While manual labor isn’t an everyday reality for most of us today, there’s still a strong case to be made for the role of work shirts in the modern man’s wardrobe. Primarily, that they are utilitarian, masculine garments designed for practical use.
Originally made for 20th century blue collar workers, work shirts were soon adopted by artists, photographers and architects, thrown on as a protective layer to keep their finer clothing safe from paint, plaster and all other forms of occupational detritus. The pockets also proved handy, providing quick access to various bits and pieces such as rulers, rolls of film and tubes of paint. Despite being utilitarian garments at their core, work shirts now come in a variety of more high-brow designs.
Luke Walker, founder and designer of shirtmaker L.E.J, believes that it doesn’t make much contemporary sense to have work shirts only made up in the traditional thick, hardy cotton twill. L.E.J’s iterations are rendered in everything from plush corduroy to breezy linens. This season, the brand even features the humble shirt in rich silks, which Walker admits “is not a very workwear material, but, let’s face it, these are no longer work clothes in the old sense. They’re not for hard labor any more, they’re for communicating an image of masculinity and hard work.”
Purists will say that all you really need to wear with one of these is a good pair of denim, but that’s overlooking the modern work shirt’s range. Elevated examples can be dressed up and worn underneath tweed jackets and charcoal flannel trousers or layered over a shirt and tie as a relaxed alternative to a jacket or over-shirt. To that point, they make for excellent layering during transitional periods, sitting as comfortably over knitwear as they do tees.
Like a good pair of jeans, the following options will only get better and more comfortable with time and should last you for a long time. Walker believes that work shirts really reveal their beauty after a few years of wear, enhanced by “the frayed edges, the faded color, the mismatched replacement buttons.”
It’s an encouragement to wear them with careless abandon, stuff the pockets with all manner of random items and wash them repeatedly until the fabric softens. When tears or holes appear, simply patch them up at home. Embrace that and these shirts will gain a unique character that can’t be replicated—all without having to spend a minute laying bricks or painting drywall.