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  • Writer's pictureAhmed

Feeling Blue

Updated: May 6

In today's post we look at Bleu de Travail French workwear, the history of the colours blue and red and how blue saved France.

These days many of us in the western world spend our workdays in offices or facing a computer. It's not exactly arduous work but social codes and habits mean we'll probably have clothes just for work. When I worked in a London office it was an M&S suit and then as life became more casual, cotton trousers and plain button-down shirt (there's a whole separate discourse on OCBDs... but that will have to wait). Life wasn't always so easy. In the early 20th Century work for many meant factory labour and it required workers to don protective hard-wearing clothing. In France this manifested itself as the popularity for the famous bleu de travail workwear.

From the French for ‘work blue’, the bleu de travail‘s indigo colour was used to distinguish between worker and boss – superiors would wear white or grey versions but those lower down the pecking order would have blues which would hide dirt and dust better. Bleu de travail jackets were manufactured in dense cotton or canvas and the colour of the dye was cheap at the time (I'll come back to history of dyes later). Their designs are characterized by simple button-up fronts and large pockets. There were many variations, but all were designed to be functional and hard-wearing. While early iterations were not labelled, certain brands started purpose-making them in the early to mid 20th century, including Le Mont Saint Michel, Vetra, Lafont and Le Laboureur, most of which still operate as workwear brands today.

The colour blue was for a long time symbolic of work. Until the nineteenth century indigo was the only plant based dye capable of creating a permanent fixed colour on cotton and flax. The indigo dye was so ubiquitous, that this is where we get the term “blue-collar worker” after the hard wearing indigo dyed cotton that factory workers and labourers wore. Natural indigo was of course replaced by synthetics with the first commercially practical synthetic indigo was made in 1897 (aside: the company that eventually became BASF developed both the first synthetic indigo and blue and had monopolies across Europe).

But much earlier, heavy cotton had been normal wear for workers, especially in Northern Italy where the weavers of Genoa made a low cost fustian textile. Weavers in Nîmes followed with their own version ... hence Genoa=Jeans and Nîmes=Denim. But that's another story.

Some readers will be aware of Bill Cunningham, the revered New York fashion photographer. He regularly wore a bleu whilst biking around Manhattan. He chose it simply because he liked the large pockets – somewhere to quickly throw a camera and rolls of 35mm films.

(Montage via GQ)

Its practicality led to its popularity. In '68 French students wore them to identify with travailleurs. The jacket, like the American M65, became part of the code of fashion, a signifier of sorts. Today, it harks back to a world where labour was an honorable, almost romantic activity. I suppose people want evidence they wear clothes which will last and won't have the taint of being disposable to them. Consequently, many imitations and homages have been created and a google search will bring up hundreds of modern versions. The original manufacturers even produce 'heritage' inspired pieces for people who like the style (obviously real modern laborers prefer poly-cotton and cordura these days). Vetra recently collaborated on a version of the jacket with Margaret Howell, while Oliver Spencer’s collections often feature designs inspired by the bleu de travail. In fact, most menswear collections in recent years reference the jacket in some way or another. It even reached the dizzy heights of the catwalks for Dior.

A strange reversal for its salt of the earth working roots, perhaps, but criticizing the fashion industry's silliness would be even sillier than the fashion industry itself. Perhaps that's what it's about- the clothes, by modern standards are undeniably well made, but are shapeless and often unflattering- I suppose a kind of anti-fashion blank template.

It's a curious quirk in some fashionable items that signs of use may make the item more desirable. It's long accepted that new denim jeans will come with a pre-worn look or even with small artificial wear-holes. This is where it gets interesting for me. Most workers would typically have had one item of workwear. It didn't matter too much how dirty it got but rips and tears were unsafe and would be repaired rather than disposing of a good jacket. Usually they would be neatly stitched up and patched, so over a piece's lifetime it would acquire a history of scars and tears with repairs done with an embroidery skill that seems unfathomable today. The existence of the mending gives the item some degree of authenticity, proof of use and life. Vintage work jackets are even appreciated if they have more sun-fade, bleaching the indigo. (I've even seen pictures of one vintage seller fading washed jackets in the sun....) In Japan, a similar story arises. Peasants would wear indigo dyed hemp which they would stitch or patch together for repair- the Japanese term is boro (ぼろ). There is even a museum in Japan dedicated to the art. Wearing jackets made of patchwork is still a fashionable "thing" in Japan.

