What is a Jerkin?

B. Winger

A jerkin is a short leather jacket, typically without sleeves, that is worn over a long-sleeved garment. The majority of jerkins are made out of light oiled ox hide leather and fasten up the middle. Closures are often dictated by the fashions of the day. For example, 17th century Dutch jerkins commonly used ribbons as closures. Modern jerkins, however, often use buttons or hook-and-eye closures.

Woman posing
Woman posing

While the jerkin pattern is reminiscent of a vest pattern, there are some key differences between these two garments. A jerkin is a highly structured article of clothing that follows the natural lines of the body. Most vests, on the other hand, are unstructured and loose-fitting. Jerkins are also traditionally worn over a long undergarment, such a doublet. Vests usually can be worn over any article of clothing.

A jerkin's structured nature was ideally suited for both military and social purposes. The medieval garment, characterized by thick leather and a slightly longer sleeve than the modern equivalent, was originally used in battle as an additional layer of protection against weaponry. Numerous militaries then began decorating their jerkins with honors and awards to denote courage on the field of battle. From this point on, the jerkin gradually became accepted as part of a standard military uniform.

Jerkins were used as part of the military uniform as recently as World War II (WWII). During this time period, the British military used a distinct leather garment with Bakelite® buttons called the Battle Jerkin. Many armies adopted the jerkin style of outerwear following WWII, using it to replace the standard heavy greatcoat.

As the jerkin was becoming more popular as part of the military outfit, it was experiencing a similar rise in popularity in civilian society. Medieval jerkins were highly decorated and ornate articles of clothing that were typically worn by higher class individuals to denote wealth. Leather jerkins used costly materials and skilled craftsmanship that was not generally available to the middle or lower classes. Up until the end of the 19th century, these highly decorated garments were generally considered a status symbol.

When the British army began making jerkins out leather and canvas, civilian garments changed as well to incorporate less expensive fabrics. The most popular modern jerkins are made out of either fleece or wind-resistant fabric. Many people find that modern jerkins are ideal for outdoor activities that require the participant to be able to move freely.

You might also Like

Readers Also Love

Discussion Comments


During the middle ages and after, children were often regarded as miniature adults. Many times, they were dressed in small versions of adult fashion clothing. The different versions of the man's jerkin was popular for many centuries.

I'm sure in many villages, you could see young boys dressed in a copy-cat version of the military jerkin. They must have looked cute running around in their well-tailored leather jerkins, perhaps playing a game of war.


Learning about the various trends in clothing throughout the centuries is very interesting. Some of the clothing items started out as purely functional, such as the jerkin made from heavy leather and used for protection in the military, and ended up as a status symbol for the rich and famous.

I wonder if jerkins in past centuries were ever a clothing item worn by women? I would think that if they were well-tailored with embellishments such as fancy buttons, fake jewels, gold thread and such, they would have looked real classy.


If I’ve ever seen a modern person wear a jerkin, I don’t know it. However, I’ve seen many an actor sporting them up on the stage.

Whether they were used correctly or not, I really can’t say, but it seems like these were put on male actors in a 17th or 18th century based show. They were also carrying swords and wearing high leather boots with a long-haired look.

The play itself was Shakespeare’s Hamlet, but that is of no consequence because the director changed the time period for this particular production from the one that it was written in.

All I have to say is that I wish well-built men would go back to wearing this manly item of clothing, because it is more than a little sexy on the right guy.

Post your comments
Forgot password?