The British Jerkin From Upper Class to the Troops

Styles come and styles go. Much of the clothing from the Renaissance period and beyond still has an influence on fashion today. Take, for example, the jerkin.

A Brief History of the Jerkin

The jerkin’s history falls back to Scottish and British roots. A jerkin was traditionally worn by upper-class men in the 15th and 16th centuries. This short-waisted, often sleeveless, tight-fitting waistcoat was designed for warmth with buttons or lace-ups all the way up to the neck and worn over a blouson shirt and perhaps a doublet. Many were made of cloth, some of velvet, and yet later were made of leather. With time, some jerkins became flared at the bottom, while others were looser around the neck.

Centuries later the jerkin was brought back for British men serving in World War I. There was no fashion statement here; the purpose was solely warmth. These early 20th-century jerkins were made, rather crudely, of leather. Similar jerkins were offered to Americans fighting in Europe on the Western Front of the war. These were generally sheepskin or goatskin, some made with the fur on the inside, others with the fur outside, adding considerable warmth to the uniform.

Jerkins in Today’s Fashions

Jerkins never really made too much of a fashion statement, but some of their influences can be seen. Of course, jerkin-style has its place in costuming for Shakespearian plays and Renaissance-period productions. Some of the jerkin-style has transferred into what some have thought of as pirate-style clothing. Jack Sparrow, portrayed by Johnny Depp, and other pirates of the Pirates of the Caribbean movies often wore leather vests, some similar to the jerkin style.

While jerkins are not particularly popular today, per se, we can see some of their influence in certain stylings of vests and jackets, as well as shirts and blouses, worn by women as well as men. Many still refer to most any style of sheepskin vest as a jerkin. But the more traditional jerkin-styles in short waist vests and bodices with high necks in any fabric seem to come and go both in European and American clothing styles, and will, no doubt, well into the future.