(Photograph by Carola de Armas via

Thanks to Mr Cunningham, Bleus are now well known among the cognoscenti and there is a little industry in France devoted to rooting out antique factory work Bleus, both fresh unused vintage ones as well as those with lots of mending! We also come across SNCF browns (brun de travail?) and very occasionally old military wear as well (you can see some at our Etsy clothes store).

As I've mentioned before, military antiques is something we tend to avoid and military clothing is no different- its a minefield of provenance and authenticity. I tried to do a mental count the other day of how many epic films have been made about the Napoleonic wars. Most would have had film armies decked out in replica clothing. Imagine all those thousands and thousands of extras... I wondered if there is more replica Napoleonic army wear floating around Europe today than there were soldiers in the original Grande Armée. Turns out the Napoleon's Army was enormous even by modern standards. Although my eyes are getting attuned to the religious art and antiques we need for the store, we see things we have to snap up. A recent obsession for us is military shirts. Or, more accurately a military blouse called the Bourgeron:

(Via GVC 14-18)

A "Bourgeron" is the name given in Picardy to a short smock. It is a ‘fatigues’ top, worn by laborers at work or soldiers in the barracks. Its made of heavy white linen and it has buttons from the neck to the chest, so its worn like a pullover and originally it seems to have been worn as a kind of overshirt to protect the uniform. Eventually after WW1 it would evolve into a lightweight jacket. There are photos around on the internet, like the one above, of French soldiers wearing them as they casually pose for photos.

(Via GVC 14-18)

As you'll see in the two photos above, its worn with matching trousers. You'll also see men in the "normal" French military uniform which was used in 1915. Not apparent in B&W photos is the colour: it's blue. Military uniforms in Europe were in fact generally brown, or green coloured for obvious reasons. The British Army had learned from Imperial adventures from Africa to Afghanistan and wore a mid brown color, which they described using the Urdu word for dust, khaki. The French army on the other hand had always worn red trousers throughout the 19th Century. It was known this wouldn't be useful on the modern battlefield, but such was conservatism in France at the time it was impossible to change. To banish “all that is colorful, all that gives the soldier his vivid aspect,” wrote the Echo de Paris, “is to go contrary both to French taste and military function. (quoted in Strong Towns) The red trousers embodied a French flair and cavalier spirit in what was then considered- with good reason- the greatest land army in Europe. "Le pantalon rouge c’est la France!” From 1903 several attempts were made to introduce a more practical field dress but these were all opposed by conservative opinion both within the army and amongst the public at large. The Germans and British went to war in uniforms the same colour as dirt. Eschewing camouflage as almost unpatriotic, French soldiers went into WW1 wearing bright red hats and trousers.

It wasn't long after the slaughter started they switched colour. Before the outbreak of WW1 the plan had been to manufacture cloth with patriotic red, white and blue wool threads to make a sort of dark purple. It turned out red was unavailable (it had to be sourced from BASF) so the Army ended up with a light shade of blue which they could mass produce quickly, locally and would offer more protection- this was referred to as Horizon Bleu. This, the Army claimed, would provide camouflage against the sky.

Long after the war the Bleuet became adopted as the symbol for the French fallen, in much the same way the poppy does in the UK. The cornflower – like the poppy – continued to grow in land devastated by the thousands of shells which were launched daily by the entrenched armies of the Western Front. These flowers were often the only visible evidence of life, and the only sign of color in the mud of the trenches. At the same time, the term "bleuets" was used to refer to the class of conscripted soldiers born in 1895 who arrived in the lead-up to the Second Battle of the Aisne in 1915, in the fresh new Horizon Bleu uniforms. So, we return to Blue, the colour of work and the one which maybe helped saved France in WW1.

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