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STYLE AND CULTURE
CULT ITEM: FRENCH WORKER JACKET
By Will Morley, April 17, 2019
As the fashion world's love for traditional workwear shows no sign of diminishing, we take a look at one of the most coveted pieces for collectors and street-style stars alike: the bleu de travail or French worker jacket.
The French name for the classic chore jacket translates as "working blues" and is, in fact, a catch-all for the indigo-dyed cotton overalls popularized by French factory workers in the late 1800s. That means they can either be a jacket, shirt or pants. But when we talk about the bleu de travail today (either in hushed reverence or in a celebratory shriek after scoring one in an online auction), it’s usually just the jacket we're referring to. Simple, distinctive and hard-wearing, the original button-fronted cotton coats are easily reparable but not so easy to find. Thankfully, a bunch of modern designers are taking the clean lines and boxy aesthetic for inspiration.
Perhaps the most easily recognizable (to New Yorkers) B-de-T fan was legendary street fashion photographer, the late Bill Cunningham. No matter the occasion, from prodigious balls to bland bus stops, dude was always rocking one. He first picked up the jacket because of the utilitarian aspect of the big patch pockets — those things are like buckets and can hold everything from a tablet to a camera.
The worker jacket’s construction is usually of cotton or canvas. The older, true vintage ones, which are usually more expensive, are made out of moleskin. No, not actual moley moles, nor those expensive notebooks, but a type of thick, heavy cotton. Somewhere between velour and chamois, it has a soft, almost fuzzy feel. At the time it was affordable, washable and took a battering — to a point. Home repairs and patches are almost always found on vintage pieces, giving them a unique edge and making them much more desirable.
The distinctive color of the bleu de travail was not only an affordable dye, but also acted as a signifier to differentiate French workers from their foremen or managers. Those higher-level guys got to rep lighter white or gray shirts and jackets that wouldn’t need to be as hard-wearing as those worn by the guys working the factory floors or fields. There’s a nice irony to the fact that staying one step ahead of the fashion pack now means reaching for a jacket specifically designed for the masses.
So how should a fella wear their French worker jacket? The easiest example is to just swap out your denim jacket for one to avoid the dreaded double-denim dilemma (yes, we know doing the double is more than acceptable in stylish circles, but there’s always someone with a joke ready to go when you're just trying to live). For the authentic look, pair with wider-legged jeans, or try green fatigue pants, a white tee and canvas high-tops. This is also the opportunity to bust out a red neckerchief/bandana to approach the proletarian look like a pro.