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A look back at vintage mens workwear collection over the years

January 31, 2019

From long sleeve shirts to workpants and jackets, vintage mens workwear collection designers are evolving their trade craft as they create fashion for working men.


Vintage clothing has played a big part in how contemporary workwear is shaped. We take a look back at how vintage mens workwear collection ideas from leading designers are influenced by blasts from the past.

bleu de travail

Bleu de travail

Evolving vintage mens workwear collection

Today, men with jobs or those working in a trade have a vast collection of workwear to choose from. Whether your job takes you to the great outdoors, or whether it keeps you within the confines of the indoors, working men have endless choice of how to dress and what to wear. But that was not the case many decades ago.


In the late 1800s, the French version of classic workwear was nothing else but the bleu de travail – a navy blue or grey cotton twill garment. It was a hardy piece of outerwear that any man working in the fields or factories could not be seen without. The cuffed, long sleeve and loosely buttoned design made it the ideal, comfortable workwear for the working class.


Today, you’ll find versions of that French work jacket amongst the vintage mens workwear collection of most popular contemporary fashion labels. But what’s strikingly different is that, men in vintage workwear today, look starkly different than their peers from decades gone by. That’s because workwear has evolved considerably over that time, especially over the last two or three decades or so.

Vintage mens workwear collection - M-4 USA tank crew wearing their coveralls, 1942

M-4 USA tank crew wearing their coveralls, 1942

Vintage clothing back in the day:

  • Was mainly designed as exclusive workwear, but today its designs are equally suitable for casual and semi-formal wear too.


  • Designers primarily gave preference to ruggedness – hence the rather exclusive use of Moleskin and cotton twill. Today, working men have workwear designed from many other fabrics, like Denim, Corduroy and other blended fabrics, that are durable but also provide comfort.


  • The everyday worker was forced to conform to a particular “dress code”. In contrast, the designs from any contemporary vintage mens workwear collection are willingly embraced by the wearer – not by dictate but by choice.


This shift in trends meant contemporary designers could offer more than just the work jacket shirt to working clients. Their collections went from exclusively blue or grey coveralls and overalls, to almost unlimited choice for workwear, allowing greater freedom and creativity amongst clothing manufacturers and designers.

Leading brands are featuring imagination and ingenuity with every vintage mens workwear collection they display on the runways of the world!

Farming family, USA, 1930

Farming family, USA, 1930

Vintage mens workwear collection flashback

So, given all we’ve said about the evolution of vintage clothing, are you wondering how men from vintage eras, like the 1920s, 30s or 50s, dressed for work? Well, lets take a trip down memory lane to highlight just a few of the vintage mens workwear collection pieces that were popular…back in the day:


  • Matching workwear uniforms

The trend for putting workers in uniforms likely caught on during WW I. Back in the 1920s, with military uniforms so popular, working men soon adopted matching workwear uniforms in the cities, towns and villages. Popular contemporary vintage mens workwear collection designs are still inspired by those early matching uniforms.


  • The long sleeve work shirt usually had two flapped pockets and a buttoned-down front. You could see some working men with shirts that had “passants” and insignia on the shoulder seams. These cuts have inspired many of today’s vintage clothing designs.


  • Work pants were also very plain – usually flat fronted, with buttoned fly’s (no zippers in the early 1920s!). Men in vintage workpants usually wore them without leg cuffs, and often without belts at the waist.


  • The work jacket over shirt look was common among workers that wore a uniform to work. Usually, the jackets in the vintage mens workwear collection were cut waist-high, and often designed with two front pockets. Initially, these work jackets matched the shirt underneath, but contrasting long sleeve jackets later became the norm.


Working men back in the day were often seen in khaki matching uniforms – work pants, work jacket shirt or a thick outer jacket on top of a long sleeve shirt. However, as men grew a greater fashion sense, the matching workwear uniform evolved too, and it wasn’t uncommon to see blue grey combo uniforms, and even green or tan pieces designed by workwear labels and added to their vintage mens workwear collection.


Vintage mens workwear collection - Farm worker in his overalls, California, 1930s

Farm worker in his overalls, California, 1930s


  • Working men in coveralls

At the height of the Great War efforts, it wasn’t uncommon to see men in vintage coveralls – a garment that enclosed the entire body from neck to ankles. This garment was usually devoid of loosely-dangling flaps or straps – mainly for safety reasons. The long sleeve design kept the workers under shirt clean, while the extensions down to the feet meant working men could keep their pants clean too.


