lee jeans longjohn7 Key Styles What Makes The Lee Brand Iconic

With almost 130 years of history, the American denim brand Lee is an iconic player in the industry. Over the years they created so many milestones which make the brand significant different than others. This article dives into what Lee makes them so special, iconic, and world famous nowadays.

Before I would highlight the unique features and milestones based on 7 key styles we have to start their story right at the beginning. Therefore we go back to 1889 when Henry David Lee established the H.D. Lee Mercantile Company, a wholesale grocery distributor in Salina, Kansas. His timing to start the company was perfect as there was a major need in a region of the country where the population was growing exponentially. Henry David Lee started as a mercantile company but switched soon his business when he recognized the need for durable workwear clothes. And there’s where the Lee brand started as Lee Jeans.

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Portrait of Henry David Lee, founder Lee Jeans.

Iconic Styles & Key Features

In this article I highlight their iconic styles and key features based on the following remarkable vintage pieces from my private denim archive. And some modern interpretations of the brand’s current collection are included too.

  • Bib-Overall
  • Coverall
  • Loco jacket
  • Cowboy jeans
  • 101z jeans
  • Rider jacket
  • Storm Rider jacket

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  • Bib-Overall

H.D. Lee wasn’t satisfied with the workwear garments from his suppliers. That’s how he came up with the idea to produce his own Bib-overalls for his employees. In 1911 the first workwear garments were produced including the Bib-overall. The first Bib-overall was made in 8oz denim fabric and has a multi-function breast pocket and button fly. It became a very popular item amongst farmers and workers in general.

Iconic: The first Lee workwear garment that became world famous.

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Vintage Lee Overalls advertisement.

lee biboverall

lee biboverall

lee biboverall

lee biboverall

Vintage Lee Bib-Overall from the late 1930’s, early 1940’s. This version has slide fasteners on the suspenders.

  • Coverall

In 1913 Lee introduced the Union-All Coverall suit which is inspired when the brand’s founder saw his chauffeur fixing the car. He came up with the idea to create a garment that protects the wearer both below and above the waist. Actually this idea came from the chauffeur himself. When H.D. Lee died he left him a belated five thousand dollars thank you.

The first prototype was made by stitching an overall jacket and overall together as one piece. The Coverall became an instant success and it was also commissioned by the U.S. Army so it became the official uniform during the First World War.

Iconic: First suit that covers the total body of the wearer.

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Advertisement of the Lee Union-Alls Coverall.

lee coverall

lee coverall

lee coverall

The necklabel shows the so called looking up ee’s.

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lee coverall

Vintage Lee Coverall from the 1940’s.

  • Loco Jacket (91-J)

The first garment designed specifically for railroad workers is the 91-J jacket. It was the first denim jacket by the brand and was especially loved by early railroad workers, that’s why this jacket became better known as the Loco jacket. This jacket dates back to the early 1920’s. The jacket was made of 8oz denim and featured cuffs with three buttons, wide slanted hip pockets, and loose arm construction. A lot of workers would wear this jacket over their Bib-overall during their shift.

Iconic: Denim jacket which is specially made for railroad workers.

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lee loco

On the necklabel there’s the Lee housemark design.

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lee loco

Vintage Lee Loco jacket from the 1940’s with Long L written Lee buttons.

loco jacket

The Lee Loco jacket from the Spring Summer ’19 collection.

  • Cowboy Jeans

The first Lee Cowboys Jeans were introduced in 1924. It’s the first denim pants which were designed specifically for cowboys and rodeo riders. The Lee Cowboys Jeans is designed with the so-called U-shape saddle crotch and button fly. It was designed with the specific needs of cowboys and rodeo riders, as the cowboy life became the biggest promoter for jeanswear in that time.

