‘Bleu de Travail’ workwear

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When I covered chore coats about this time last year, I mentioned that there were three major workwear materials that could be interchanged for different looks: blue denim, US-military green and duck-cotton canvas. It could be a Type II jacket with fatigues, a Carhartt chore with 501s, or a jungle jacket with carpenter trousers: they all work together. It’s like a little workwear capsule. 

However, true and hopefully useful as that was, it did a disservice to another beautiful material: French bleu de travail

Today I’m going to correct that and talk a little about its qualities, as well as how it fits into these workwear combos, using a vintage piece of mine as an example. 

France’s history with this indigo-dyed material goes back to the nineteenth century. It was originally the military’s colour, but during that century the dye became so cheap and ubiquitous that manufacturers started using a lighter, more vibrant version of it for their workers. 

Over time, the overalls, jacket and trousers that the workers wore came to be known as bleu de travail  or ‘work blues’. Examples of the trousers, and occasionally overalls, are pretty common in vintage stores, although they tend to be worn thin; jackets or chore coats were more widespread and have lasted better. 

The French called them work jackets, not chores. Chore coat was an American term, originating in the early 20th century when Carhartt and Dickies became the big producers. But everywhere the designs were pretty consistent, given they were so driven by function and by economy. 

A work jacket was simple and straight, cut big for range of movement and to allow anything the weather required to be worn underneath. They were hip length, dressed up a bit with a collar (some workers had black versions to wear to church) and had two chest and hip pockets. 

In France the jackets gained an association with the northern coast, around Brittany and Normany. This was down to Le Mont St Michel, which was one of the largest producers in the first half of the twentieth century - it’s also the reason the piece is sometimes referred to as a Breton work jacket.

The association with the sea always seemed like a fitting one to me, given the sea and the sky above it are so redolent of the shades of blue these jackets fade to over time. 

In the image below you can see this particularly along my folded-back cuff. At the very end, nearest the watch, is the interior colour of the jacket (presumably close to the original blue). Then the material fades slowly along the cuff, accompanied by ripples of colour created by the tension of the stitching. Finally, the edge of the cuff is almost pure white, close to the colour of the sleeve it is folded onto. 

This gradation of blues is repeated in different ways all over the jacket, though never as obviously as on the cuff. 

If anyone tells you PS is new to this coverage of vintage clothing, by the way, point them to articles from 10 years ago on vintage denim and a vintage wax jackets. These kinds of textiles have always done funny things to me.

Now my jacket is not actually a jacket, nor is it French. 

It’s meant to be a shirt, as is clear from the lack of hip pockets and the buttoned cuffs. It would have been worn tucked in, probably over a vest or undershirt, and with a jacket or overalls. But today its weight means it just about works as an overshirt. 

And it comes from Germany rather than France: the same colour of workwear has long been popular in other countries. The rather attractive label says it was made by Greiff, a workwear specialist founded in 1802 and still going today, and the specific logo dates it to the 1950s. 

The issue I have with a lot of vintage like this is the length - given I’m over average height even today (and these pieces would have been worn with truly high-waisted trousers) everything is a bit short on me. 

Here, I improved the situation a little by letting down the hem. This means there is a little less weight at the bottom of the garment, but it gains a couple of centimetres in length. And that extra fade line along the bottom isn’t bad. 

So, how versatile is this fourth workwear colour? 

It works really well with denim - dark, mid-blue, ecru - as shown. I’ve deliberately played with different blues here, with that light-wash denim and navy watch cap, but blue and indigo work generally. 

It’s not as good with strong colours, as the blue is quite vivid. But you’re on safer ground with soft, washed colours (like those three other workwear materials) and neutrals. I wouldn’t say it’s as versatile as other workwear pieces, but it is a nice option if you want a stronger colour that’s still quite easy to wear. 

I bought this one, by the way, in Portobello Market for £45. A nice example of the kind of thing you can find with a bit of digging. 

I’ve had less luck finding a pair of bleu de travail trousers that fit - they generally have the twin problems of being too short and too ragged/paint-splattered. If anyone sees some with a 33-inch waist, or thereabouts, and a 32 inside leg, let me know.

