The French Chore Coat: Appreciated or Appropriated?
by Henry Kauntze | 31 May 2022
When Keziah Daum uploaded photographs from her school’s commemoration ball to Twitter in 2018, she was met with thousands of comments criticising her choice to wear a Chinese cheongsam. The reply which resonated most came from Jeremy Lam, notoriously writing “my culture is NOT your goddam prom dress.” Since then, questions of cultural appropriation have become mainstream.
Yet, the concept of appropriation is nothing new. In 1981, Brian Eno and David Byrne released their deviceful album My Life in the Bush of Ghosts. The record featured samples of devotional singing and preaching which were digitised, looped, and synthesised to the pair’s signature rock-ambient-electronic-experimental sound. Issued in the same year, the album’s second release saw the sixth track “Qur’an” omitted in accordance with a complaint by the Islamic Council of Great Britain. Representatives thought the song contained inappropriately manipulated samples of Muslim preachers. Similarly, Paul Simon’s 1986 solo album Graceland is a melting pot of western and non-western musical genres. The fifth track “Diamonds on the Soles of Her Shoes” exhibits a juxtaposition between Simon’s lyrics and the isicathamiya vocals of Ladysmith Black Mambazo, a collaboration which led some to see the record as riffing on African musical techniques which were subsequently catered to a white audience.
These examples have in common the repurposing of cultural products intended for societal groups at odds with the prospect of superiority. What I mean by that is, in terms of racial politics, Americans and Europeans have taken elements of often disadvantaged non-American or non-European cultures and adopted them, perhaps, in the interest of appearing ‘fashionable.' Arguably, a similar process of misappropriation, yet this time in relation to class, can be seen in a relatively recent trend in men’s clothing: workwear.
French Workmen (Image: Grailed)
For a genre of style so broad, an article of this length cannot fully articulate the characteristics (and potential problems with) workwear. Although, through the case study of one garment in particular, wider judgements, I hope, can be made. And that garment is the French chore coat, or ‘bleu de travail’ as they say across the channel. Towards the close of the nineteenth century, manual labourers began to wear a new type of utilitarian jacket, one which was more modern than the boilersuit, yet could still endure the intense physical work of its owner. Railway operatives wore them, as did farmers and factory workers. Even in prisons of that time, inmates might have been issued a similar type of overshirt.
Traditionally made from cotton woven in twill or moleskin, these coats were dyed a signature indigo blue and cut generously. The fabric was for durability, the colour for hiding dirt, and the fit for freedom of movement. Stylistically they sit somewhere between a sport coat and a dress shirt: they have collars, but no lapels, they have more buttons than you might find on a traditional jacket, but retain three patch pockets and a single vent on the seat, the sleeves have cuffs, but they are made without an interior lining. Utility was of primary concern to manufacturers and consumers alike.
After the turn of the century, these chore coats were being mass produced by companies like Le Mont Saint Michel and Le Laboureur. In fact, they still manufacture similar jackets today.
Original Chore Coat (Image: Le Mont Saint Michel)
In the U.S., Carhartt began making chore coats too, except with pile blanketing and a heavy-duty corduroy collar to accommodate for colder temperatures in Detroit. Fast-forward to 1967, Paul Newman wore a chore coat in Cool Hand Luke and he pushed the boundaries of the garment’s durability as he played the role of a defiant convict.
Nowadays they are nearly everywhere. I bought one in a second-hand shop in Soho for just over £50, but big brands offer similar garments for less tidy sums. Le Mont Saint Michel’s twenty-first-century version retails for around £200. Drake’s offer a variety of coats in different colours and fabrics, their standard style costing £475. Anderson & Shepard sell a ‘lightweight cotton travel jacket’ (essentially the same idea) for £1,850. Evidently, these chore coats have ventured far from their proletariat origins, which is not to criticise these brands, but simply to make an observation about the evolution of a once-workman’s overshirt.
Left: Paul Newman, 1967 (Image: IMDb)
Right: Drake's Chore Coat (Image: Drake's)
So, has the workwear enthusiast invertedly misappropriated the nineteenth-century French railway engineer when he wears a chore coat? No, I don’t think so. If he has, I believe it to be less of a sin that the previous examples of cultural appropriation mentioned above. What has happened, though, is that designers have used a garment with a particular history and transformed it into an expensive piece of clothing. Expensive, no doubt, because of the remarkable quality and workmanship that went into its production, but paradoxically at odds with its original purpose. The provenance of the French chore coat is significant and when we wear one today, it’s important to recognise what a lot of men a century prior would have done when they put on theirs.
But don’t let that serve as discouragement from the French chore coat. People wear it because it looks good. If it’s too cold for shirtsleeves but too warm for an overcoat, the ‘bleu de travail’ is a perfect choice to wear over a plain T-shirt or an OCBD. In short, this garment has a history not to be denied. It should be worn with its heritage in mind, and if done correctly, it’ll look smashing.