The blue chambray shirt is emblematic of a phenomenon that shows no sign of receding — the ever-accelerating chic of “yesterday’s blue-collar brands”, as the trade magazine Ad Week wrote this year. Young ladies wear overalls and jumpsuits not to protect their good clothes but rather because those are their good clothes. It has been not quite a year since the neologism “lumbersexual” dribbled into popular discourse to identify those city-dwelling men who seem to have been moved by a wind blowing from the Great North Woods. And when the weather turns, children, too, will be bundled in buffalo plaid, swathed in a durable aura of Americana and heritage. Wilde worried that his “picturesque miners” would, upon growing rich and going East, assume again all the abominations of modern fashionable attire”. Now that the clothiers of bygone gold rushes and old railroad booms define popular fashionability, such an opposition is thoroughly antique.
Given the historical use of clothing to define one’s self, this shift is not a trifling matter. Once upon a time, the sailors of the United States Navy chafed at the resemblance of their working uniform, which matched a blue chambray shirt with dungarees, to that of jailbirds. Now, for the wardrobe stylist pressing such a look upon her clients and the wholesaler slinging it to consumers, the penitential association of the blue collar leads nowhere more stigmatic than the memory of Paul Newman in “Cool Hand Luke”. The big boys of American work wear — Carhartt, Wrangler and Dickies — still churn out successors to their historical models. And the titans of the rag trade keep the malls stocked with chambray shirts tailored to flatter the modern idea of casual style. But new work shirts made with exacting attention to the old details — with, say, an affectionate reconstruction of the pencil slot adjacent to a reinforced breast pocket protecting a pack of Lucky Strikes from the sweat of a shift — cost far too much to be practical as a uniform for operating a die press. They tend to be made in Japan.
Troy Patterson, “On Clothing”, The New York Times Magazine (6 September 2015), 17.