Other clothes shown:

  • PS navy Watch Cap
  • PS white Tapered T-shirt
  • Alden full-strap loafers, Color 8 cordovan, Aberdeen last
  • Anderson & Sheppard grey socks (though it would have been nice without them too, at least in the warmer-weather versions without the watch cap)
  • My old Rolex GMT

Shot by Jamie Ferguson @jkf_man during the trip for this shoot last year. (Been holding onto these for a while!)

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Lindsay McKee

Great report.
Nice to see something new.

Anon

I have forgotten the name of the famous French maker of blue workwear still being made today

Anon

Interesting but I’m thinking of another name, maybe beginning with V, could be wrong.

iscream

Vetra

Nils

Perhaps Vetra?

Anonymous

It is Vetra!
Many thanks

Jack French

I’m wearing my Vetra jacket today. It’s lovely and soft and very versatile. Got mine from John Simons.

Rui

There is Armor Lux, and a better one: Le Minor.

Anonymous

Vetra and Le Laboureur definaitely make authentic bleus.
Armox Lux and Le Minor don’t.

limekiln

Correcto.
It’s funny how much people fork out for genuine work jackets, especially used ones. These are often for sale for as little as 1-5€ in the very common “vide grenier” markets held all over France.
Usually with years of patina baked in, free-of-charge. 🙂

Markus S

Interesting article.
As you mention in your article, the colour is still worn in many countries professionally. This is also the case in Austria, and Germany I believe. That means that during worktime many tradepersons such as plumbers, electricians, painters, etc. wear such jackets.This limits the wearability in leisure time somewhat. The colour is too much connected with work.

Aaron

I think the fact we had donkey jackets helps with that – I imagine they work for leisure might look a little weird here sometimes.

AKG

Nice article. You may want to check following shop – you may find the trousers you are looking for.
https://lusinebleue.com/le-shop/overshirts/lusine-bleue-coltin-work-jacket/

Goran

A suggestion for Simons next visit to Stockholm is to do an interview with the owner of l’usine bleu; a frenchman living in Stockholm. He has an incredible knowledge of french workwear and he’s really an enthusiast happy to share his passion.

WBH

The collection of brand logos here is magnificent!
https://lusinebleue.com/our-brands/?_gl=1*ak0j4q*_up*MQ..*_ga*ODEzMTc2MTM5LjE3MTc3MTE2MzA.*_ga_LWR3YZ3526*MTcxNzcxMTYyOC4xLjEuMTcxNzcxMTY2NC4wLjAuMA..*_ga_3H40NQ2K4P*MTcxNzcxMTYyOC4xLjEuMTcxNzcxMTY2NC4wLjAuMTQ2MTY4NTI2NQ..

Robin

That’s such a beautiful blue colour .

On the subject of workwear one of the great things I like about tailoring is how it’s form always has a function and practicality .
So , for example , surgeons cuffs , a back and shoulders that open up on a hunting jacket to allow a shotgun to be used for shooting , a ticket pocket etc etc .

It’s occurred to me , aside from ‘technical clothing’ , has tailoring (MTM, bespoke …even RTW) developed to accommodate the mobile phone ?
Having just acquired a iPhone max and I’m struggling to put it into any pocket , trousers or jacket .
Is functionality and tailoring still accommodating 19th century practicality ?

Be good to hear of your experience . Do you have an inside pocket reinforced to carry the weight of a mobile ?

James

Robin
The term you’re looking for is “action back”. A lot easier to say than back and shoulders that open up.

Jacques

I’m not sure about tailoring but sportswear has definitely adapted to giant phones, particularly lined shorts and tights that have very large phone pockets.

ray_bentos

I’m not sure what footwear would go with the outfit in the final picture, maybe canvas trainers or boots.

The shiny black loafers look like you’ve shanghai’d a gentleman on his way to a cocktail party and stolen his shoes.

Aaron

I really like the look of chore jackets and I bought a deadstock one off Etsy after reading some PutThisOn articles on them. Unfortunately, I rarely wear it as it seems to be a little tight in the back for me and when I lift my arms the sleeve digs into my bicep (at least, I think that’s what causes that? Unless it’s something else about my body?) and secondly I always end up feeling rather self-conscious wearing it, worrying I come off as cosplaying (which is ridiculous because I know other people don’t think that of others wearing this 95% of the time!)