Unlike the jacket shirt, which only covered the top, this piece of shirt-pant combo workwear was a one-piece affair that served as pant and shirt. It was a popular vintage clothing item amongst aircraft engineers, railroad workers and garage mechanics. And because it encased the entire body, the vintage mens workwear collection designers of that time usually manufactured these using lighter materials – like lighter weighted cotton or blue grey denim.


Portrait of an unidentified man in overalls, 1935

Portrait of an unidentified man in overalls, 1935


  • Vintage mens workwear collection – Men in vintage overalls

As the indominable workers jacket was to French workers, so too were overalls to working men in many other parts of the industrialized world. This one-piece garment was the clothing of choice for many in the mining, oil drilling, farming and construction industry.


Unlike the coveralls, this piece of workwear didn’t cover the entire body – usually just the top half and the bottom. Men in vintage overalls usually had other “regular” clothing underneath their signature overalls, which were often made from thick materials, such as heavy-duty denim or duck cloth. This design allowed long sleeve shirts to be worn underneath, and rolled up with convenience when needed.


Popular designers created overalls in their vintage mens workwear collection which often had single pockets on top, with two side pockets near the hips. The side pockets were deliberately designed wide and deep to allow working men of that time to store and carry around an assortment of tools, parts and work accessories for their job.


  • Men in vintage shirts and pants

While overalls, coveralls and matching workwear uniforms were a common sight during the 1920s, 30s and 40s, dress sense and tastes of working men evolved over time. Many jobs, especially those that weren’t customer-facing, saw their workers in separately designed shirts and pants.


Of course, that didn’t mean those workers wore their Sunday-best shirts and pants to work. Men wore vintage shirts made from blue grey denim or cotton wool, that often featured two flapped, buttoned pockets, and button-down fronts. Some vintage mens workwear collection designers added shoulder flaps to the shirts, so employers could fasten epaulettes and other insignia to their worker’s shirts.


The work pants were usually made of hardy wool, denim or corduroy, and could be seen in colours as diverse as white, blue or grey, or even brown or black.  It was common, for instance in bars, restaurants and hotels, to see working men wearing striped shirts and wither black or white work trousers – each of which were separately designed.

Vintage mens workwear collection - Workers in downtown Seattle, USA, 1954

Workers in downtown Seattle, USA, 1954

Vintage clothing future lies back in the past

In their classical book, Vintage Menswear mini: A Collection from the Vintage Showroom, authors Douglas Gunn and Roy Luckett tell about how vintage mens workwear collection designers take cue from fashion designs of the past. In fact, many contemporary designers actually pay to view collections in the Vintage Showroom – so they can use “…the cut and detailing of individual garments as inspiration for their own work.”

570px- The vintage showroom_14_Earlham_Street, London, UK

The vintage showroom 14 Earlham Street

Vintage mens workwear collection – Leading vintage clothing brands

Today, many leading vintage clothing brands are taking inspiration from workwear of the past. From shirts and pants, to the jacket shirt and even overalls – you’ll find designers including elements from the years gone by into their contemporary vintage mens workwear collection.


For instance, Dickies openly acknowledges their love for vintage clothing by saying: “The new line is truly inspired by the vintage items,”. The famed designer of men’s workwear products has been motivated by men in vintage clothing from as far back as the 1920s. They’ve used those designs to then shape their contemporary vintage mens workwear collection.


Whether it’s a work jacket shirt, or a rugged work pants, minor details from their previous designs, like deco stitching or the hardware used in their vintage clothing collections, have made it into the newer generation of workwear.

Ralph Lauren

Famous brands like Ralph Lauren too are not averse at looking back to move forward. The storied designer, who himself took inspiration from vintage big screen icons like Cary Grant and Fred Astaire, has frequently turned to his own vintage clothing lines for newer designs. His RL Vintage line was inspired by blasts from the past, and the “Bring It Back” initiative was a direct result of a look back in history.


In fact, Lauren has already shown his penchant for looking back, to inspire his future vintage mens workwear collection, when the company brought back the Polo Bear Sweater. While still viewed as a collectible item, many working men would have no hesitation wearing their Polo sweater to work on a chilly workday morning!

Vintage mens workwear collection – Paladrin

More recently, British designer Paladrin has launched their contemporary work wear collection, that is “heritage inspired”. Their Green Corduroy Akerman Jacket has a classical shape, similar to that worn by working men in past decades. And like the French worker jacket, this one too features two chest pockets, and is made from 100% British cotton corduroy.


In similar vein, the designers’ Blue Cotton Drill Roydon Shirt is yet another contemporary piece that’s inspired by vintage clothing.  The long sleeve cotton-polyester (80:20) design features a button thru chest pocket, and can easily be worn as a jacket shirt over a Tee or vest.





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