It’s a nice irony that, for all fashion’s elite associations, some of its most enduring styles come from firmly proletarian stock – none more so than jackets. Put it this way: if this season’s coat-of-your-dreams doesn’t have its roots in military uniform, you can almost certainly trace its ancestry back to the world of manual labour.
Menswear’s growing obsession with salt-of-the-earth workwear means that the humble work jacket has become a suitably industrious cornerstone of the modern male wardrobe. Many styles echo the classic chore coat, which itself derives from traditional French work jackets, with three patch pockets on a tough but lightweight construction (think twill, denim, corduroy or cotton).
Like beanies and work boots, it’s a form of blue-collar style that appeals (again, ironically) to a generation of desk jockeys. With casual dress becoming the norm, even in traditionally stuffy workplaces, the best work jackets can take the place of both blazers and bomber jackets. That’s versatility.
On the casual side, they’ll work as an overshirt in a layered autumn outfit alongside jeans and flannel shirts. And on the dressier side, a number of brands are now selling chore coats with matching trousers as a kind of dressed-down alternative to a suit.
Whichever way you want to wear this working class hero, these are the key styles to look out for.
French Work Jacket
The grand-père of work jackets, the French bleu de travail set the boxy, big-pocketed, button-front bar back in the late 1800s. Originally a full set of indigo-dyed overalls for factory-workers – the “working blues” that distinguished those on the shop floor from their white-shirted bosses – it’s the light-yet-sturdy jacket that’s lived on as a casual-wear classic.
Made of a thick, soft cotton known as moleskin, they were tough, washable and easy to repair – indeed, authentic vintage versions almost always sport patches of some kind. Perhaps the most famous French work jacket in fashion belonged to legendary photographer Bill Cunningham: patch pockets stuffed with film rolls, standing out from the fashion-week peacocks in utilitarian bleu.
How To Wear It
The French worker jacket is just about the dream early-autumn outerwear option – lightweight yet hardy, and eminently layerable. “Wear it with an Oxford button-down and work pant for business, or some faded selvedge denim and a moccasin for leisure,” suggests vintage collector Will Varnam.
The work jacket made its way to America from France in the early 20th century, acquired a heftier construction befitting the bitter winters in industrial centres like Detroit, and eventually changed its name to the chore coat.
Michigan workwear outfitters Carhartt initially produced its “engineer sack coat” in a range of fabrics, including denim and herringbone twill, but by the late 1920s had settled on a tan canvas known as “brown duck” (for the Dutch word doek, or cloth, rather than any resemblance to water fowl).
Like its French forebear, Carhartt’s jacket had functional patch pockets and a boxy construction, but gained its own signature features over the years – a corduroy collar in the 1930s, a quilt-lined option in the 1960s. Massachusetts-based Brown’s Beach, meanwhile, offered a similar-shaped coat for outdoor labourers in its signature “salt n pepper” speckled wool/cloth blend, one that Americana archivist Oliver Abbott today calls “the Holy Grail of vintage workwear”.
How To Wear It
“My favourite chore coat is the selvedge heavy engineer jacket,” says Abbott. “The cut is loose, utilitarian and works well with wide chinos, matching jeans and especially with World War II-era US HBT trousers.”
Another American classic with its roots in Europe, both materially (denim = de Nîmes, or from Nîmes) and design-wise. In the early 20th century, Levi Strauss (“the denim blouse”) and Lee (“the Loco jacket”) were making blue-jean versions of the bleu de travail for railroad workers and gold miners alike – but from the 1920s onwards both companies tapped into the western-wear market, producing more cropped, tighter-fitting jackets suited to horse-riding and cattle-wrangling.
Of these, the Lee Storm Rider – a blanket-lined, corduroy-collared version of its 101 jacket, launched in ’33 – and the 1960s Levi’s Type 3 Trucker Jacket became the gold standard, with the flapped chest pockets, rivets, reinforced stitching and waist-adjusters we’ve come to know and love.
How To Wear It
“Every man should have a trucker jacket in their wardrobe,” says Varnam. “Search out a perfectly worn vintage piece or go for raw denim and wear it in your own way. It pairs perfectly with chinos and sneakers for summer or jeans and boots for the colder months.”
Blue-and-white striped cotton is a storied fabric in the United States. At one end of the social scale there’s seersucker, the lightweight summer suiting material beloved of old-timey Southern gentlemen and preppy fashion enthusiasts alike. But take that same pattern and apply it in a heavier construction to overalls, peaked caps and chore jackets, and you’ve got another classic, this one emblematic of the American working man.
These so-called hickory-stripe uniforms started life on the Union Pacific railroad – the durable, denim-like cotton, stain-obscuring pattern and relative visibility of the colour-scheme made them well-suited to the dirty, dangerous work of train driving and engine maintenance in the steam age.
How To Wear It
Cut straight, like its chore coat brethren, with a pointed collar and four patch pockets, the hickory-stripe (or “railroad-stripe”) jacket should be styled like the over-sized overshirt it resembles – tan workpants and a grey-marl tee or hoodie would work a treat. “One thing with all workwear is that it’s always best worn with signs of ‘being worked in’,” adds Abbott. “Oil, grease and grime all add to the dime!”
It was no honest error when the right-wing press mis-identified Labour leader Michael Foot’s Remembrance Day overcoat as a donkey jacket in 1981. The aim was to cast his dress-sense (and his politics) as too scruffy, too working-class to rub shoulders with the born-to-rule set in the important affairs of state.
A waist-length, black woollen coat with leather (later PVC) shoulder panels and capacious patch pockets, the real donkey jacket was invented in the 1880s for navvies working the Manchester Ship Canal (“donkey” came from the small steam-powered winches, or “donkey engines”, used in the canal digging process).
Over the years, it’s been worn by miners, road-workers and bin men – and co-opted by youth tribes like skinheads, rockabillies and soul-boys (the band Dexys Midnight Runners were noted donkey disciples).
How To Wear It
“Although I lean towards Americana I love the British Donkey Jacket,” says Abbott. “Workwear should always reflect its working-class roots and the fabled donkey is the embodiment of that. It can be dressed down with jeans or up with straight-leg Sta-Prest trousers, giving it that 1969 look.”
The roots of its name may be disputed (an abbreviation of pilot jacket perhaps, or a corruption of a Dutch coat called a pijjekker) but the pea coat boasts an unmistakable silhouette. A toasty-warm cover-up in black or navy wool that reaches down to your hips, is double-breasted to keep out the wind, with a big old collar you can flip up to protect your ears when it gets really Baltic? You’re wearing a pea coat, friend.
With a history stretching back to the 1700s, the pea coat owes its heavyweight construction to the windswept life of a seaman, its short length to the practicalities of climbing up the rigging to lower sails, and its ubiquity to the fact it was standard-issue for both the British and US navies through much of the 20th century.
How To Wear It
The pea coat’s sartorial star has fallen a little since a decade ago, when the likes of Alex Turner and David Beckham paired the pea’s popped-collar with equally elevated pompadour hair, but it still works brilliantly as a cold-weather heritage piece. Just slap on a chunky, cable-knit jumper or roll-neck underneath for a nautical two-fer.