Designers should be able to look at existing objects and reverse-engineer why they were designed that way. So let's do an exercise, and try to figure out why the classic French workwear shirt/jacket, the bleu de travail that has now become a knocked-off streetwear staple, has no right outside breast pocket. I believe I've worked it out, but I want to see what you deduce.
First we'll need some background info.
The bleu de travail (work blues) first appeared in the late 1800s, as industrialization spread across France. Factory workers were needed, laborers were needed to build infrastructure and farms still needed to be tended. The garment was a response to what all of these manual workers needed: A sturdy, utilitarian, long-lasting, weather-resistant garment that could be cheaply mass-produced and thus affordable for the working class.
For durability, the bleu de travail was typically made from one of two cotton fabrics. The first was drill, also called twill, a stout material with a strongly visible diagonal bias in the weave. (If you've ever seen a pair of Dickies work pants, you know what I mean, although they use a cotton/poly blend). The other was moleskin, a heavy cotton fabric that is shorn on one side to produce a soft, felt-like finish that is comfortable and reduces chafing. (Interestingly, though the word "denim" derives from the name of the French town where it originated, that material was not used; in the late 1800s it remained the province of the Americans.)
Both drill and moleskin have dense weaves that are water- and wind-resistant, making them suitable for outdoor labor, while they're also tough enough for factory work. But unlike something heavier like leather, they're not so thick that you can't get a regular sewing needle through them, to repair any wear. If you encounter a vintage bleu de travail in a European thrift shop, you'll often find them repaired with patches.
As with blue jeans, the garment was dyed blue, to better hide dirt. Indigo dye, once the province of the rich, had been synthesized in Europe in the late 1800s and was both readily available and affordable.
The construction of the garment is unfussy, keeping manufacturing costs down. There are no pleats nor lapels, both of which would add labor cost. The pockets are simply unlined patches topstitched to the garment.
The simple, boxy construction of the bleu allows for the freedom of movement manual workers need, and also allows it to be worn as a jacket when the weather demands layering.
The simple, bucket-like pockets are meant to hold tools, instruments or small parts. There are two at the waist and just one at the left breast. Because I've never seen one of these shirts up close, it has always puzzled me why there aren't two breast pockets; I have a shop jacket that does and find all four pockets indispensable.
My puzzlement ended yesterday, when my wife messaged me from a thrift store. This particular store had a number of vintage bleu de travails, and she asked if I wanted one. I asked her if she knew why that style of shirt lacks a right breast pocket.
"There's an inside pocket on the right side," she wrote. "I'd guess with such thick/rigid fabric, a pocket both inside and outside in the same place would get unwieldy." Aha, so that explains it.
The next thing I wondered is why was the interior pocket was on the right side, when most people are right-handed; presumably something important would go in the inside pocket, and wouldn't it be easier to reach right-handed if the pocket was on the left?
I thought about this for a bit, and realized it's my own modern-day bias that's leading me astray. Probably the most important thing I'd put in a jacket's inside pocket is my phone, for safety's sake. Workers in 19th-century France probably had little need to carry anything except the tools and utensils they worked with, which would of course be easier to access on the outside, and an outside breast pocket on the left might be accessed constantly.
Also, manual laborers likely weren't carrying much of value, perhaps not even money; it's not like there was an Au Bon Pain on every corner where they'd buy lunch. Having that inside pocket for safekeeping held, I imagine, maybe one of two things: A worker ID card, if the factory required it, or the week's pay when it was doled out by the paymaster. Access to it would be rare enough that the location is justified.
Don't have an account? Join Now
Create a Core77 Account
Already have an account? Sign In
Please enter your email and we will send an email to reset your password.
I was told by someone with shirt industry experience that it was simply too difficult to get breast pockets in horizontal alignment, using the low-wage staff who actually do the sewing.
Fun fact: in the traditional French garment sizing system, L Is "patron" (boss) and XL is "grand patron" (big boss).
Could it be because most utilitarian clothes draw inspiration from military wear and you wouldn't want to have tools and other external obstructions to either shoulder a weapon or machinery???
Maybe it was simply the outside pocket that was placed on the left so it would be more easily reachable with the right hand. The inside pocket then had to go on the other side.
Perhaps there was a common piece of equipment that would impact workers during use. If that was the case, anything stored in an outer pocket would get damaged. The internal pocket could have been added later as a means of holding additional padding.
I think this is the shirt you want ... ;-)
Perhaps also the way the shirt closes, it's harder for a thief to get to the inside pocket on the right side. (just wild guess).
I gotta get myself one of these!!!