Blouson, chore, or leather jacket? An exercise in casual paradigms

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Three years ago, I wrote an article called ‘Five paradigms of casual clothing’, which attempted a rough division of informal men’s clothing into different styles.

It was an interesting exercise. The categories were necessarily very broad, and encompassed many niches and trends; there was also obviously a lot of overlap between them, and some pieces that were more universal than others; but still, it was possible to describe general categories, and allocate types of clothing to them. 

I thought of that division recently because a few readers were asking for advice on casual jackets. Should they buy a blouson or a chore jacket? Which was more formal, which more versatile? 

Usually, formality is the most important aspect of clothing we discuss. It’s crucial to tailoring, and I understood why readers were asking that question first. 

But with casual clothing, probably just as important is the style tradition the piece of clothing comes from. Its roots, its culture, and its resulting associations.

So I thought it would be useful to revisit those categories of clothing, and consider how they affect a particular purchase, such as a casual blouson/bomber/chore jacket. 

To recap, the five categories were:

  • British country. Think rural clothing in most parts of the Western world, given it largely has English origins. Tweed, cords and waxed cotton; flat caps and fisherman’s sweaters.
  • American prep/Ivy. Has many roots in the above, but America’s cultural influence means that it is now widespread and has many offshoots: French Ivy, Rugged Ivy in Japan, suedeheads in the UK.
  • Italian smooth. This needs a better name. But it is the Italian style, the continental look, that went international in the 1970s and ever since has dominated most upmarket menswear brands. Slim cuts, luxurious materials, simple colour palettes. 
  • Workwear. Clothes at least originally built for work, or service. Encompassing military styles after WW2, and Western clothing too. United by rugged materials in particular. 
  • Sportswear. Modern sportswear. Sneakers and synthetics. Not something we touch on much, but obviously mixes with the others, and hugely influential. 

Of the jackets the reader was considering - largely derivatives of the chore coat or blouson - a chore definitely falls under workwear in this categorisation. Originally for French workers, it's straight cut, and patch pockets make it simple and practical. 

The blouson or bomber jacket is trickier. Most of the styles have military origins, but they’ve been consistently repurposed ever since - whether it’s leather jackets being worn by bikers or field jackets by students. Indeed, some styles have more in common with Varsity jackets, which are definitely Ivy.

I think here the material and hardware are more significant. The reader was largely looking at dark-brown suede models, and this feels more luxurious, more Italian. In most iterations, that’s the category it belongs in - particularly I think when zipped (like the Connolly below) rather than buttoned (like the Valstarino above). 

So why is this categorisation useful to the reader? 

Because it tells him the chore coat will sit better with workwear chinos, with T-shirts and with sweatshirts. The suede blouson, on the other hand, will be more at home slim Incotex chinos, or indeed with tailored trousers, and cashmere sweaters. 

The difference between the two is about style, about different traditions of clothing, as much as anything else. So the reader should consider which of these two they wear more - which, perhaps, is more their style - when making the decision.

You might suggest this distinction is still about formality. The blouson is simply smarter than the chore coat. That’s true, but style is also important too (where it rarely is with tailoring). 

And often, formality has little to do with it. For example, which is smarter, a denim chore coat or a denim trucker jacket? A brown-horsehide motorcycle jacket or a brown-waxed Barbour jacket?

The bigger difference there is stylistic traditions, and associations. That’s the reason the Barbour would look silly with cowboy boots, and the horsehide wouldn’t look great with wellies. 

I think that when readers are considering how to build a small, quality wardrobe of clothes, they should keep these distinctions in mind. 

But there are several caveats. First, some items of clothing are so universal that they work with anything. Jeans are the obvious example. They’re not going to look out of place with a shooting jacket, a varsity jacket, a leather jacket or a Nike windbreaker. 

Still, the style of jean might vary. Zegna or Loro Piana outerwear usually works with rather different jeans than something from Bryceland’s or The Real McCoy’s. 

Second caveat: some of the most stylish people and stylish looks come from mixing traditions together. The unexpected pairing of a tweed jacket with a cowboy boot. A vintage black-leather jacket worn with pressed charcoal flannels. 

But that doesn't show that the categories don’t exist. Rather, it’s only because they exist that there’s contrast in the look, which makes it looks so unexpected and stylish. 

