The story of the work shirt begins in 1900 with Sears, which was then called Sears Roebuck & Co. The store sold a number of durable top layers called Working Shirts, a staple of the workwear category. They sold for $0.40 each or $4.80 for a dozen. ($0.40 then is equal to around $18 today.) As evident by the bulk ordering option, these were shirts Sears thought men would burn through and reorder often. After all, they were work shirts and being worn to blue collar jobs.
Around the same time, though, the US Military introduced its own version of a work shirt to its soldiers. Made from chambray, they were long-sleeved and came with two offset pockets on the chest, reinforced shoulders, double-yoked backs and roomy armholes for better mobility. These are a separate style, though, despite sharing the same name.
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What Is a Work Shirt?
Work shirts, as we know them now, date back to the 1930s, when Dickies introduced its matching sets. They comprised long-sleeve and short-sleeve shirts with matching pants for men in commercial or industrial workplaces, where uniforms might not have been provided. Sure, the long-sleeve options offered better coverage, but the short-sleeve iterations were more comfortable, easier to move around in and cooler, too, especially in workplaces where it can get more than a little hot, especially since the shirts were made from twill.
Nowadays, work shirts have buttoned fronts, standard collars (no camp or spread collars) and two symmetrical chest pockets. Most are made from simple twill, but brands have slowly integrated better technology — like moisture-wicking or temperature-regulating fabrics, as well as stain-resistant treatments and even waterproof coatings.
What to Look for
Although long sleeves were original to the work shirt, brands have since adopted short sleeves as the standard. You should stick with whichever option feels right. If you work with sharp or hot objects, a long sleeve shirt might be better for your job. If you prefer the flexibility a short sleeve shirt offers, go with it. That being said, you're probably here because you prefer the latter.
To find the right short-sleeve work shirt, you need to know what materials it should be made from and what features it should have. First, the shirt should be at least partially synthetic. Synthetic fabrics hold up better in the wash — especially in industrial wash settings, which are often offered through folks' employers. That doesn't mean the shirt should be super stretchy or too soft, but it shouldn't be 100 percent linen or cotton unless it's quality stuff.
Your work shirt should also have some pockets — ideally two but one at the least. It's helpful to have pen dividers to keep the ink from spoiling what it's put next to but not necessary by any means. Hopefully, they do close, though, whether with buttons or velcro, because work often requires a lot of bending at the waist and losing everything you carry each time you bend over would become annoying fast.
You should also, even if you prefer skinny jeans over wide-leg pants, look for a relaxed-fitting silhouette. You'll likely need the extra room, especially if you plan on lifting your arms above your shoulders. Plus, the extra room gives you more room to breathe, which prevents the fabric from sticking to your sweaty body.