The History of The Trusty Overshirt
The overshirt is a garment that we’ve grown to love for its practicality, durability, versatility, and timeless aesthetic. It’s an item that can literally become a part of your everyday tenue. It’ll serve its purpose as a utilitarian garment all year through as it can easily transition from a sturdy, warm winter mid-layer to a breezy spring jacket. This feeling of familiarity that people get when wearing their overshirt all year round is what most people fall for, as do we. Because of the characteristics of a proper overshirt, this familiarity will stay and grow even stronger over the years. Also, as with all good clothing, it will tell your story with each wear and repair.
Even though people love overshirts for the same reasons, there is some difference in their definition of what an overshirt exactly is and what to call it. Some people stick to an overshirt, others refer to it as a military shirt or chore coat, and some even refer to it as a shacket (shirt jacket). It all depends on which style of overshirt you prefer, there isn’t a wrong or right answer. These differences can be explained by the history of the overshirt, or rather, the histories of different types of overshirts. These vary from civilian work jackets to military clothing. Let’s give a quick overview of both so we can cover everyone’s preferred style
The first version of what we’d consider an overshirt dates back to the 18th century. Labour forces who worked on the railways in France were issued bright blue work shirts that were nicknamed ‘bleu de travail’, which means blue work. These overshirts were often made from heavy cotton drill, one of the sturdiest fabrics back then. This was necessary considering the tough day-to-day labour. The colour was achieved by indigo dying them, a cheap method back then (keep in mind this was before denim and Levi’s). Also, the dark indigo colour made spots and marks stand out less, so the rail workers would look more presentable (imagine doing the job in a white choir coat...). The jackets are recognizable by their button closure, point collar and three or four patch pockets. To this day, this super practical design is still immensely popular. The person who probably wore this iconic overshirt best was the evenly iconic photographer, Bill Cunningham.
Bill Cunningham, found on the website of the NY Times.
Fast forward, give or take, 100 years and the overshirt is now a common sight throughout Europe. The shirts still fulfilled the same purpose as was originally intended. Yet, now it was used more broadly and for slightly different reasons. The more widespread overshirt now also served the purpose of protecting one’s suit and tie whilst on the job. For this reason, the overshirt had a roomier cut, a characteristic often incorporated today. The preferred fabric had shifted to moleskin, which some have coined the denim of Europe.
As with many workwear garments, the military played a role in popularizing this piece of kit. From the 20th century, deployed British troops had a military shirt issued in their standard uniform. This design had two chest flap pockets, button closure, a point collar and sometimes even two hip flap pockets. A few decades later, the US military also issued similar overshirts but made from a different material. These are now known as jungle jackets, a garment that became synonymous with the horrifying Vietnam war. The fabric these jackets were made from was a cotton ripstop material, which is still commonly used for garments in the military.
US Jungle Jacket, found on the website of Heddels
Tenue. always takes inspiration from classic workwear garments and redesigns these for contemporary needs. One of their reiterations of the trustworthy overshirt is the Zeke, which takes its inspiration from the old school military shirt. Tenue.’s Zeke features two chest pockets with a hidden pencil slit, two inner chest pockets and two hidden side pockets. Staying true to the core of the overshirt, Tenue. solely produces it in classic workwear fabrics. You’ll find the Zeke Ripstop in a beautiful navy and oil green colour, perfect for a more technical look. In alignment with the widespread European overshirts, Tenue. also produces it in a wonderful moleskin fabric, the Zeke Mirage. Finally, there is a more ‘Tenue. take’ on the overshirt, the Zeke Prescott and Lake. Both are washed denim iterations that are made in Italy. As we mentioned at the beginning of this blog, the overshirt is quite a broad term. Some view it as the utilitarian civilian shirt with patch pockets and others imagine it as the classic military shirt. Despite your choice, a good overshirt must have practicality and endurance at its core. The Zeke has you covered when it comes to that. Check out the whole collection here.