The other arguments against analysing clothing like this are usually that the points are obvious, that they are a care of overthinking, or that they’re too prescriptive. 

As to being prescriptive, I’m certainly not saying readers should dress purely within one of these traditions. Just like with the so-called ‘rules’ of menswear, it merely pays to understand traditions - certain ways people have dressed historically - before going off and breaking them. 

You may find it helpful, for example, to root yourself in the casual chic of Stoffa, Rubato or Saman Amel, before experimenting with the addition of a western piece into the wardrobe, like a cowboy shirt or an alligator belt. 

Or you might find you’re more of an Ivy guy, with a wardrobe of preppy chinos, oxford shirts and Alden loafers. At which point to might try mixing in something more workwear, like a vintage chore coat over the top of those chinos and a sweatshirt

As to whether these points are all obvious, they can’t be because readers ask about them. They may well be for you; they may well be for most people; but they certainly aren’t for everyone. 

And as we discussed in our post on creating your own style, people that find style easy have often just absorbed more of it subconsciously. They can just try combinations and think they ‘look wrong’. That doesn’t mean that what lies behind it can’t be spelled out - can’t be learned. 

I guess a final objection might be that fashion is so mixed now, so global and so rehashed and rehashed, that these categories no longer exist. Drake’s used to sell Valstar, then sold chore coats, and now sells trucker jackets. 

I think that has more to do with how Drake’s has evolved over time. Most menswear shops are actually still quite narrow and consistent. Trunk sells Valstar and Incotex. Clutch sells horsehide jackets and workwear chinos. Because customers want things that go together.

Actually chinos are another good example, similar to suede/leather jackets. We’ve talked a lot more about ‘chinos’ in recent months, but that word covers a huge range: from bespoke trousers in the finest cottons, through Italian chinos with a bit of elastane, to workwear models in coarse, heavy canvas. 

Asking for a ‘chino’ is like asking for a cotton shirt: it runs everything from a superfine Alumo to a Buffalo-check flannel. You need to be more precise. 

Casual clothing is a lot harder to navigate than tailoring: it’s bigger, less culturally consistent, and more subject to fashion.

There's also a tendency today to think that you can buy and wear any piece of clothing. That if you can't find a way for it to work with everything else, you just lack style.

Actually, most people dress more in one category/tradition/paradigm than another, and experiment with occasional pieces from elsewhere. It's less complicated and more coherent.

That's a particularly good lesson for younger guys, trying to build up a wardrobe of quality clothing. When you don’t have that many clothes, and you can’t afford to buy that many clothes, everything has to work with everything.

So even though there are lots of shades of grey here, and many traditions overlap, I think these style paradigms are always worth keeping in mind

The illustrations are nearly all of casual, short brown leather or suede jackets, to compare. Top to bottom:

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Triskel

Hi Simon
Could I suggest ‘Modern European’ as an alternative to ‘Italian Smooth’? I think it includes Italian Smooth but you also see it (or used to see it, even in these areas it is waning) well done in the German-speaking areas of Europe?

Peter Hall

I’ve certainly noticed, after moving to the Netherlands, that whilst much of style is obviously Italian influenced, they often have a splash of Spanish colour and are very happy to mix modern sportswear into tailored casual.
The lack of British Country tradition certainly produces a different tradition. As Triskel mentioned, the best dressed men ,I’ve recently seen ,were in Vienna. I still think Dutch men wear their tailoring too tight and jackets on the short side…but I am 56.

Peter Hall

It’s very much a cultural thing- doe maar normal (just act normal), so sophistication is shown in jewellery and watches-Dutch people routinely wear far more gold than would be seen in the UK.

Wouter

It is a broad set of people we’re talking about – the Dutch. I find it difficult to make general observations on our clothing tradition, perhaps because I don’t have the benefit of the relative outsider’s view (no pun intended, Peter; you’ve probably lived here many years!).

If anything, I think it is the lack of any tradition that puts us on the back foot here. By way of illustration: men in my “young father” age bracket (35-45) routinely pair brightly coloured, chunky trainers (Nike Air Max or similar models) with jeans or chinos and an Oxford or polo shirt. It looks odd to me and is neither very “smooth”. More importantly, I always wonder what prevents my fellow Dutchmen from relying on tried and tested footwear for casual occasions, such as suede brogues and loafers or boating shoes. It seems that without the English country tradition – or any other tradition for that matter – the athleisure wave just washed over us.

