In the early 20th century, American industrialization gave rise to a new sartorial distinction between classes. Managers, administrators, and anyone else who worked in an office favored crisp, white shirts on the job. Manual laborers, meanwhile, donned dark, durable attire better suited to factory and farm work.
Before long, the “white collar” became both an emblem of aspirational prosperity for urban newcomers and a loathsome reminder of pencil-pushers’ privilege. “If the boy raised in jeans and gingham and permitted a white collar only on Sundays and holidays comes subconsciously to associate the white collar with ease, enjoyment and respectability, is it not natural?” a Louisiana newspaper editorial argued in 1910. “And if he follows the lure of the white collar to the city and gets a job in which he can wear a white collar all the week, and though he spends all his extra pay in keeping his collar and cuffs and shirt white, what does it matter, so long as he is satisfied?”
People had begun using blue collar by the 1920s, which etymologist Barry Popik suggests may have just been the most natural way to distinguish the working class from their white-collar counterparts. “If we may call professions and office positions white collar jobs, we may call the trades blue collar jobs,” a local California newspaper printed in 1924. Blue wasn’t the only color worn by laborers, but it was popular—American demand for denim had predated the Gold Rush, and its lightweight cousin, chambray, was worn by everyone from farmhands to military members.
Though white-collar workers were purportedly better educated, better paid, and all around better off than blue-collar workers, it was something of an open secret that only the upper echelons of businesspeople experienced such success.
“It is a fact with which every union workingman is familiar, that his most bitter despisers are the petty underlings of the business world, the 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,” Upton Sinclair wrote in 1919.
Despite the fact that new machinery helped ease the physical strain on blue-collar workers—and they could even earn more than desk dwellers—the social prestige that came with an office job often outweighed those considerations. As one New York banker told Montana’s Great Falls Tribune in 1924, “It is quite possible that to this white-collar host money means less than a respected place in the community—one which, according to common belief, cannot be attained if overalls are worn to work.”
A century later, society is still struggling to shake off that mentality. While construction workers, electricians, mechanics, many other blue-collar laborers are highly skilled and highly compensated, a stiff white collar continues to carry a certain air of importance (though today’s white-collar workers are just as likely to be wearing T-shirts).
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