The color – a shade of indigo – defines these garments more than their cuts. In fact, bleu de travail (literally, “work blue”) can refer to overalls, jumpsuits, and jackets. Traditionally made with moleskin, a brushed and tightly woven cotton fabric used to protect workers from sharp equipment and spatters of molten metal, this type of clothing generally features a zipper, or buttons, and large pockets – useful for carrying tools.
As an outward sign of belonging to the working class, it almost assumes the role of a uniform. As Roland Barthes wrote in 1967: “The bleu de travail is used for working, but it also represents the work itself.” The French collective imagination associated it with the Popular Front’s strikes in 1936 and the May ’68 protests, when workwear appeared in the streets and highlighted the intersection between student and working-class struggles. It then shifted from popular and virile to intellectual, and became a standard-bearer for a range of demands.
In reality, it is nothing short of an ideological marker. In 1889, Christophe Thivrier, a Socialist Party representative from the Allier département, attended a session of the National Assembly wearing the blue workwear of his native region. This act was to prove that he was a man of the people, and saw him expelled from the institution. A century later, in 1997, the Communist Party representative Patrice Carvalho reenacted the protest. Feminist movements then seized upon these garments, in a nod to American icon Rosie the Riveter, to condemn patriarchal abuses of power.
A Social Label
The symbolic weight of workwear has long inspired the fashion industry. In the late 1960s, stylists and designers all rushed to adopt it. Agnès b. sold it when she first started, offering unisex overalls with lots of pockets. Workwear was liberated from its working-class connotations to enter the world of runway shows. Yves Saint Laurent, followed by Jean Paul Gaultier, launched haute couture versions; the former designed cotton overalls in tribute to turn-of-the-century aviators, while the latter used gold lamé fabric.
Hermès has retained the spirit and cut of overalls worn by mechanics, but swapped out moleskin for leather. In 2018, Maria Grazia Chiuri had her models walk down the runway in overalls for Christian Dior. And who can forget Bill Cunningham’s influence on the success of this sartorial trend? The renowned New York Times fashion columnist, who became a pioneering street-style photographer and passed away in 2016, never left the house without his blue twill jacket.
This streetwear version has been the most popular among young, urban, wealthy creatives since the 2010s. This triumph can be explained by this demographic’s love for unearthing second-hand clothing in thrift stores; the more worn the piece, the greater its value. Meanwhile, those who prefer new clothing are drawn to workwear made in France. In the United States, fashionistas buy “French worker’s jackets” and “French chore jackets,” which hark back to their working-class Gallic origins.
As a consequence of this popularity, prices have skyrocketed. In the 1920s, workwear cost 20 francs on average (roughly 3 euros today). Nowadays, jackets by brands such as Bleu de Paname, Le Mont Saint Michel, Officine Générale, and The Kooples sell for around 300 euros. This has been more than enough to accuse their wearers, often described as bobos in France and hipsters in the United States, of class appropriation. Whether considered a source of pride or shame, wearing a bleu de travail is never neutral. You’ve been warned!