Peter Hall

If you forgive another pun…There is nothing to hang a tradition on- as you mention Wouter. Avoiding stereotypes, I think Dutch men in the south, the German/Belgium influence, perhaps, do have a stronger sense of style. I regularly travel to Maastricht and men still seem to wear plenty of tailoring(and good shoes).
When I moved to the NL, the absolute first item of clothing my wife wanted me to buy were white sneakers. Trainers are certainly king (at least in Rotterdam).

Aaron Daniels

Simon, how precisely is Modern European too wide and vague when some of the others e.g. workwear are not?

SSummers

How about just calling it “Continental”?

Alexis

How about we call it “Italian Stallion”? That’s not too vague.

OP

thank you, most helpful this. I would be interested in reading about the correlation between the above style traditions and different body types. Can a larger gentleman, for example, pull off a sleek Italian look well?

Aaron Daniels

Could the same be said for trousers in terms of slimness? I mean, my calves at their widest have a circumference of 19″ – I can just about wear trousers with an 8″ leg opening, which feels slim on me but clings to my calves rather than hang nicely – 8.5″ certainly doesn’t feel slim and chinos seem to rarely be that wide, not without looking either workwear-ish or a lot more traditional.

Tony Hodges

Learning about the history of clothes has been one of the most interesting and useful things I’ve picked up from reading blogs like this one, and that’s what sits under the paradigms, really.

It’s also strange and wonderful when learn why somethings work unexpectedly – like how chore coats go oddly well with ivy staples like chinos and loafers because they’re useful for professional painters and arts students alike (I feel like there great pictures of Picasso dressed this way out there), or how belstaff-style leather jackets go with traditional British sports clothing, because tweed and flannel were the other things they had when motorbikes first became a thing (like the last and final scenes of Lawrence of Arabia).

Maybe something to consider for future articles would be something like the ones where you slide the formality of an outfit up and down by changing an item, but for casual clothing centerpieces shifting across paradigms? I’d even be keen on ideas you had for these outfits that didn’t work, because sometimes explaining that is more illustrative than ones that do.

Il Pennacchio

I’d be very interested in seeing an article about how you would change paradigms by swapping out garments, since that’s something I try to do myself. With Ivy (or Ivy-inspired) garments as the core of my wardrobe, Rugged Ivy and vintage-styled sportswear can act as bridges to workwear and Italian smooth, respectively.

Tony Hodges

I think at this point in my own particular style journey the cross-paradigm is more interesting, because it involves understanding how two ideas or traditions weave together.

I do find the formality ones quite interesting, but crossing the paradigms might add some warp to the formality weft.

Tony Hodges

Except then you have to put a whole bunch of thought into which one to pick!

Adam

I got a valstarino in dark brown last year and really enjoy it. Looks great with jeans or flannels, t shirts or dress shirts, surprisingly warm with a scarf and surprisingly cool when unbuttoned. It’s not cheap, so I wouldn’t blame someone for trying to find a cheaper alternative (pwvc makes a moleskin bomber that’s fairly similar in style but a good bit less expensive).

The one piece of advice I’d add here is the older style of blousons and flight jackets means they are fairly short, so especially if you’re tall, you’ll want your pants to be mid rise if they’re going to play nicely together. If you mostly have lower rise pants you’re likely better served with a longer style.

Chris

Hi Simon,
It occurs to me reading this how you yourself have changed across the timeline of PS, and certainly even just in my time reading it . I think it’s fair to say that more and more you seem to be reaching for more casual, harder wearing yet quality clothing that relates intrinsically to the life you lead.
I wonder, do you see yourself as moving away from older styles you perhaps championed, or instead perhaps compartmentalising them more into separate contexts- where an overriding philosophy might be ‘wearing the right clothes for the right context’? Early PS could perhaps be more explained by your time then as a financial journalist and the context that required – now perhaps your life is broader and so your clothing needs to cover more ground.

Chris K

Interesting and helpful post Simon, particularly as a more specified development on from your original paradigms post.

Personally, while I appreciate the heritage and origins of work wear or Ivy style, I never really want to make more than a hint to these casual paradigms, be it a pair of loafers, chinos, or a leather or suede bomber. And honestly, I think you do this very effectively when I see your more casual outfits, they’re never immersed in a paradigm, only drawing inspiration from and mixing here and there.

