Un-Design

Un-Design

Fashioning blue-collars: chambray shirts and indigo-dyed workwear

Indigo dyed threads. kolokolchiki/Flickr

Australian anthropologist Michael Taussig writes:

To slip into the blue of your blue jeans is to slip into a surprising and unexpected encounter with the past … but without your having the faintest idea of what you are slipping into.

The more than 5,000-years-old history of indigo-dyed clothing frames a world history of globalisation, labour, fashion, and the best and worst of human nature. From the early to mid 1900s, indigo blue clothing was deeply associated with the working classes, such as the “blue collars” of Australia and American “tradies”. Analysing the values, design, and experience of the blue-collar chambray shirt for the working peoples of Australia and America provides a basis for the shifting views of blue-collar workers today.

Of American and Australian blue collars

The first mention of the term “blue collar” in print is attributed to a 1924 Alden Iowa newspaper, The Times, which stated:

If we may call professions and office positions white collar jobs, we may call the trades blue collar jobs.

Blue-collar jobs refer to occupations requiring skilled labour, often manual and industrial in nature. In Australia, these include the categories of skilled labourers (ex. from doggers to sandblasters), tradies (ex. from builders to technicians), plant operators, miners, and drillers. Hong Kong researcher Yim Chim Richard Wong, states:

The industrial worker became the “social question” of 1900 because he was the first lower-class person in history to gain the opportunity to organize and stay organised.

At the turn of the 20th century, the demarcation of the interests and cultures of blue-collared versus white-collared workers became important as labour movements and trade unionisation accelerated in Australia, the United States, and Europe, especially Britain.

This acceleration of trade unionisation reflected the challenges of the working conditions for blue-collar workers in Australia and the US, which were and continue to be often dangerous and, key to choice of clothing, dirty.

The indigo dyeing of the various cotton shirts, pants, and coveralls of the workwear sought to mask the dirt and grease that would result from the work environment. This was especially important when the frequent washing of clothing was not possible or extremely labour intensive. Thus, the number-one value associated with indigo-dyed workwear was durability. The second value was practicality.

As the actual shirt of the “blue collar” term, the chambray shirt exemplifies the durability and practicality of indigo-dyed workwear. Said to be first established Cambrai, France in 1595, chambray is defined as “a lightweight evenweave fabric formed of colored warp yarns [often blue] and white weft yarns.”

Selvage edge chambray. Visivo/Flickr

According to the US Farmer’s Bulletin of 1831 on judging fabric quality, it was recommended as a good shirt material:

For outdoor work in mild weather, choose a material such as chambray, which is durable, firm enough to prevent sunburn, yet lightweight enough admit air and be fairly cool.

Other important design elements include two chest pockets with button down flaps, loose fit, the easy ability to roll up the sleeves, and reinforced stitching. The chambray shirt’s ruggedness resulted in it, along with denim dungarees, being adopted as the US Navy’s working uniform from 1901 until the second world war.

A sailor mechanic refueling a plane at the Naval Air Base, Corpus Christi, Texas, 1942. Howard R. Hollem/ U.S. National Archives

In Australia, the continued association of chambray with workwear is made evident by its continued listing for sale on the Bisley Workwear website. First in the US and having spread to Australia, the uniform of the working classes has been appropriated by the managerial classes.

The expansion of blue-collars

In the Post second world war period, Hollywood icons such as James Dean and Marilyn Monroe popularised chambray shirts with the emerging new demographic—teenagers. Indigo dyed materials such as chambray and denim became fashionable. When these baby boomers got older and began to run companies and corporations, especially those on the West Coast of the US, they brought their appreciation for the “coolness” of chambray and denim with them in the form of Casual Fridays.

According to US National Public Radio, Casual Fridays first began as Aloha Fridays in 1966, when the Hawaiian garment industry sought a way to get people to buy more Hawaiian shirts. During the economic recession of the early 1990s, dressing down one day of the week was offered as a way to rebuild morale in companies by relaxing the formality of the office. For the high technology start ups in California, it was a way to allow their engineers to work more creatively.

NPR reported how Levi’s and Co. took advantage of the anxieties corporation felt about allowing more casual dress by introducing the Docker’s brand as appropriate attire for business casual. Levi’s sent an eight page brochure, called A Guide to Casual Businesswear, to 25,000 human resource people all over the US.

Chambray shirt with tie as part of Levi’s Guide to Casual Businesswear, 1992. Levi's and Company

In the same way the focus on “blue collars” emerged when labour unions were growing in the turn of the 20th century, the adoption of working class blue-collars by the managerial classes reflects the decline of unionism in the turn of the 21st century.

According to Australian researcher Donna Harvey, union density in Australia dropped from 51% in 1976 to 25% in 2000. The Australian Bureau of Statistics reports the union density at 18% in 2013. Dropping since 1953, union density in the United States is at 11.1%, nearly half of its density in 1983.

By blurring the lines between blue and white collars through our selections of dress are we creating a new social harmony or erasing the presence of blue-collar labourers?

The news about the class war in San Francisco, the heart of casual tech culture, indicates that it is the latter. The Australian version of the Guardian posed the question of class warfare in regards to Sydney and Melbourne.

As I stated in the beginning of this article, indigo-dyed clothing frames the best and worst of human nature. While it may seem to be just a shirt, it is also a symbol of how we treat the person who wears it.