There’s plenty that irks me about clothing and style discourse, but with this blog I aim for a more positive approach to clothing and everything that surrounds it. Having said that, this article will be a somewhat hypocritical one. First, I’ll start with something that irks me, and second, I’ll get into something (the title is a strong hint here) that contradicts the first. Is that stupid? Probably.
I’m not a fan of the idea of something being considered a wardrobe staple. To me, it always felt very anachronistic, harkening back to when rigid dress codes were far more prevalent and men would exclusively wear tailoring, usually with much smaller wardrobes, to work. A lot of my gripes come from the items that are usually considered staples. The navy blazer or navy suit is often mentioned, but so are white t-shirts, dark blue jeans or black oxfords (Derek Guy has a great write up on the oxford as staple, here). None of these I would consider staples, because everyone’s needs and wants with regard to their clothing are so varied and often so personal; after all, we’re not all in the same job in the same part of the world with the same ideas on what we like to wear.
Looking at such lists is often more telling about the issues surrounding the idea of a staple than the actual items themselves. For one, the concept of staples—which essentially aims to fulfil some strange demand for a simplified approach to a pre-conceived, often milquetoast, idea of what looks good—is usually very male-centred, suggesting the notions that one, men have very homogenous wants and needs with regard to clothing (which is a daft generalisation), and two, that approaches to clothing are very different between men and women (which perpetuates harmful and unnecessary gender stereotypes).
Second, these staples often show a clear bias toward a certain demographic. The idea that something is a staple usually comes from their versatility, but also from their (historic) ubiquity. What items are very popular at what time, and more importantly in what place, varies wildly. Staples are usually something that’s very focused on the, for lack of a better term, global West and, within that geographical sphere, white collar workers. Paradoxically, assuming an oddly exclusionary level of homogeneity for something that aims to be widely accepted.
Of course, it’s not all bad. Looking at where the idea of staples comes from, it’s easy to see their appeal. For someone starting out their journey toward discovering their own sense of style or maybe developing it into something new, they offer a nice foothold to begin their climb. And they can be very tempting. My first suit was a navy suit, simply because that’s what the internet told me it should be (despite hardly ever needing a suit) and I still own a navy suit and a navy jacket, both often hailed as staples. In hindsight, both feel pretty formal and could’ve been something a little more out there and personal. A staple only works if they’re items that fit in a variety of wardrobes and can fill a particular position (style-wise or just practically) that’s very universal. If I were to consider something a staple, those are the conditions it should meet. Enter the chore coat.
I remember getting my chore coat when Episode started stocking them (back in the days when they were considerably cheaper than they are now). It’s a very basic one, the kind you see in just about every vintage or second hand shop. A blue herringbone cotton, three patched pockets, no vents, and five buttons. It’s the size of the buttons that kind of tell you what kind of role fills. Size-wise, they sit somewhere between that of a shirt and a jacket, and that’s exactly how I wear mine; as both outerwear and layer. I think it’s this hybridity that makes them so great and fit the bill of a staple. They can make a casual outfit look a little more put together, but they can also dress down a pretty tailored outfit. I increasingly find that, especially with tailored trousers and a shirt, a sport coat feels like too much and the chore coat lets me add the same visual interest as a tailored jacket but without the formality.
Chore coats also fit a wide range of wardrobes, and I think that partly explains their current popularity. Similar items are having similar surges in popularity (although I’d argue not of the same level). Safari jackets, field jackets, overshirts; all these things fill the void that tailored jackets left behind as offices become less formal, but they can also be worn very casually and even function as workwear, which, in the case of chore coats, is obviously tied to their origins. At times, the nomenclature for these items can be a little confusing. I find that chore coats, overshirts, worker jackets and safari shirts or jackets are often used interchangeably, which shouldn’t be surprising considering the overlap in their design—especially when a designer or shop starts tweaking them and moving the designs closer together. Ultimately, it’s about having a soft jacket, something to be worn over a shirt or even a jumper, that’s versatile enough to fit in a wide range of styles.
One final thought on chore coats: their heritage. Workwear from the early twentieth century is constantly transposed to our modern needs, which often have very little to do with the manual labour for which it was originally intended. That’s also the only point of contention with these items of clothing; the idea that what was historically working class clothing is being appropriated by high-end shops selling them at inaccessible prices and by mostly being worn by current day white collar workers. There’s certainly some truth to that and it’s an interesting idea to unpack, but I might leave that to another article.