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Flashback: The origins and revival of vintage mens workwear

October 4, 2018

Diverse vintage clothing like the work jacket and the overall started the evolution of fashion for working men, and fosters today’s allure of vintage mens workwear.


Whenever you see a man dressed in a smart work shirt from the 1960s or a well-cut chore jacket from the late 1800s, you can’t but help wonder about today’s fascination with vintage mens workwear.

Vintage mens workwear - Completion of the First Transcontinental Railroad between Central Pacific Railroad & Union Pacific Railroad, Utah on May 10, 1869;

Completion of the First Transcontinental Railroad between Central Pacific Railroad & Union Pacific Railroad, Utah on May 10, 1869;

Vintage workwear: The backstory

There wasn’t always a culture of civilian working men in uniforms. Back before it all started, men worked in “everyday casuals”. That’s code for using the same shirt as they lived in as a work shirt, and not bothering to change into a work-specific pair of trousers. Working men, like farmers in the field, often wore overalls – but that was pretty much their “everyday best”. They wore them for visits to town, at family gatherings and even special events like Sunday church services.


Vintage era mens workwear really took root in civil society as a result of the industrial revolution. Of course, the French already knew about work uniforms by the late 1800s. Vintage work clothes like the now famous bleu de travail were already institutionalised back then. However, the turn of the century ushered in a new era for vintage workwear.


As industrialisation started permeating throughout the world, there was great demand to overhaul vintage mens workwear, from predominantly clothing worn on farms and in fields, to that more suitable for factories, warehouses and manufacturing facilities.


It was in that backdrop that leading vintage clothing designers of that time started taking a closer look at a burgeoning market. They saw an opportunity to supply heavy-duty men’s clothing to a clientele comprising mainly of factory owners and production house entrepreneurs.

A man, having his beard trimmed, Blackall District, Queensland, early 1900s.

A man, having his beard trimmed, Blackall District, Queensland, early 1900s.

Wardrobe choices for working men

Unlike today’s vintage mens workwear selections, the pickings for workwear fashion were slim back in the day. However, over time, men in the industrial workforce got more choice than ever before. In France, the dawn of vintage work clothes came in the form of the blue chore jacket. It was the signature outerwear for any man who went to work – whether that was in the fields, in the forge or in an auto plant.


The bleu de travail French work jacket was legendary in how it quickly became a garment of choice for the working class. Its dark colour (dark blue or indigo), heavy-duty cotton twill or moleskin fabric, and lose-cut design made it the ideal companion for working men that handled machines or assembly equipment.


Primarily, the “working blues” as it was affectionately called, became the vintage mens workwear of choice due to its three deep pocket design. Workers would stuff those deep pockets with all sorts of accessories and tools, while working around the factory floor or the warehouse.

Three boys on a farm , circa 1900-1910

Three boys on a farm , circa 1900-1910

Vintage workwear choice evolution

Over time though, vintage work clothes started evolving, with men in the workforce having even more wardrobe choices as a result. However, those fashion choices were still aligned around the particular trade or profession a man worked in.


For instance, mail men could usually be seen wearing a government issued work jacket, with matching slacks or trousers. These were often dark coloured uniforms, frequently grey or darker shades of tan or brown. You’d also see other flavours of such vintage workwear worn by tradesmen like milk delivery men, plumbers and package carriers.


Vintage mens workwear for farm and field workers usually was the overall.  This was a piece of garment that ran from chest-level, down to the ankles, covering everything underneath it. Farm workers would often have a plaid or chequered work shirt beneath their overalls, and high-boots with the overall cuffs tucked in. This lend itself well for working men that waded in muck and slop all day, planting their crops and tending to their livestock.

Vintage mens workwear - Colour photograph of carpenter at work on Douglas Dam, Tennessee, 1942

Colour photograph of carpenter at work on Douglas Dam, Tennessee, 1942

Overalls and Coveralls

Vintage work clothes like the overall also became common sight outside the fields, farms and the barn. You could often see retail store helpers and working men in food processing plants donning their overalls to work. Underneath, they would wear work shirt or casual trousers, which the overall protected and kept safe – for the most part.


Eventually, as rapid industrialisation took hold, the Coverall was introduced – a piece of vintage clothing that covered the entire body.


Unlike the Overall, which left the top of a man’s body and upper underclothes exposed, the Coverall enclosed working men from neck to ankle.  This was an ideal piece of garment for trades – like mechanics and boiler-room attendants, who wore “street clothes” underneath, and didn’t want them soiled or dirtied.


While these vintage workwear choices were few, they were largely spurred on by small tailoring outfits, or by individual designers creating clothing for the workforce using a limited set of fabric, like cotton twill. It was time for vintage mens workwear to go mainstream!

