Starting at the turn of the century and into the 1960s, there was little change in men’s workwear styles. Materials, colors, and fit changed, but the overall style of workwear for common occupations remained the same. Overalls, coveralls, uniforms, and workwear separates made up the bulk of men’s vintage work clothes as well as casual clothing for most classes. A sturdy pair of work boots and a durable hat finished the look.
For men in the military, issued uniforms, boots, shirts and knitwear were sold as workwear after the war. The familiar comfort and durability made them appealing to men who served. New synthetic materials were blended with pre-war fabrics making workwear washable, tougher, lighter and less costly. Military clothing also inspired a new range of men’s casual clothes favored by teens and young men in the late 1940s and 1950s.
1940s Men’s Work Clothes: Overalls
Farmers, oilmen, miners, construction crew, and manufacturing workers may have chosen the classic denim overall to wear to work. Overalls were a one piece unit made of heavy denim cotton or duck cloth in blue, black, white, or blue and white thin stripes. Railroad men, engineers and some farmers wore hickory striped overalls while painters wore white. All other occupations preferred dark blue denim with white double stitching.
The front bib had many pockets to hold small tools. Additional large pockets were on the back of the of overalls as well as side pockets. The fit of the overall was quite wide, square and baggy in the 1940s. The back of overalls brought the bib up the back in an upside down V, with straps extending over the shoulders and buckling to the front bib at the upper chest.
Overalls were worn over a heavy duty wool or cotton long sleeve work shirt. A matching button up light shirt jacket or flannel lined winter jacket provided additional protection for the arms, as well as more pockets.
An alternative to overalls were coveralls, also called wearalls or unionalls. These were preferred by mechanics, aviators, dairy men, and factory workers who needed to keep clean while wearing nicer clothes underneath (or only underwear in hot climates.)
The coverall was a one piece pant and shirt combination that buttoned up the front (or zipped after the war). Blue or striped denim, grey, khaki tan, or white coveralls made of medium weight cotton twill provided a range of durability and hues. White coveralls were worn for clean professions such as laboratory technicians as well as aviation and auto racing.
Two large flap or button chest pockets, side pockets, hammer loop, pliers pocket, and sometimes a wide self fabric belt completed the style. At the back, two bellow pleats from shoulder to waist provided extra freedom. Two large hip pockets held a pair of gloves while working.
The 1930s and onward featured peak or notch lapels that were very wide in the early years and narrower by the 1950s. The two tone coverall became trendy at the end of the decade with a contrasting lapel and belt.
Matching Uniform Sets
For service oriented jobs that were not too dirty or required a uniformed appearance — such as gas station attendant, repairmen, gardener, delivery driver, salesmen or shop keeper — a matching set of pants, shirt and jacket was ideal. These uniforms could have a name tag or company name embroidered onto the shirt and jacket. The colors were lighter than overalls and coveralls with army tan, brown, blue, grey, and green being the most common choices. “Army cloth” or chino cloth was used in the 1940s as well as cotton poplin, twill, drill, gaberdine, and covert in a plain or herringbone pattern.
The matching work shirt looked like a men’s dress shirt with two chest button pockets and a button up collar. The collar came in a camp style that could be-folded out or button up the the neck. Two pockets sat midway on the the chest, usually with a flap that buttoned down. Pockets could be flat or box pleated in the later years. Both long sleeve and short sleeve shirts were sold, although the short sleeve was relatively new and very slow to gain acceptance a a proper uniform.
The matching work pants were flat front with a creased leg and no cuff. Belts were worn with work pants made of matching fabric and a military style metal clasp. Leather belts with small western buckles were also popular in the country.
The matching work jacket was a waist length button or zip up Eisenhower style jacket with two pockets on the front or side. They fit a little baggy on the torso with a snug overlapping waistband and slender arms. This was a style used by the military as well.
Equally popular was the more traditional cosack style jacket with an open waist, full zip, slash side pockets and a cigarettes chest pocket. Two small buckle belts on either side pulled the waist in to keep the cold out on some models.
Men’s Workwear: Separates
As nice as coordinated sets look and were required by many professional jobs, the vast majority of labor workers mixed pants and shirts.
Work shirt separates were made of heavy duty cotton twill, denim, covert (wool or cotton) or chambray. Blue was the standard color with khaki, army green, light grey, golden tan, navy blue, and sometimes black as alternatives. Plaid flannel was popular in winter. Most work shirts had two chest pockets with a button down flap.
Many shirt styles were copied men’s casual or sporty clothing such as the long sleeve knit crewneck “industrial shirt” or the fold out collar sporty shirt. Knit sweaters were also worn with workwear. More about sweaters here.
Long Pants, Jeans and Breeches
Men’s work pants could be denim blue jeans, a sturdy wool or cotton twill, cotton whipcord, , khaki twill, cotton moleskin or corduroy with a fit to match the decade. They leg widths were huge- 20 to 22 inches. Most pants were cuffed except during the war years. Common colors were dark blue, tan, stripped, army tan, or grey. Large side pockets and back slit or flap pockets finished the pant.
