In this turbulent future, you can’t forget your past. For the first in a series of deep dives into 2117 – the publication conceived and created by Carhartt WIP and LAW to celebrate the iconic Chore Coat – we look at the garment’s storied past: the people who wore it, who gave it meaning, who made it iconic, from railroad workers to rappers. 2117 is a project which transports us into the future 100 years from now, but it would be remiss of us to ignore what came before. Read on to find out more – or alternatively, immerse yourself in the in this body of work tonight in Milan, where 2117 will be exhibited at Spazzio Maiocchi.
The word ‘timeless’ gets thrown around a lot these days. Very rarely is its use justified. But the Carhartt Chore Coat provides an exception to the hyperbole — its original design has remained unchanged for a century now, and in those 100 years it’s been worn by thousands upon thousands across the globe. From railroad workers to corner boys, from those who’ve laboured in fields to those who’ve ploughed their own, lonely furrow — independent thinkers, free spirits, backs-to-the-wall workers and family men — the Chore Coat has been stretched across the shoulders of them all. And they have all chosen it for the same qualities. It’s tough. It’s resilient. It’s reliable.
The first known incarnation of the Chore Coat appeared back in 1917. It was originally referred to as the “Engineer Sack Coat” or simply “the Coat” — as in the coat, because why would you need another one?
The first known incarnation of the Chore Coat appeared back in 1917. It was originally referred to as the “Engineer Sack Coat” or simply “the Coat” — as in the coat, because why would you need another one? It had three large pockets on the front, roomy enough to carry the tools of your trade, and a fourth that allowed you to store your pocket watch. This angled chest pocket is one of the few design aspects that has been tweaked over the years, thanks to the introduction of wristwatches in the 1930s. It now serves as the perfect canvas for that instantly recognisable Carhartt label, the bold orange ‘C’ that often denotes underground tribal affiliation, but always signifies quality.
Joe Martin was an interwar railroad man from Sioux City, Iowa and one of the coat’s original wearers. He, like many others at the time, had a long- standing affinity with Carhartt products. Writing in 1922, in Hamilton Carhartt’s tome of customer testimonials, Martin stated: “I can’t say which was the best pair of Carhartts I ever wore, for I never noticed any difference in any pair,” adding that he found all of the products to be “mighty satisfactory”. In the book, he is pictured wearing his Chore Coat atop a pair of Carhartt overalls. Even from the grainy black and white photo, you can see the garments have a lived-in charm.
Another early adopter of this now-iconic coat was a Mr A M Thomason. Sixty-three years young at the time of publishing, he had been wearing Carhartt for 30 of those, his son for 16. Their shared 46- year appreciation for this coat owed much to the fact it was “Union Made”, which, in their eyes, was a surefire sign of quality. To them, the Chore Coat was a product for workers, made by fellow workers — blue chip clothing for blue collar breadwinners.
The Coat itself has been altered over time, but not much. Almost without exception it has been created in either tough denim or robust duck canvas, with the occasional addition of a blanket lining to provide warmth during outdoor labour or leisure.
Beyond Mr Martin and the other railroad workers of the 1920s, the Chore Coat went on to be worn by farmers and firemen alike. In fact, thanks to its enduring appeal, there are few facets of the American workforce that it hasn’t penetrated in the following decades.
That workforce, of course, hasn’t always operated within the confines of the law. For some of the more enterprising constituents of America’s densely populated cities in the 80s and 90s, the Chore Coat provided adequate protection and storage for evenings spent grafting on street corners. As with many developments in the sartorial landscape of rap, the endorsement of the Chore Coat and other tough Carhartt pieces started with hustlers on the street but quickly crossed over. Eazy-E was fond of his indigo denim Chore Coat, as was Tupac, while on the East Coast Nas was reminiscing about rocking Carhartt and gunpowder stains in ‘87 on “Thief’s Theme”. Today, that mantle has been taken on by the likes of fellow New Yorker Action Bronson and Detroit’s own favourite hellraiser, Danny Brown.
The Chore Coat has made its presence felt across all facets of street subculture and style. Graffiti writers came to prize it for the ample storage space it possessed for spray cans, petty shoplifters developing their own appreciation for similar reasons. Skaters fell for it too, largely just because it looked good and lasted. And then there’s the slew of street-facing designers who wanted to give their own take on it: Junya Watanabe, Jun Takahashi of Undercover and APC’s Jean Touitou, to name just a few.
A century on from its creation, the Carhartt Chore Coat remains front and centre — on stage, and in the workforce. Ask any rapper; they’ll tell you that’s real work too. In fact, there’s probably a good chance some of you are wearing one right now, sat comfortably reading this whilst working your desk-job. The work might have changed over the years. The Chore Coat hasn’t.