Vintage mens workwear - Harvesting cultivated hay, 1903

Harvesting cultivated hay, 1903

Vintage mens workwear goes mainstream

Back in 1889, one of today’s renowned manufacturers of vintage work clothes, Hamilton Carhartt & Company, was established.  That gave birth to the Bib Overall – something similar to the overalls that men wore at work until then, but with a more elegant design and stronger stich.


Vintage mens workwear went even more mainstream when Carhartt introduced his Chore Coat, which was a modern (by those standards!) twist on the French work jacket – albeit better lined and elegantly designed. As far back as the early/mid-1900s, this piece of vintage workwear was the garment of choice for railroad workers. In fact, it was nicknamed the “Engineers Sack Coat” precisely because railway engineers were so enamoured by their newfound workwear fashion choice.


And as the years went on, the vintage mens workwear market started getting more crowded. With so much demand for the rapidly growing workforce, other players (who would eventually become icons of fashion for working men) started offering more choice in men’s workwear.


Levi Strauss, the indominable founder of the Levi’s brand, patented his now famous blue jeans in 1873. And that started a whole new fashion trend in heavy-duty, yet fashionable, workwear for men.


Just two decades or so later, in 1922, vintage clothing and mens workwear took yet another mainstream step, when Dickies was established. The new entrant started offering its very own version of the overall, with its signature work shirt and jackets to follow.

Ned Huddleston, known as "Isom Dart." Brown's Hole, WY. c.1890s

Ned Huddleston, known as “Isom Dart.” Brown’s Hole, WY. c.1890s

Vintage mens workwear comes of age

For decades, vintage workwear was designed with a single purpose in mind: Practicality! No other consideration prevailed. And that’s one of the reasons that men in the workforce didn’t have too much choice when it came to their work wardrobes.


After all, what additional “practicality” improvements can you introduce in a work jacket? And there weren’t many revolutionary design ideas to take the humble work shirt and make it more “practical” than it already was! And so, as the fashion world evolved in other spheres of life, designers of vintage mens workwear started pondering how to bring post WW II era workwear into the modern century.


That’s when vintage work clothes started getting a revamp, with contemporary fashion embellishments designed to appeal to today’s working men.


Gorpcore-fashion inspiration has also creeped in and given vintage mens workwear a more practical and contemporary look. For anyone unfamiliar with Gorpcore, it’s the latest fashion fad that sees clothing ideas from years gone by turned into contemporary, yet practical, designs.


Take the humble overall that Carhart introduced back in 1889. Today, manufacturers of that piece of vintage clothing have introduced versions that, for example, feature adjustable straps. Unlike the “one size fits all” version back when, vintage workwear lovers with various body types, shapes and sizes can now adjust their favourite workwear to fit comfortably.


Just very recently, actor Chris Pine (of CHiPS fame) was seen in an updated version of Carhartt’s overalls at London’s Heathrow. It’s sights like these that have brought mens vintage work clothes back to the 21st century!

Workman helping construction of the Empire State Building. ny, ny,1930

Workman helping construction of the Empire State Building. ny, ny,1930

Vintage workwear adaptation

And speaking of coming of age of vintage mens workwear, nowhere is that more visible than in how today’s version of the iconic bleu de travail French work jacket has adapted to modern-day fashion demands. For example, while the traditional chore jacket was rather straight-cut, online sites like Blue 17 offer much more elegantly-cut designs of it today.


Not only do working men of today have the option of wearing a work jacket that’s tapered at the hips, but it’s also made from 100% cotton fabric – which lends itself better (compared to its historic peer) for today’s weather and working conditions.


Today’s version of bleu de travail also comes with four (instead of three) pockets – two on the breast and two at the waist. This gives men wearing vintage work clothes even more opportunity to carry around work accessories and supplies as they hop from one workstation to another.


The vintage work jacket has also adapted out of materials that conventionally were only reserved for its exclusive creation, and into other fabric. While the French preferred cotton twill and moleskin, today’s offerings are far more diverse. UK online retailer HeyDayOnline offers a whole range of Gab jackets manufactured from a twill-weave fabric called Gabardine.


Vintage mens workwear created from Gab are unlike their counterparts that burst onto the scene back in the late 1800s. Vintage work clothes made from this fabric are smoother to the touch, and include an element of ribbed texture that their counterparts of yore lacked.

Beyond vintage workwear

Today, the working man doesn’t compartmentalise his wardrobe into strictly “for work” pieces. That’s because vintage clothing designs have inspired a wave of workwear for men that are both work and casual wear pieces.


Take the French work jacket of today. Back in the 1800s, it was an exclusively working mans garment, worn entirely as a uniform in which men worked at factories and fields. Contemporary embellishments to vintage work clothes mean that jacket can be worn beyond the workspace.


Wearing a Dickie’s work shirt under a modern-day chore jacket, for instance, can quickly transform that traditional working-man look into a “man at play” look. Today’s designs inspired by vintage mens workwear have meant that men at work can quickly and effortlessly accessorise their wardrobes from work to beyond work, and still look trendy and relaxed.


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