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Plenty Tough – The History, Philosophy, & Iconic Products Of Ben Davis

Ben Davis may not have risen to the heights of Carhartt and Dickies during the workwear resurgence of the last 10 years, but it has certainly kept it real through and through. Still offering some of their original styles after over 85 years, Ben Davis is a true American workwear classic with some of the toughest and most OG silhouettes in the game.

We’re taking a moment to shine the spotlight on Ben Davis, a brand that played an instrumental part in the conception of Levi’s jeans and went on to build a legacy of a brand that will always be remembered as ‘plenty tough’.

History of Ben Davis

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Jacob Davis via Oppose This

The history of Ben Davis can be traced back to brand founder Ben Davis’ grandfather, Jacob Davis (yes, that Jacov Davis). Born in 1834 in Riga, Latvia, Jacobs Davis came to the U.S.A.  in the 1850s. He roamed the Western states through the 1860s, before settling in Reno in 1870. Jacob specialized in crafting fine clothing and manufacturing utilitarian pieces such as tents and horse blankets from duck cotton. He reinforced his goods with copper rivets for extra strength and durability for the working man.

In the late 1870s a local woman came to Davis for a pair of affordable pants for her “large” husband who was constantly wearing through pairs of work pants. Having found that rivets were vastly stronger than stitched reinforcements, Jacob Davis decided to try rivets on work pants. By 1871 he was using rivets on all the pants he made, from duck to denim.

As the story goes, Jacob Davis wrote to his fabric supplier, Levi Strauss, asking him to help him apply for a patent for his riveted work pants which was subsequently approved in 1873. Davis proposed that he would share the rights with Strauss to produce riveted pants.

“My nabors are getting yealouse of these success and unless I secure it by Patent Papers it will soon become to be a general thing everybody will make them up and thare will be no money in it. tharefor Gentlemen I wish to make you a Proposition that you should take out the Latters Patent in my name as I am the Inventor of it, the expense of it will be about $68, all complit and for these $68 I will give you half the right to sell all such Clothing Revited according to the Patent” – An extract of Jacob Davis’ letter to Levi Strauss

Strauss invited Davis to San Francisco to oversee the production of the riveted pants for Levi’s and Davis continued to supervise the Levi Strauss factory until his death in 1908. That same year that the rivet patent went into the public domain.

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Image via Ben Davis

The workwear business remained in the Davis family. Jacob Davis’ son, Simon, and grandson, Ben, went on to found the Ben Davis brand in 1935. Based in San Francisco, Ben Davis, dubbing itself “outfitters for the working man”, and supplied hardwearing workwear to construction workers and tradesmen. As well as the factory store in San Francisco, Ben Davis garments were stocked in hardware stores, and workwear/surplus stores across the United States, with garments ranging from shirts, pants, and overalls to gloves and headwear.

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Image via Ben Davis

Ben Davis often referred to itself as “Big Ben Davis” on its signage and advertisements, which, along with its infamous and recognizable ape logo, cemented the brand’s reputation for tough, roomy, no-nonsense workwear.

Each garment was made in the U.S.A. using high-quality materials and rugged construction techniques. Initially, tags on Ben Davis clothing read “Union Made Plenty Tough“, but this was changed to “USA Made Plenty Tough” after a union dispute, and then to “Est. 1935 Plenty Tough” after some products began to be sourced from outside the U.S.

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The late Eazy E wearing a Ben Davis shirt via Genius

Ben Davis remained a workwear label, but much like other utilitarian brands, its garments transcended workwear into pop culture. For Ben Davis, this happened in the late 1980s, when the brand became popular in music subcultures and Hispanic communities on America’s West Coast.

Ben Davis was especially popular within hip hop, mentioned in the lyrics of iconic acts such as Ice Cube and The Beastie Boys. Dr. Dre also wore a Ben Davis work shirt in the music video for his 1992 song “Let Me Ride”.

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Dr. Dre sporting a Ben Davis Shirt in his music video for “Let Me Ride” via Pinterest

Ben Davis Today

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Image via Ben Davis

Today, Ben Davis remains headquartered in San Francisco, CA. Some of its garments are still produced in the USA, and the brand also offers t-shirts, beanies, and caps in addition to its time-honored workwear styles.

Ben Davis garments are stocked in good workwear stores and some fashion retailers. The brand still proudly uses its original monkey logo and the slogan, “plenty tough”, which is fitting, considering Ben Davis work shirts and pants are built from heavy-duty workwear fabrics with double-needle stitching for extra strength.

Ben Davis contemporary success was honored by a collaboration with major streetwear players, Supreme, in 2019.

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Supreme x Ben Davis Work Jacket via Hypebeast

Iconic Products

1/2 Zip Work Shirts

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Cut from a 60% Cotton/ 40% Polyester blended twill, the Ben Davis 1/2 Work Shirt is arguably the brand’s most iconic style. It comes in a wide range of colors, including the hickory stripe pictured above, and features an authentic, boxy workwear fit.

Each shirt is finished with double-needle stitching, a woven Ben Davis label on the left chest pocket, and a set in pencil slot in one of the chest pockets.

Available from Ben Davis with prices ranging from $37-$47

Work Pants

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Made with the same toughness as their work shirts are Ben Davis’ work pants. Coming in three fits, Original Ben’s (left), Gorilla Cut (Centre), and Trim Fit (right), each silhouette is rugged in its own right.

They’re cut from a stiff and starchy 10oz. blended poly-cotton twill that will soften and give with wear. This robust fabric is tough enough to retain its fit through numerous washes, and is known for retaining its color as the years go on.

Original Ben’s fit is a wide-fitting pant, with the Gorilla cut being practically anti-fit and the Trim Fit being a regular straight leg. Each pant comes with a permanent crease for authentic workwear aesthetic and features a woven Ben Davis monkey label on the rear pocket.

This pant is so iconic in the workwear world that Japanese brand, The Tenderloins, reproduces it year on year with their T-BDP pants. The BDP stands for Ben Davis Pant.

Available from Ben Davis for $45-$48

Ben Davis Beanie

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Made in the U.S.A. no thrills acrylic watch cap with a woven Ben Davis label. ‘Nuff said!

Available from Ben Davis for $13