering if the donkey jacket without plastic shoulders is actually a pea coat?
    Being a toff, ex public school, I have never worn a donkey jacket. I’m not a very successful toff…living in social housing on a State pension (worst in Europe apparently…must be why we are having the Brexit charade) I’d happily wear one now! But the pea coat will do nicely.
    Wonder if you should do one on duffel coast?
    Anyway, great blog. Enjoyed reading it Theresa.

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  5. I also lived in Southeast London from, 1968 through to 73, though, I hate to admit, I was boarding at a public school, back then. Adter school, and at weekends, I used to sneak out though, and befriended local skinheads, who I had great times with, firing skyrockets along the storm drain tunnels under Eltham Common and generally, being a nuisance. I often caught buses, and the Woolwich ferry, to visit grandparents in East Ham (and grandad would take me to Upton Park to see West Ham play). I do remember seeing a few skinheads in donkey jackets back then, and I had it in my memory as a skinhead style long before Nick Knights book came out. By the time I was in my twenties, by then, living in New Zealand, I had embraced the look, the music, and the lifestyle. Work was a thing of the past, drugs were the order of the day, and visits to prison were all too frequent. I lived and dressed, as close as I could, to the traditional skinhead style, for the best part of 30 years.
    I remember, donkey jackets were popular among both punks and skins in New Zealand cities from the mid seventies onwards at least. There were several brands made here, the earliest, nice chunky things, pure wool, with larger collars and dome fastners, but no leather or vinyl. First Mate was the main brand I remember, and some had tartan linings, although most didn’t have lining at all. Later models were a sleeker fit, with a slightly smaller collar, which suited me better, and I still have one of these in good condition.
    I have an album on facebook that shows some of the styles I wore, with pics of me in a donkey jacket in the early 80’s, and a few from more recent years in a later style.
    https://www.facebook.com/steve.reekie1/media_set?set=a.1287717366349&type=3

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  6. My wife has just thrown out by mistake mine of 30 years . I am gutted. Is there anywhere I can get one from

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    • Ebay uk, gumtree, second hand markets rarely. don’t bother with the modern overpriced reproduction tat mate buy old second hand ones.

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  7. The donkey jacket was also worn by the rockabillys and teddy boys in London in the 1970s and is still seen worn by them dont get confused with the hipster as the rockabilly image has been adopted by them.

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  8. I associate donkey jackets more with early Dexy’s Midnight Runners (which in hindsight was quite good actually) then with skinheads…

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  9. I used to have one, which I managed to blag from Ealing Council. Being of a not so wealthy family I used to wear it
    all the time, even when the transition from skinheads to casuals occurred. And I was’nt the only one. No-one batted an
    eyelid. It was great for casual wear spesh knocking around the wall on the Golflinx Estate, where it could get pretty cold
    on a winter night, Kept you warm, and you could wrap your bird up in it and fit a bottle of Old English cider in your pocket without the old bill clocking it.
    Happy day’s, I want another one, but without the leather shoulders. Anyone help??? Small to medium. Bring back my
    teens.Cheers.

    Like

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