Jack French

I wouldn’t call it cosplaying, but the chore jacket can’t escape the aura of the woodwork teacher for me – doesn’t look right without tools sticking out of all the pockets. The Vetra jacket I have is more like a blazer and the overshirt style Simon’s wearing is also more versatile. Maybe I just don’t do enough chores.

Stephen

Hi Simon,
Thanks for this. I always enjoy this provenance type of article. Also it’s a good look on you.

Marc

Nice article. I do have a vintage chore coat but I find they are far too boxy for my tastes and sometimes the buttons are hidden too which I also am not fond of. But my favourite chore coat of which I have 3…indigo, black and military green are from…ahem…TK Maxx. At £40 each they were a real bargain. They are herringbone fabric and are well made, and will last me a lifetime as my tastes will really not change a great deal as I reach 50. I know such stores are not usually mentioned here, but when you know what you want, there are some classic items in stock every now and then. I also have a pair of work trousers that I bought in a vintage store in Bristol that were just £5. I rarely wear them as they are too big in the waist and too short. But they have a beautiful aging to them, with moleskin type fabric, patches, stitching and paint/rust blotches, all of which tell a story of some serious hard work and love.

NickD

TK Maxx seems to be about 95% dross, but there is the odd gem – I picked up a cashmere Brioni jacket in there a few years back.

Bob M

Nice article.
Living in the American South, I found my Le Mont St Michel jacket too hot except in the dead of winter. Instead, I switched to a Japanese work shirt in Okayama denim. It’s longer and not quite as boxy, but useful nonetheless. Ironically, I have gotten more compliments on this simple shirt than any other I wear.

WBH

Hi Bob- who makes the denim work shirt?

Anthony

SAINT JAMES based in Normandy make a very nice one.

Jackson

I used to really like the idea of getting a jacket like this. However, having lived in china and seen a pretty innumerable number of road workers or sanitation workers wearing bright blue chore jackets that were not quite so far removed from the drake’s navy tencel chore that I was wearing at the time, I realised that i looked like I was cosplaying as a chinese sanitation worker. The association completely killed these jackets for me!

Anon

Be grateful those workers have some style and aren’t decked head to toe in high viz.

Leo

Bleu de Chauffe (https://www.bleu-de-chauffe.com/en/326-work-jacket) chore seems like a slighly tailored version of the classic workwear version while keeping its classic features. I’ve been looking it for some time, never found a review/opinion on it though.

On another note Simon, do you think it works with fatigue greens? Thanks in advance.

J Crewless

As a fan of surplus militaria and workwear when away from toiling at the Corporation and a desire to return to my Blue Collar roots after “punching out”, it’s relaxing reading these posts.

Anonymous

As you mentioned the length looks ted short on you. I find it very difficult to pair the right shades of shirts and trousers underneath this type of bluish navy jacket.

PANAGIOTIS

Another delightful article Simon! Nice combination too, but the Alden loafers seem too “delicate” to my eyes, especially given the surroundings and the character of the old shirt/jeans, aren’t they? I mean boots, sneakers or derbies could work much better…

Kind regards,
Panagiotis

Magnus

I know they aren’t really your thing, but a chunky loafer like the Paraboot Reims would also like nice, I think.

Magnus

Funny, I just purchased a blue chore jacket in that shade yesterday. A timely article since I’ve been planning a lot of pairings for it.
Yours is pretty unique in shape and details. One of the nice things about vintage finds!

RT

Paynter Jacket Co periodically release versions of this type of jacket in various colours, including this shade of blue, inspired by the collection of jackets owned by one of the partners. They call it Bill’s Blue, in honour of the photographer Bill Cunningham, from who, they took inspiration and who often wore a similar jacket. Their website has an interesting history of the jacket too. I have a couple of their jackets in less bright colours and like them. I’m considering getting a blue one next time they issue one. I think that they look a little bright when new, but with some nice wear and fading they look great.

Sebastien

I’m sorry but this type of article makes me uncomfortable, as it is taking a really cheap, basic piece of functional workwear and tries to make it into something of a fashion statement.
French workers wore bleus to do basic, simple tasks. Emptying the bins, cleaning roads, putting up scaffolds. Now it is a trendy thing.
A bit like the things we saw with espadrilles. They were the absolutely cheapest things to wear on your feet, then they became a designer trend.
I think it is really silly, I’m sorry, to see this taking of traditional working garments and trying to make them a cool product.