The first Lee Cowboys Pants were made from 11.5oz denim, also known as als 101 jeans. In 1924 Lee introduced also their X-bar tacking, this as replacement of the back pocket rivets. In 1944 Lee introduced the Lazy S back pocket stitching. The stitches on both pockets resemble the shape of the famous Long Horns. This was also the period that Lee changed their legendary Hair on Hide label (introduced in 1936) into the Twitch patch. The Lee Cowboys Jeans also has the crotch rivet. The crotch rivet disappeared later as a lot of cowboys were complaining that the crotch rivet became too hot when they sit around the campfire. It was not very pleasant for their cross.

Iconic: First jeans made for cowboys and rodeo riders. The jeans are made of left-hand denim fabric, something typically for Lee.

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Vintage Lee Cowboy pants advertising.

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Iconic:

Lee Cowboy donut button.

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lee jeans

Lazy S stitching and X pocket reinforcement.

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lee cowboy

Lee 101b Cowboy jeans from the Fall Winter ’18 collection.

  • 101z Jeans

Lee made the world’s first pair of jeans with a zipper in 1926. Before this period everyone was wearing jeans with buttons. A zipper was used so it was quicker and easier to pull off your jeans. The jeans are made of left-hand selvedge fabric. This fabric was known as Lee’s quality. It becomes very soft after washing.

The jeans became a huge success, especially when people as James Dean started to wear them too. He’s wearing the jeans in the cult movie ‘Rebel without a cause’ which hit the screen in 1955. The film is about middle-class teenagers, so that also explains why young people adopted the Dean’s style and wanted to be a rebel too.

Iconic: The Lee 101z jeans are the first jeans ever made with a zipper.

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Original Lee 101z jeans from the 1940’s.

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lee jeans

Gripper zipper (without the puller). Lee Jeans made the world’s first zip fly jeans in 1926.

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Flat Lee rivets, so it won’t scratch leather horse saddles and furniture.

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Selvedge on the insde of the jeans. It’s a half selvedge, also known as single selvedge. The hem is chain stitched.

lee 101z

lee 101z

Lee 101z jeans from the Spring Summer ’19 collection.

  • Rider Jacket

The first slim denim jacket is made by Lee, it’s their Rider jacket. Since the launch of the jacket, 1931, it’s the ultimate Western jacket with a slim fit made for cowboys. The Rider jacket has some special features for cowboys as the inward breast pockets which made it easier for them to reach inside the pocket with the opposite hand, especially when riding a horse. It also has a wider waistband for a better fit making sure the jacket didn’t fold upwards. On the back, you see the famous cat-eye buttons.

Iconic: First slim fit denim jacket made for cowboys.

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Advertisement of the Lee Rider jacket.

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lee jeans

Deadstock kids version of the Rider jacket from 1940.

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lee jeans

Worn-out 1950’s Rider jacket.

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lee jeans

1960’s version of the Rider jacket with custom emboridery. This jacket was made for students of the Michigan State University (MSU) in 1962. These students are also known as M.U. Aggies.

rider lee

The Lee Rider jacket from the Spring Summer ’19 collection.

  • Storm Rider

It was the year 1933 when Lee introduced their iconic Storm Rider jacket. The Storm Rider jacket was the follow-up of their popular Rider jacket which was introduced two years before. The Storm Rider jacket is the Winter version of the Rider jacket. It features a blanket lining and corduroy collar, so you could wear it also during colder weather circumstances.

Iconic: Winter version of a denim jacket so you could wear a Lee jacket all-year round.

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Lee Storm Rider jacket from the 1970’s with beautiful wear pattern and fades.

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lee jeans

Original 1970’s woven necklabel.

lee stormrider

The Lee Storm Rider jacket from the Fall Winter ’18 collection.

Today Lee is all about bringing more fits, styles, finishes, features, and choices than ever before to the market. Their journey to bring the best denim styles is ongoing. Most of the styles shown here above are still produced by the brand in the core and premium 101 collection and are embraced by people worldwide, from America to Europe and Asia. Everyone loves Lee.

Written by Wouter
I'm the founder of Long John. Next to running this daily magazine I'm working as a freelance marketing specialist for brands and retail. Specialized in denim.