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1800s Vintage French workwear moves beyond “chore wear”

June 9, 2019

Available today in cotton twill, moleskin and even denim-combo versions, vintage French workwear is no longer just a garment for the “working class” anymore.


The term bleu de travail is synonymous with vintage French workwear that was pervasive across the French workforce. From farms and factories, to garages and construction sites, the dark blue garments identified men and women from a different stratum of French society. But all that has changed dramatically – just like the evolving designs of the workers jacket itself.

Vintage French chore jacket and blue denim bib & brace overalls

Vintage French chore jacket and blue denim bib & brace overalls

Vintage French workwear throwback

In the late 1800s, it was almost inconceivable that workers in French society could be seen dressed in anything but term bleu de travail Those were days where there were deep social and cultural divides. It was a period where wearing dark blue jackets and overalls signalled that you had a job to do – often a lowly, low-paid one!


And with a significant number of men and women working in fields and farms and factories, manufacturers of French workwear came up with the concept of clothing for that workforce with something uniquely designed:


  • It had to be rugged – So while Cotton twill pants and jackets can still be found, the overriding material of choice was hardy moleskin
  • It had to be dirt-resistant – And that’s why navy blue and indigo was chosen as the colour of choice
  • It had to be comfortable to allow for long days of work – And that’s why vintage French workwear was designed as lose-fit garments
  • It had to be light weight to be worn on top of other clothing – Hence the non-padded, non-insulated design of the French work jacket
  • And finally, it had to allow for convenience on the factory floor and the production lines – And so designers of the bleu de travail came up with the multiple patch pocket That allowed workers to efficiently carry whatever they needed wherever they went

Indigo dye workers in Allahabad, India, 1877

Indigo dye workers in Allahabad, India, 1877

Social purpose

So, while the workers jacket served a social purpose – of differentiating the blue collared workforce from the white cloaked upper echelon; it was also designed for practicality. And so, it shouldn’t surprise anyone that more than 100-years later, famed fashion photographer Bill Cunningham would choose the French work jacket as his outerwear of choice. He did it because of it’s multi patch pocket design, and because the pockets were nice and deep!


It’s true that back in the day vintage French workwear acquired an almost cult-like following.  But as the signature dark blue garment evolved to what it is today, its immense popularity stirred many rumours, half-truths and myths.

Indigo dye in bucket

Indigo dye

Dark blue myths

The deep, rich indigo colour of bleu de travail has spawned many myths around the garment and the fabric with which it was originally created. Let’s take a close look at a few of those misconceptions – like how some observers, upon seeing a vintage French workwear piece for the first time, immediately mistake the dark blue workwear item as being fashioned from “French Denim”.


There is a persistent rumor out there (discredited many times…yet still prevailing!) that the heart of rugged workwear – Denim- was a French invention. Not true! If that was the case, then vintage French workwear manufacturers would have likely have embraced Denim instantly – which didn’t happen!


Also, contrary to alternate beliefs, the fabric of choice for the popular French work jacket, Moleskin, wasn’t a French invention at all. It came from the U.K! The French affinity with indigo once again gave rise to the belief that Moleskin was a French creation. However, what vintage French workwear did benefit from was the rich satin finish that French designers introduced into their Moleskin fabric. And that was one of the main reasons for the immense popularity of the blue chore jacket.


But despite all the myth and fantasy surrounding bleu de travail, international labels like Carhartt and Dickies have embraced it with full vigour. By creating their own line-ups inspired by the workers jacket, they have helped this piece of “peasant wear” evolve from humble French workwear to smart dual-wear – for work and play!

French workers posing for photo at Château-Verdun, Ariège

French workers posing for photo at Château-Verdun, Ariège

French workwear evolution

Bursting onto the world stage in the late 1800s, the vintage French workwear has continually evolved with the times. It’s ability to almost bend to the wills of the masses was in fact what made the garments so popular among the working classes.


So, while you’ll still find originally manufactured Moleskin pieces online, like the Bazar des Poilus Store, there are a number of vintage pieces manufactures from soft, lightweight cotton twill available at Etsy and other shops too.


From the UKs Great Dixter Shop online, you can source a traditional French workers jacket that made from 100% cotton. They mimic the original three patch pocket design, with three pockets on the outside, but these navy blue pieces also have a fourth inside pocket. The French manufacturer, Le Laboureur, has also finished their version of bleu de travail with black branded buttons.


You could also source gently-used pieces of vintage French workwear from online stores like Ebay. Many of these are still in good condition, and available in their signature deep indigo or navy blue. But Ebay also has black cotton versions of the work jacket – complete with buttoned and patch pocket design.


Traditionally, the French work jacket was no doubt largely moleskin-focuses. However, with the denim fad surfacing in the US, French vintage label manufacturers started having a second look at what they were doing. And a subtle shift started appearing in designs and fabrics of the bleu de travail by the late 1940s and early 1950s.

Changing trends for vintage French workwear

Keeping with changing trends and customer tastes, renowned brands, including Mont Saint Michel, started experimenting with cotton twill, denim and other fabrics into their revamped versions of French workwear.


And while we’re exploring the evolution of versatile vintage French workwear, we need to also recognize that bleu de travail is no longer exclusively “bleu” anymore.  London’s Mr. Potter has versions of the traditionally indigo coloured French workwear piece, created by Le Mont Saint Michel, that is green in colour.

Blue chore jacket

Blue chore jacket

Moving beyond its blue chore image

Demand from French vintage fashion lovers, and the desire to keep customers happy, is behind what has driven the blue chore jacket to evolve into what it has become today. While it started out as a statement of workwear back in the late 1800s, the French work jacket now occupies a sombre place in line-ups from leading fashion labels.


The practical design – lose fit with deep pockets – made this iconic dark blue jacket an ideal fit for labourers, mechanics, farmers and factory workers. They would not only wear their workers jacket in comfort – because it didn’t cling to their bodies like tight-fit jeans! –  but they used the multiple patch pocket design to their advantage. They stuffed them with tools and supplies as they worked throughout the day. And that was what caused a huge upswing in the popularity of vintage French workwear amongst the working class.

Khaki cotton twill French workers jackets teamed with blue denim overalls from Blue17 vintage

Khaki cotton twill French workers jackets teamed with blue denim overalls from Blue17 vintage

Kafka teamed with Arpenteur

In an effort to move its image beyond traditional “chore wear”, Aberdeen, Scotland-based Kafka has teamed up with French workwear manufacturer Arpenteur. The unique twist about Arpenteur’s creations is that they re-purpose vintage French work and marine wear to produce their versions bleu de travail. A case in point is their Mayenne Pima Gabardine Jacket, which is loosely based on the traditional French work jacket, but produced using Pima Cotton twill.


This particular piece features a two patch pocket design, as opposed to the traditional 3-pocket version, and includes a loop fastening feature for the collar. These simple finishing touches make this workers jacket something that can very easily be worn as a casual-wear piece as well.


And today, vintage workwear fashion aficionados love these classical jackets for more than their “chore appeal”. London’s Blackhorse Lane produces a version of fine example of a chore jacket that is worn by vintage lovers for work as well as casual after-work events.


Its indigo colour gives it that typical look of vintage French workwear. Blackhorse Lane has stuck with the original patch pocket design so, like French workers of yore, you can stuff those pockets with work essentials too. Yet, because it is made from raw denim, it lends itself well for non-work wear too.


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