R Abbott

In which categories would you say the A-I shoes you reviewed on Friday fall into? Perhaps best with workwear and not so well with Italian smooth? What about the Shanklins?

Anonymous

Simon, my question is not related to this post but I️ hope you can help, as I️ see you as the best person to rely on in these matters, We’re trying to get my son a navy jacket at a well known, fairly high priced store/brand. A 40R fits him well in the shoulders and there it a good bit of space in the back that should cleaned up. However there is very slight horizontal crease/buckling forward in the lapels. Is this something that could be adjusted by raising the collar of giving him more room in the skirt (he has a prominent seat), of is this jacket just not cut well for him? The next size up would be too large overall. Thanks very much for you advice.

Anonymous

Thanks for the reply, Simon. I️ understand the complexity, but it sounds as if it’s something that might very possibly be adjusted my the tailor at the store

Anonymous

So perhaps it’s just better to buy a different jacket.

Craig

Suede chore jackets always seem like a contradiction to me. Chore jackets should be made of a rougher material that can be checked into the wash.

Tony Hodges

I think suede is interesting that way because some kinds have a tradition of being particularly hard-wearing in a western or workwear context, but modern types are often much more in the luxe space.

Cowboys, Italian riviera types and British sportsmen all love different types of suede for different but overlapping reasons.

David

Interesting article but at the risk of dancing on the head of a pin, age and location are very much the key issues when it comes to casual wear. I’m 68 and although I have the body of an aged Greek God and a full head of flowing immaculately coiffed locks, I try not to fool myself. Bomber jackets on men of my age seldom look good. As you are aware, A&S were at the forefront of the chore jacket trend and a few years ago I bought two. One in a blue cord and the other in a heavy tobacco linen. Both have served me incredibly well and go perfectly with chinos, flannels or jeans. What’s more, they look correct on a man of my age and can be worn in either the country or town. A cotton field jacket, a suede Safari jacket (both from PWVC) and a heavy blue linen field shirt from Richard Anderson complete my casual repertoire The only time a really wear a bomber is when it’s raining and I’m wearing shorts on the boat and then I wear the PWVC Harrington in Ventile. By contrast, I have an acquaintance who has bought the full ‘Nigel Cabourne’ workwear tablet and he vacillates between looking like mutton dressed as lamb or somebody who is poised to take your engine out. Dressing your age is just so important and as you grow older you just have to recognise that you can’t and won’t want to participate in every trend.

RT

I couldn’t agree more. Dressing one’s age is important, though it doesn’t have to mean (really shouldn’t mean!) elasticated waistbands and cheap polo shirts. I’ve found that chore jackets and field jackets are particularly suitable for someone of my age (an optimistically youthful 60). I don’t carry a great deal of excess weights and have had the same chest and waist size for the last 20 years at least; pretty much a stock 41/42 chest and 34/35 waist). However, t-shirts are now mostly confined to wearing under pullovers and I’ve acquired some great chore jackets and field-style jackets from Drake’s and Paynter Jacket (a spin-out from Hiut jeans and well worth checking out for their well-priced, made-to-order only business model). Honourable mention, too, to Massimo Dutti for a great linen and cotton jacket that they describe as a shirt jacket, but is more like a cross between a chore jacket and safari jacket (I have a particular dislike of shirt jackets – I’ve yet to see one I thought actually worked, particularly if described as a shacket, surely a crime against language, if nothing else!).
Dressing for ones age doesn’t mean sacrificing style, it just means making appropriate adjustments. Perhaps that might make an interesting article at some point, Simon. Given your relative youth, perhaps it might be something for a guest contributor.

David

Absolutely and one of the many benefits of age is you can spot a sartorial faux pas a mile away !

Il Pennacchio

While the chore coat’s origins are unquestionably workwear, I’m not sure that necessarily makes it less smart than a blouson. Some chore coats have a smart, sport-coat-like silhouette that isn’t possible with a blouson.

Philip Shetler-Jones

Simon, have you considered doing a review of the “Black Bear Brand’ ? It is such an unusual crossover of workwear and something harder to characterise.

