Modern Classics: The enduring appeal of the chore jacket

Modern Classics: The enduring appeal of the chore jacket

From our London vantage point, we need to peer across the channel to discover where the roots of the chore jacket lie, although we needn’t strain our eyes past the flat green pastures of Brittany, or more specifically, the majestic coastal town of Mont Saint Michel, where one of the very first manufacturers of the chore jacket - known then as bleu de travail or bleu de chine - still remains today.

Such longevity is indicative of the chore jacket’s enduring appeal over the last 150 or so years. As the name might suggest, the jacket’s original intention was a strictly utilitarian one, designed to be worn by the French proletariat and blue-collar workers (hence the bleu de travail name), specifically railroad labourers and engineers in the late 1800s whose jobs required a tough yet lightweight jacket that could be easily patched up, replete with three or four exterior pockets to carry small tools and no doubt a sandwich or two. It needed to withstand the rigours of daily use, hence it was typically constructed from a hard-wearing cotton drill or moleskin and dyed in a ‘hydrone’ blue hue.

It would be appropriated by American railroad and farm workers too, where it was made up of durable fabrics such as denim and heavy canvas. As such, it became an icon of American workwear and has evolved over the decades to incorporate softer, more luxurious fabrics, all the while maintaining the traditional boxy cut, button front, and utilitarian pocket details.

In contemporary culture, the chore jacket’s greatest moment of fame probably came upon the shoulders of Paul Newman in the 1967 prison drama film Cool Hand Luke in which it is given the role of standard prison-issue clobber. But more recently, it was the New York Times’ late great street fashion photographer Bill Cunningham who best championed it. In fact, he was very rarely seen without it, so much so that his colleagues at the NYT gave the jacket its own moniker: “The Bill”.

For Cunningham, it was less a style statement or personal signifier than it was the perfect functional jacket. In it he could run, cycle, scurry, bounce and crouch into the perfect shooting position to capture that fleeting moment on a New York sidewalk, while the pockets were amply sized to fit rolls of film and the odd pancake lens. Cunningham was in many ways the perfect modern advocate for the chore jacket - humble, discreet and hardworking – everything that the jacket pertained to be.

Needless to say, the chore jacket has always been an integral part of our collections at Oliver Spencer where it has occupied a versatile role between casualwear and traditional tailoring. This season, it is best represented by our Hythe, Coram, and Hortus jackets, the latter of which is part of our season 2 drop from the Niwaki collaboration, designed to be worn in the garden. Each of them is perfect for spring/summer layering over a standard t-shirt or perhaps a grandad collar shirt if you prefer a little more structure without reverting to a collar. 

 Coram Jacket Kildale Indigo Rinse

Coram Jacket Kildale
Indigo Rinse

Coram Jacket Bevan Taupe

Coram Jacket
Bevan Taupe

The Coram jacket is a three-pocket chore jacket at its core, but riffs on the Nehru collar rather than featuring a classic turn-down collar. It comes in two versions this season, one being a classic taupe tone in a textured organic cotton twill, while the other is a closer iteration of the classic chore jacket, being constructed from a rich indigo-dyed organic cotton. 

The Hythe jacket is a modern hybrid of a traditional chore jacket and a safari shirt, featuring a four pocket front with a subtle pen pocket, as well as a classic spread collar, and two pouch pockets at the rear of the jacket. We've created it in three different fabrics for Spring 23 - an ecological linen in a rich olive green tone, as well as an organic cotton style in a vibrant ochre colour. The third fabric is our Penpol cloth, which is a lightweight technical cotton with water-repellent qualities, and we have constructed this in both black and dark green options.

 Hythe Jacket Penpol Dark Green

Hythe Jacket Penpol
Dark Green

Hythe Jacket Penpol Black

Hythe Jacket
Penpol Black



 Hythe Jacket Bevan Ochre

Hythe Jacket
Bevan Ochre

Hythe Jacket Padworth Green

Hythe Jacket
Padworth Green

The Hortus jacket is the poster boy of our Niwaki gardening capsule, and is cut with a more cropped and boxier shape than the traditional chore jacket so it doesn't snag when you're tackling that out-of-control hedge! It also features a four pocket configuration at the front, which extra elastication in the side entry pockets to prevent your tools from falling out. We've crafted in a couple of different lightweight organic cotton cloths, so it's soft but strong. The tobacco and green styles are great options for those who like an understated workwear wardrobe, but denim heads will want to make a beeline for our two indigo-dyed styles for a riff on classic Americana silhouettes.

 Oliver Spencer x Niwaki Hortus Gardening Jacket Hyde Green

Oliver Spencer x Niwaki
Hortus Gardening Jacket
Hyde Green

Oliver Spencer x Niwaki Hortus Gardening Jacket Mullins Denim Indigo Rinse

Oliver Spencer x Niwaki
Hortus Gardening Jacket
Mullins Denim Indigo Rinse

Oliver Spencer x Niwaki Hortus Gardening Jacket Rhodes Tobacco

Oliver Spencer x Niwaki Hortus
Gardening Jacket
Rhodes Tobacco

Even if you’ve never thought of yourself as a workwear guy, we’d highly recommend you give the chore jacket a spin. It’s so versatile and easy to wear that we’d put money on it becoming the first thing you reach for when looking for a lightweight summer layering piece this year.



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