J Crewless

There is nothing cheap about workwear. It’s well made because it has to be. I get what you’re saying about feeling somewhat turned off by seeing it or whatever, but it’s comfortable, functional, sturdy, designed for a purpose instead of peacocking, etc.

Guess it’s a matter of personal taste, but as stated by SC, all utilitarian clothing designs have a reason for being in existence. The designs of the Dandies throughout history all eventually became extinct as they served no purpose except displaying wealth and so on.

Sebastien

Well J Crewless I think I prefer not to wear clothing that is made to be for a workman as I am not wanting to look like one. Also I think it is more cheap than expensive.

NickD

Sebastien, are you saying you never wear anything workwear based? Jeans, chambray etc? And vintage workwear is better made than the vast majority of modern clothing. People owned fewer item, paid comparatively more for them and kept them longer,

Sebastien

Nickd I see working men in my country in bleus which is worn for work. So not for a fashion item, just for work. When they stop the work they stop wearing bleus. This is why.

John R

My experience of work jackets is this: A Le Mont St Michel jacket, albeit a more ‘modern’ cut they’re experimenting with. Too baggy and boxy, awful. Also, an Australian brand few of you would be familiar with, Christian Kimber, made in Portugal, slightly elevated toward a more tailored aesthetic, really lovely. Though unfortunately they seem to have discontinued them.

robert gault

There is a certain irony in making working men’s clothing into a fashion item. (with apologies to Mr Levi Strauss) I have a denim chore coat that I wear when at work in my shop….but it stays in the shop.

Tom P

If anyone wants new vetra work jackets in ‘hydrone’ blue I am selling a job lot bought for a restaurant project where they were going to be the uniform. They are on eBay now. Nice to start with a new one and make them patinated by your life’s activities. Thanks Tom
https://www.ebay.co.uk/itm/296369293884

Ned Brown

Dear Simon,
The origins of the indigo dye go back to the early 18th century when the wealthy French Huegenot families (like Lauens and Manigault) were growing the plants on their South Carolina coastal plantations, and the shipping the bales back to Le Havre and La Rochelle. Cotton and rice later followed as export products. Cheers,

Mark

Very cool.

Damian

I remember there was a great report in one of the Financial Times supplements ( Weekend / How to Spend It ) about these French workwear items. There still made in France in traditional cuts/ fabrics.
I couldn’t find the FT article but did find this piece. Made in France. Sold in …. Denmark !
https://lusinebleue.com/le-shop/overshirts/lusine-bleue-coltin-work-jacket/
They also have trousers, but they appear to be all moleskin.
Regards
Damian

Leif

Great photos.
I wonder if the old American use of the word “chore” for such work jackets points to a domestic association — not just professional or military — so, a jacket worn for doing the chores around the house, the barn, etc.
Also, small bits of red (or better: faded red) would work with such outfits pictured here, for patriotic reasons long established by the French, Brits and Americans. A red neckerchief, faded red cotton crew neck sweater… a red cap?

Simon

A very nice example and fit – for me the herringbone versions definitely age the best and I love wearing my vintage one. Interesting array of views in the comments regarding connotations. I can’t help but find it ironic though that there have been a fair number of brands producing workwear inspired pieces, some with more heritage/provenance than others, that try and emulate in some way the ‘perfect’ chore jacket inspired by these designs, striving for a stiff ruggedness that I don’t think was really in the minds of the multiple companies that produced the originals, not to mention often having an awkward slimmer fit and ever increasing prices (see Drake’s as one example of price). I imagine those original jackets will have been bought and made in the same way today’s hospital scrubs are, en masse, just with the benefit of the much higher standards of the mass produced materials of the time (which as we know from other vintage provides more than enough longevity).

Marcos LIP

Hi everyone, I wrote an article on Le Laboureur (in French) here: https://www.lesindispensablesparis.com/mode/le-laboureur-vestes-de-travail
Wonderful people and wonderful jackets !
Cheers,
Les Indispensables Paris

Dr Peter

A very nice article indeed on bleu de travail. But not as easy to find where I live in the US! Here, denim and cotton drill jackets from various US workwear companies are easy to find, even fairly old ones that qualify as vintage pieces. I own several, some from the companies you mention, Carhartt and Dickies.