Denim blue jeans had their own style and details. Read the history of blue jeans here.
Breeches or jophurs were a work uniform for men in certain outdoor occupations such as surveyors, site foremans, explorers, archeologists and sometime movie directors. Breeches were unchanged over the last few decades. Moleskin, whipcord and especially corduroy made up breeches in khaki brown, grey and blue shades. The fit was comically wide at the hips to knee then slim to the calf. Tall socks and lace up boots or leather puttees (gaiters) and oxford shoes covered the knee to foot. Find some breeches or jodhpurs here.
Coats and Jackets
The matching work jacket was fine for mild weather but colder day needed heavier work jackets. Wool, corduroy or leather exteriors were balanced by soft flannel, shearling for fur linings. Outside colors were drab hues of brown, grey, black and blue.
There were two common shapes to men work coats. The shorter, waist to high hip length zip up jacket, aka bomber jacket, gab jacket, cosack jacket, or flight jackets had a center zip, fold out collars, slash side pockets, and a belted back.
The second style was a longer, straight coat that hung to the thigh. Many came with matching belts, large patch or flap pockets, and a contrasting black collar of fur or fabric.
A third style was mentioned above, the chore coat sold with matching denim overalls was also made as a separate. They were usually lightweight but if lined in blanket cloth could also be worn enough for winter. Denim, duck cloth or cotton twill madeup most chore coats. White chore coats were worn in labs, medical centers and at the meat butchers.
Men’s Work Boots
Physical jobs required heavy duty boots for most occupations. Work boots from the teens onward had an overall similar style. Thick rubber soles with moderate to large tread and a lace up body that extended over the ankle and up the calf part way to to the knee.
- Work oxfords were lace up shoes made like men’s dressy shoes but with thicker soles and leather body
- Over the ankle boots were for police or uniformed jobs, manufacturing and light farming.
- Mid calf boots with best for rugged outdoor jobs such as lineman, loggers, mining and heavy farming
- Over the calf lace up boots with an optional buckle at the calf were wore with breeches..
- Pull on engineer boots with a strap and buckle across the vamp and another buckle on the side calf were favorite of motorcycle riders, mechanists and rebellious teens.
- Army combat boots made of leather suede with a double buckle at the mid calf continued to be sold until supplies ran out.
Rubber boots existed for wet jobs, but leather was good enough for most work environments. It wasn’t just cow leather. Horsehide and even kangaroo leather were deemed more durable. Shades of brown and black were the only options. The shape of the toe box moved from round or square to narrow and pointed by the 1950s.
Men’s Work Hats
It was rare for men in the 1940s to wear a hat unless it was part of an assigned uniform. Instead, flat caps, also called ivy or newsboy caps, donned working men’s heads. Shop caps with a baseball cap brim (also similar to cadet caps) were another workwear favorite. A striped version became iconic with railroad men and later took the name engineer cap. More formal yacht caps called uniform caps came in white, blue, or black for different uniform requirements.
Above is a cotton utility hat that was shaped like a snap brim fedora. They came in colors that matched the work clothes. These were more common in the late 1940s and 1950s. Another style was the safari pith helmet, ideal for outside work.
Photos of Working Class Men
Putting Together a Workwear Look
For those of you reading this because you need a working class costume, here are some ideas on what to buy and where to find men’s vintage style workwear clothing.
- Overalls – There are a small handful of clothing companies that still make overalls. Blue denim overalls will be easier to find; however, I did locate some great options for striped overalls on Amazon.
- Work Shirts – Dickies still makes most of their work clothing in classic cuts (1950s-1960s style) with matching pant and jacket. Their work shirts are also excellent. Another brand I like is Pendleton. They also have not changed style since the 1950s. A blue denim or chambray shirt will look the most vintage.
- Bronson – has a wide range of men’s vintage reproduction workwear, uniforms and military jackets. You can find them on Amazon.
- Denim Jeans – Levi’s makes reproduction jeans from the 1890s to 1960s. Some of them have a very vintage workwear look that I love (but not the high price tag). Freddies of Pinewood has 1940s repro jeans. 1950s reproduction denim jeans are a little easier to find. They would work well for earlier decades as well. Shop here for all men’s style pants, overalls and jeans.
- Hats – Flat caps and newsboy caps are easy to find in shops today or online. You can find yacht caps and sometimes cadet caps online too. Shop all men’s style hats here.
- Boots – Most leather workwear boots are still in the classic vintage styles. Justin Original and Red Wing have some of the best choices.
www.vintageworkwear.com/ is an excellent blog that looks at examples of vintage workwear. It also links to other brands that re-create vintage workwear.
Vintage Men’s Workwear – has more history and shopping links to 1900s-1950s workwear clothing. Scroll down to shop just the 40s styles.
A workwear/capsule wardrobe plan with brand recommendations.
Shop Men’s Work Clothing
Debbie Sessions has been teaching fashion history and helping people dress for vintage themed events since 2009. She has turned a hobby into VintageDancer.com with hundreds of well researched articles and hand picked links to vintage inspired clothing online. She aims to make dressing accurately (or not) an affordable option for all. Oh, and she dances too.