You can’t walk down the street or scroll through your Instagram feed without seeing someone in a chore coat. Workwear’s rise in popularity helped push the utilitarian garment to the fore, no doubt with the help of beloved pioneer of street style photographer Bill Cunningham, who was rarely seen without one. Droves flocked to flea markets and vintage stores in search of patched up and patinated relics. Workwear brands offered their takes, designer brands put forth resplendent homages and creatives turned the style into a quasi uniform, all in reverence of the famous garment.
But before throngs packed flea markets, before Cunningham brought the famous blue jacket with him to the runway, before it became fashionable, it was practical.
History of Chore Coats: From France to the World
The first chore coats, known to this day as bleu de travail, were born into hard labor in 19th-Century France, made for railroad workers and engineers. Composed of moleskin or drill fabric dyed into what we recognize as French blue, early chore coats featured three (sometimes four, sometimes two) patch pockets to hold any tools required for the job at hand. They were also cut in a relaxed fit for ease of movement and layering in colder temperatures. For the warmer months, workers could flip the generous collar to protect their neck from the sun and unbutton the cuffs to roll up the sleeves.
Jamie Wong frequently stocks vintage French chore coats at her store, Raggedy Threads, a vintage store specializing in workwear and militaria. “It’s a sturdy, functional piece,” she says. “It’s an everyday jacket because there’s a lot of pockets. And, who doesn’t like jackets with pockets? I like the fact that it’s longer than a trucker jacket, especially for guys who are taller. They don’t look that good in truckers, unless they go for the high-waisted ’50s-style pants. Chore coats have better proportions for height.”
Chore Coats vs. Hunting Jackets
Though a chore coat bears resemblance to its cousin, the hunting jacket, another staple of workwear, it’s just a few pockets removed. Hunting jackets also tend to be longer and generally made from heavier fabrics to withstand winter gaming. With hunting jackets, it feels right to drop the first half of the shirt-jacket hyphenate outright. While the DNA is essentially the same, hunting jackets are just too heavy to be worn year-round.
Even here in New York, where winters can take out the warmest-blooded of us, I find myself reaching for one. The particular chore coat I have leans more on the shirt side of the shirt-jacket spectrum, yet it’s still in the roster even in freezing temps. It’s not always the outermost layer, but once I get indoors, it’s next up to bat as soon as the arctic-rated puffer is sloughed.
A Universal Uniform
Alex Robins, co-founder of New York-based brand Blluemade knows this experience. “It has to do with how people in global capitals dress,” he says. “I grew up in rural Minnesota — nobody wears chore coats. You wear your big coat and you wear your shirt. You’re in and out of your car. But in our environment in New York, we’re actually more exposed to the elements… With the variability of environments that we as New Yorkers or Parisians or people in Tokyo experience, [a chore coat] functions very well as a layering element for the way that urban transit works.”
Often, you’ll find it occupying the overshirt or shirt jacket section of your favorite retailer’s website. It’s heavier than a button-up shirt, though not as serious as an actual jacket-jacket. But it’s not like the chore coat is having an identity crisis. Rather, the chore coat is a chameleon of a garment. It’s everything you need for any environment.
And, its versatility isn’t just limited to its utility. “There’s something interestingly unsignified about it,” Robins notes. “It’s not Americana. It’s European. When you wear one, you’re not aligning yourself with rockabilly culture or hotrod culture in a way that so many mid-century garments do. It’s kind of ambiguously signified in a way that also makes it very easy to uptake into contemporary fashion.”
Brands like Le Mont St Michel and Le Laboureur stay the course, making the true French chore coat as they’ve done for decades, while contemporary labels — like Imperfects, for example — give the classic piece a go, putting their own spin on the time-tested jacket. In reality, the chore coat hasn't changed much since its debut, but that's simply a testament to its usefulness (and aesthetic appeal).