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.
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.