Get Chores: The History and Appeal of Chore Coats

Falt-lay of a vintage blue chore coat
Image is my own / All rights reserved

Occasionally, a great garment will fall victim to the cyclical churn of fashion, rendering obscure for decades what should by rights be a wardrobe staple. Think of how often classic, straight-leg jeans are relegated to ‘uncool dad’ territory. Or any kind of military surplice, which, when I was growing up, seemed the exclusive purview of your one weird cousin who is way too into hunting.

Such a lost garment is the chore coat. Or, ‘was’, I should say — the workwear boom of recent years has meant a major resurgence for the chore coat, earning it a deserved spot in your spring and autumn jacket rotation.

Chore coats or worker’s jackets — characterised by hard-wearing materials like moleskin or twill, large hip and breast patch pockets, button closure, pointed collars, and a roomy fit — originated in nineteenth-century France among railway workers and engineers. The jacket’s purpose is evident from its name and design. It was built to take a beating and protect its wearer, all while allowing free moment and ample room for storing tools and provisions. Appropriately, it goes by bleu de travail in its native country, literally meaning ‘blue work’.

Two vintage workers in chore coats
Image credit: simpleinsomnia / CC BY 2.0

The French name also references its vibrant blue colour, as seen in the designs of traditional manufacturers like Le Mont Saint Michel, Vetra and Le Laboureur who have been making theirs since the early- to mid-twentieth century.

The U.S. is where the chore coat got its English name and alternative hue, courtesy of workwear standard-bearer Carhartt. Their coat’s best-known shade is duck brown, though it’s been available in denim since 1925 when it was referred to as ‘The Engineer Coat’ or simply ‘The Coat’. Over the years, Carhartt tweaked the French design to make their jacket even hardier by adding a corduroy collar, triple-stitched seams, rivet-reinforced pockets, and blanket linings for customers in colder climes. 

Vintage man wearing a denim chore coat and cap
Image credit: The Library of Congress / No known copyright restrictions

Following its proletarian roots, the chore coat has found various other homes in the latter twentieth century and beyond. Perhaps its most famous on-screen appearance was in Cool Hand Luke (1967) where it’s worn by the inescapably stylish Paul Newman, who managed to look dapper even in a prison uniform. Carhartt chore coats have also been a hip-hop staple for decades, and French worker’s jackets are a favourite among artists of all stripes. Fine artists like Claude Monet, George Braque, and Tom Sach made them part of their regular uniforms, alongside cult figures like the experimental filmmaker Jonas Mekas and fashion photographer Bill Cunningham.

Fashion photographer Bill Cunningham wearing a chore coat
Image credit: Jiyang Chen / CC BY-SA 3.0

The chore coat’s surge in popularity over the last decade has meant that you can even get ones from Anderson and Sheppard now, though staples like Carhartt’s Michigan coat remain a go-to choice. The more the merrier, I say! Anything to keep this workwear standard as a wardrobe staple. 

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