From humble beginnings, the chore jacket has become a must-have in a modern man’s wardrobe, at once functional, comfortable, versatile and stylish. We explore what makes this workwear staple so enduringly popular and why it has become an integral shape in the Oliver Spencer aesthetic...
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 - 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 hardwearing 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 too.
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 perhaps best represented by our Cowboy, Cromwell and Hockney jackets, the latter of which comes in the classic indigo rinse for traditionalists, while also in Forest green and Temple blue options. 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. For a slightly more stylised option, we have our Coram jacket which is a three-pocket chore jacket at its core, but riffs on the Nehru collar rather than featuring a classic turn-down collar. It also comes in three versions: Evering green linen; Marwood rust organic cotton; and Vyne navy seersucker.
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.
Main image: By Patrick Demarchelier.
The chore jackets we love