However, we also have a parallel collection of items in various, often beautifully faded, gorgeous shades of Breton red, or Nantucket red (as it is called Stateside). Simon, I’d love to see you do a piece on this material: I’ve read that it comes from the canvas sails used by fishing boats in Brittany, originally. When the sails get very old, they are taken down and cut to proper sizes and made up into trousers that are very serviceable for all sorts of chores. They are more popular for leisure wear here and rarely used by workmen who go for blue denim. The greater the fading, the more lovely they look. At some point, Breton red migrated to the US and became “Nanny” red. I am unsure how easy it is to find this material in the UK.

I have at least a dozen pairs of Nanny red / Breton red trousers at different levels of fading, and at least half a dozen shorts, again at various fades. Jackets, shirts and other articles of clothing are also available in this fabric, and the iconic producer of this category of clothing is Murray’s Toggery on Nantucket Island off the Massachusetts coast. The prices are extremely reasonable, and one can also find them for pennies on the dollar at thrifts and vintage shops. I am very fond of them and they pair beautifully with navy blue, black, dark forest green, very light pink and many other colors. They are especially good for summer wear.

Jim Bainbridge

I’m wearing my favourite Vetra jacket as we speak, it’s in linen and very similar to the one that André wore in his ‘How to dress like’. Also very long in both body and sleeve, unlike many other Vetras which are usually too short in the sleeve for me. (6’, 38” chest)

I love the heavy linen, but I do think that cotton ages more beautifully – as perfectly captured in this article

Juanito

This is still in use in Spain by most workers in building construction, mechanics, doormen when fixing things… Typically wear overalls in this color or both the pants and the jacket. The pants now have pockets like cargo pants, the jacket has blouson shape plus zipper.
To avoid confused looks from my doorman I prefer carhartt to workers blue.

Sam

Interesting piece Simon.
This work garment is also called Bleu de Marseille in the south of France and was exported in the early 20th s. to the colonies and became a Mediterranean style ( also called Bleu de Chine in Algeria) due contact between dockers and sailors from different ports of the empire.

Bradley

Would love to hear your thoughts on the formal / casual balance when it comes to footwear with the rest of this type of style. I lean into this more casual and workwear inspired look and try and mix things like my chore coat from Le Mont St Michel with odd trousers like whipcords flannels and chinos. I wear LHS loafers in suede and cordovan and more casual derbys like split toes and grain leathers but have doubts that something isn’t lining up. Would you say tailored trousers just don’t fit with workwear inspired pieces or more casual loafers/derbiys? Do the tailored trousers not work without their tailored jacket counterparts? Sometimes I feel like I’m frankensteining formality instead of playfully mixing like I think I am.

Patrick

I’ve always found it ironic that the official name for the shade of blue in French “bleus de travail” is “bleu Bugatti.” The color synonymous with the luxury car since the 1920s defines the workwear of the mechanics who repaired it. I never thought of buying such garments, for the reasons articulated by Sébastien, until about fifteen years ago when, on a whim, I purchased a “combinaison de travail” (overall) simply because it looked incredibly comfortable and was extremely affordable (about 30€). Although I did nothing resembling manual labor, I found myself wearing my combinaison with increasing frequency, first in the privacy of my own apartment and finally on the streets of Paris, where I was doubtless mistaken for a laborer. The purchase of a black combinaison soon followed. Today, with a country house and garden to look after, my purchases have proven fortuitous, and repeated washings have only made the garments more comfortable. Although vestes de travail from such manufacturers as Mont St-Michel can cost 200€ or more (and come in a rainbow of colors), those from manufacturers catering to the budgets of manual laborers (e.g., Oxwork) cost less than 20€ for Bugatti blue in pure cotton. Matching trousers are even cheaper.

John

It’s called a „blaumann“ German labourers / tradesmen / factory workers often still wear that kind of clothing, e.g. pants and overalls….
Every German knows what a „blaumann“ is 🙂

Gabe

Hi Simon,
Very interested in your tatoo. How do you feel about it today, are you thinking about having another one?