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What is a work jacket?

The work jacket is quite simply what it says it is – a jacket for work. Originally worn by French labourers in the late 1800s, it began life as a purely functional garment. It’s bright blue was also intended for something other than fashion. Your jacket’s colour was shorthand for what job you did – blue for labourers, white for bosses.

The key feature of the work jacket is its utility. Made in heavy cotton drill, it was designed for the demands of physical jobs. Much like the overall, it was designed to be loose enough to go over clothing, to protect it while you worked. Since it was a protective layer, it could be bashed and repaired as needed – vintage ones are often covered in patches because it was more cost-effective than replacing the entire jacket.

Why they’re still great

The work jacket’s popularity today is in no small part because of that same practicality. “It goes back to the utilitarian element of it,” says Thread stylist Alexander McCalla. Though modern wearers are not using the pockets to store tools, it can still feel like part of a uniform – one that requires little thought. “If you’re into workwear this is a staple piece you can wear every day,” says Alexander. Just like Bill Cunningham, the late street style photographer for the New York Times, whose blue work jacket became as defining a part of his look as his camera.

How to wear it right now

“The history of the item means if you start to go too smart it doesn’t work as well,” says Alexander. “It’s great to layer and looks good with Oxford shirts and t-shirts, but can even go over a hoodie or merino knit and still look strong. Chinos always look great with a chore jacket, but you can go more traditional, too: a work jacket with selvedge jeans throws back to its original workwear origins.”

What to look for

“The shape, and fabric, is pretty fixed – there will be two or three pockets, it’s a durable cotton although still lightweight – but this means you can experiment with colour. I’ve seen rust versions that look great, as well as things that are a bit more unexpected, like mint green. I’ve also seen lighter jackets worn tonally, so pale green over a darker forest green, and it looks great. You don’t want to go to oversized with the fit as it can start to look boxy. So make sure the seams sit on the edge of your shoulders.”

Words: Nadia Balame-Price
Photography: Jon Cardwell
Styling: Alexander McCalla
Styling assistant: Toby Standing