Denim is by far the most worn textile on the planet. According to the anthropologists Daniel Miller and Sophie Woodward, in their book, Global Denim, “On any given day, nearly half the world’s population is in jeans.” It’s almost impossible to tackle all the meanings of such a popular fabric. So allow me to focus on it’s companion, it’s piggy-backer, the oxpecker bird riding its zebra: the chambray shirt.
Chambray looks like denim, and is often marketed as denim, but it’s not. Both fabrics have traditionally been dyed with indigo, but they differ in their weaves. Denim stitching is a twill weave, which runs at a diagonal, while chambray has a plain weave, which is vertical. Denim is thicker and tends to be for pants, chambray is breathable and tends to be used for shirts.
“For outdoor work in mild weather,” The US Farmer’s Bulletin of 1831 recommended, “choose a material such as chambray, which is durable, firm enough to prevent sunburn, yet lightweight enough to admit air and be fairly cool.” Comfy, washable, and sturdy; chambray was the fabric of the working man. This became more or less official when an Iowa newspaper stated, in 1924: “If we may call professions and office positions white collar jobs, we may call the trades blue collar jobs.” Thus the blue collar distinction was born.
The blue collars weren’t just for farmers and factory workers—blue was also the color of the Navy. Before WWII, Navy-enlisted personnel were issued work clothes, in addition to the wool sailor suits they’d wear ashore. These work outfits consisted of a chambray shirtand denim pants, which flared out a bit, so they could be easily rolled all the way up to the thigh for deck-swabbing.
If you look at pictures ofpre-WWII sailors, I swear to you, they almost look like a bunch of tech guys you’d see having a lunchtime meeting at a coffee shop. They’re in jeans and button up chambray shirts. The only real differences are the sailor hats perched on their heads, and the dated pant leg.
It’s wild to think that this standard look, chambray on denim, was once a very specific outfit, for a specific branch of the armed forces. Imagine if you traveled to a not-too-distant future where everyone was commuting to their desk jobs dressed in complete “digital desert” Army fatigues.
In the back of our minds, we all kind of know this history. We know that a blue chambray shirt is supposed to be workwear. When you put on a chambray shirt, you roll up the sleeve to your elbows. You just do. Even if you bought the shirt for $80 at J.Crew.
Work clothes, like chambray, denim, beanies, and Blundstone boots, have cycled into high fashion. Decades-old workwear brands have come out with “work-inspired” clothing lines, like Carhartt’s Work in Progress collection, described as “original workwear cuts reinterpreted and refitted for the demands of an active life in the urban environment.” In 2015, Dickies put out a collection called Dickies Construct, which combined their traditional overalls witha “contemporary, fashion approach.” It’s laughably bougie, but I am not in the business of lampooning millennials. Hippies were also lusting after a sense of authenticity when they went to Army-Navy surplus stores and bought those wide, deck-swabbing sailor pants, and turned bell bottoms into a trend.
Throughout the 20th century, workwear denim brands like Lee’s and Levi’s have opted to ride waves of trends: they’ve become flared, skinny, saggy, dark, stiff, stretchy, pre-worn, pre-ripped, and acid washed and back again. Jeans have always changed to fit some idea of authenticity or rebellion.
The chambray shirt, however, has not. The collars may stiffen or loosen, or become slightly pointed, but the design of the chambray shirt, with its white stitching and rolled-up sleeves, remains almost identical to what you would have seen on farmer in the 1800s, a factory worker in the forties, or a sailor in the thirties. In an era where our farms, our wars, and our factory labor have all been rendered invisible, the chambray shirt has become a connective thread to a lost and nebulous past. It is an unopened time capsule we unknowingly carry on our backs.