The notion of “blue-collar jobs” emerged in the 1920s, following the metonymic model of the “white-collar worker”, who was, originally, not a professional or a manager but a pencil-pusher. A 1920 usage by Upton Sinclair points the way, describing “the most bitter despisers” of the union workingman as “poor office-clerks, who are often the worst exploited of proletarians, but who, because they are allowed to wear a white collar, and to work in the office with the boss, regard themselves as members of the capitalist class.” In life and in literature, the white collar sometimes accessorized an empty suit and sometimes gleamed like the main chance. Its indigo counterpart proved more mutable yet.
To the Labor Department, blue-collar workers “engage in manual labor or the skilled trades”, but in the mind of a political operative, the collar takes on special sociological shadings. In 1984, a representative of President Ronald Reagan’s re-election campaign told The Associated Press that the incumbent’s victory would rely on the kind of blue-collar voter who “can be a union member but doesn’t have to be, who can be a Catholic but doesn’t have to be and may be an ethnic but doesn’t have to be.” Elsewhere that election cycle, an aide to the Democratic vice-presidential candidate, Geraldine Ferraro, promoted her appeal “to blue-collar ethnic males, who are thought to be the most macho”,’ thus making manifest a comment on virility latent in the concept. Sportswriters lean on the phrase to describe players grinding out wins by way of gritty defense and unglamorous hustle. The blue-collar guy is, in laudatory references, unsparing in his honesty and unaffected in his manner; in the hostile view of Sinclair’s sniveling scriveners, he is a lunkhead scarcely worth the shirt on his back.
Troy Patterson, “On Clothing”, The New York Times Magazine (6 September 2015), 14-16.