All of us Cats fans have that image of the back cover of the first album engraved on our minds, although among all that material full of intentions and attitude, there is one that stands out above all others, and that is none other than that iconic photo, taken by Chalkie Davies, of the trio posing with their backs turned in their impressive jackets.
Moreover, one of these garments is surprising for its “exotic” theme: How is it possible to incorporate a military jacket with a map of Vietnam, a very explicit legend and the number 68 embroidered on the back, a clear allusion to the war between the United States and the army of the Democratic Republic of North Vietnam, into a rockabilly aesthetic?
In fact, this was one of the virtues of the cats, that individual interpretation of the aesthetics and music associated with that style.
As Mr Setzer said at the time of their first UK hits: “We’re not a pure rockabilly band. The songs are more modern, the lyrics are more contemporary, and this is much louder and more electric than the earlier material. But our music still has the spirit and the essential look and feel, which we’ve exaggerated a bit. I mean, in fact, nobody wore a hairstyle like this in the 50s! We’ve just taken it a step further. We mix a bit of different styles. We can wear a rockabilly haircut, but we don’t just wear rock and roll accessories”.
Well folks, it’s time to delve a little deeper into the amazing American universe and call a spade a spade. Lee’s Vietnam jacket is a SOUVENIR JACKET or SUKAYAN in Japanese.
These garments originated, as the name implies, from the American forces fighting in the Pacific during World War II.
It is said that American soldiers based in Yokosuka, south of Tokyo, were the ones who spread this fashion of customising and embellishing their military jackets.
Other American soldiers began to sew symbols associated with Japanese and Chinese culture and tradition, such as dragons or cherry blossoms, onto their jackets; others incorporated elements more closely related to local craftsmanship, such as Geisha or maps of the occupied territory, into their military garments.
Many would be customized by tailors at the request of individual soldiers (also in other conflicts such as Korea or Vietnam) and tried to reflect stories about the dangers lurking in the jungle, the camaraderie in the camps and, above all, the experience of surviving, day by day, in the hell of war. In short, each jacket could tell a story as different as the soldier who wore it.
were usually made of rayon or nylon and many incorporated silk, some were even made from parachute silk. Soldiers wore them as souvenirs as a reminder of their time in the Pacific, and they were even ordered by family and friends.
However, in post-WWII Japanese society, young people began to adopt these jackets as a symbol of rebellion, and later it also spread to the underworld and Jakuza (Japanese mafia) culture.
Later the conflicts in Vietnam and North Korea further enhanced this type of garment, with the former becoming popular with the embroidered slogan on the jacket, as worn by the Stray Cats double bass player, “I When I Die, I’m Going to Heaven Because I Served My Time in Hell”.
The garment spread to other areas of society such as pop culture and rock culture, and rock stars wore them during their tours not only as a work jacket but also as a baseball jacket, and it also entered the world of fashion and well-known designers have made their own creations.
All in al, it is a beautiful jacket that has evolved to become part of today’s vintage culture.
Forty years after the Cats started in Massapequa, this “exotic” jacket returned for its last big appearance, customized with the Cat Head and in a nod to and honoring one of the exponents of Japanese culture (expensive, by the way…).
, of course, my friend TOSHIAKI TANAKA is wearing a Sukajan.
More information in “Runaway Bos.The Stray Cats Story” First book on the exciting story of the Stray Cats.