Will

I own a Valstarino and am a recent first-time chore jacket owner and the chore jacket (Drake’s) is way more versatile. The other thing (I’m north of 45) is that, whilst I’m relatively slim and have a pretty good build, the chore jacket is just that bit more forgiving aesthetically, i.e., it makes your bum a little less showy.
Then there are the chore jacket’s pockets – you can stuff sunglasses in a top pocket and something in a side pocket (photos of Michael Hill exist doing something similar) and you have wonderful asymmetrical colour accents to compliment the look. Definitely recommend Drake’s washed versions as they hang beautifully, seem to improve after they’ve been knocked in, and if you really nail it, you can achieve a pretty good heft of nonchalance.
Chore jackets also layer with just about everything and anything and as such you can wear them on colder days with many layers through to warmer days with a tee.
This is the one I own:
https://www.drakes.com/clothing/green-tencel-cotton-five-pocket-chore-jacket
Someone mentioned Picasso and that’s basically it – a chore jacket worn with sufficient indifference gives you a serious amount of elan – absolutely one of my favourite pieces of all time.

Michael Hill2.jpg
MLS

Maybe it’s a British thing but you over analyze clothes and take them too serious. I think you try to hard and really don’t appreciate clothes.

MLS

Simon,

Points taken.

Thank you.

MLS

Carl

Great article (as usual).
You mentioned “buffalo check flannel” shirt in the text. I have actually been looking around for something like that. Too wear with denim and red wings on not-rainy days in the fall. But I have actually struggled too find something that is above the lowest kinds of quality. I don´t want it to be hand-sewn. But at least have some kind of fit and not too big arm holes.
Do you have any suggestions of where to find it. I am really looking for that classic americana shirt.

Tony Hodges

Valstar have a range of different suede jackets on sale at Mr Porter at the moment, for those who have been interested but hesitating to dip their toe into suede.

Christopher

Hi Simon,

I was hoping you could help decide between two very similar dark brown suede jackets. One is the classic Valstar Valstarino (https://www.mrporter.com/en-us/mens/product/valstar/clothing/leather-jackets/valstarino-suede-bomber-jacket/46353151655706102) and the other being the Armoury “Wright” jacket (https://thearmoury.com/collections/coats-and-jackets/products/wright-jacket?variant=39273415245895). As stated before, both are very similar expect the collar. Which in your opinion, would look/be more versatile. Thanks.

Marcus

I’ve recently acquired a pebble grain deerskin car coat, made in France for Connolly.
Is it a safe assumption that it was made by Seraphin? Also, is there a way to determine the
age? The label has a white background and red lettering in the shape of an arch.

Thank you, long time reader and fan of your site.

Marcus

Peter O

Dear Simon, who coined the name “Italian smooth” and how long has this been used by whom? You write you want to improve the name – either you change Italian or smooth, or substitute Italian by an Italian word. – Anybody who speaks of “German” must have a huge area in mind. No doubt the German clothes market is lucrative, surely German clothes shops cannot sell to Germans what can be sold to Italians.

Peter Hall

Perhaps Italian tailored would be better. Thinking on the hoof here…Italian deconstructed ? Italian sartoria?

David

Hi Simon, in the second-last photo (forest-green shetland, pale blue shirt), are those beige chinos from The Armoury? They’re great.

Vin

Hi Simon,
Interesting article as always.
I had two questions about the blouson:

  1. What materials/fabrics would you recommend, other than suede, for a brown blouson? Wool / Linen / cotton? I recall in a previous article you mentioned wool. Any specific cloth books / fabrics you could recommend? Just not sure where to start in terms of sports jacket fabrics, suit fabrics, overcoat fabrics etc.
  2. In terms of length, where should the waist band sit exactly? It’s a tricky one as I wear both high waisted trousers (chinos / flannels) and mid-rise jeans. Is there a guideline of length in terms of where the waistband is ideally positioned on the body? Same for sleeves.

Thanks.

Vin

Thanks Simon.

Ben R

Purely out of curiosity, where would you place the Reversible Valstarino from the PS Shop? You touched a bit on the difference between a Zip and Button front in the article. But I was really interested in the thought process you would use to determine the placement of the piece. (Almost like showing your work on a math exercise)
And maybe Italian Suave or Chic for the Italian Smooth category.

Ben R

Thanks. I see that. Especially now, with the slash pockets. With the patch pockets I saw a hint of workwear (military inspiration). But perhaps a Chapal piece that specifically draws inspiration from a military piece would fit the workwear paradigm better.