I know the owners of a store in Italy selling a few items of new and vintage menswear alongside their own jewelry designs. They often stock some nice examples of old bleu du travail vintage French work jackets that they source from dealers in Bangkok.
The circuitous voyage these discarded factory coveralls take before finding their way to new owners back in Europe had always intrigued me. But as it turns out, the story of their journey – first abroad, and then the homecoming – is a little more complicated even than this.
At Pitti Uomo last season I met a couple of guys who run a vintage menswear boutique in France. One of them now lives in Thailand, where he sources a lot of their stock. Seizing the opportunity, I asked them if they knew why vintage French work jackets are now more easily – or at least more cheaply – available in Southeast Asia than in their country of origin. Specifically, why they were sent to Thailand in the first place.
Admittedly I’ve never seen anyone in Thailand wearing French bleu du travail (and in any case the Thais have their own native version, in the form of the indigo-dyed mo hom traditionally made in the north of the country). Nonetheless I’d imagined that perhaps the French workshirts might have been donated to struggling Thai rice farmers at some point in the ‘70s or ‘80s.
What the two French guys told me was indeed something along these lines. Only, according to them, it was not Thailand but Pakistan that was the original beneficiary of the Gallic hand-me-downs. Precisely why the bleu du travail workwear was sent to Pakistan, they couldn’t say. All they knew was that the wholesale used clothing dealers in Bangkok that they purchase vintage French work jackets from in turn import these items from Pakistan, where at some point in the past they’d apparently all been sent.
From France to Pakistan, on to Thailand, and then back to Europe to be sold once again (perhaps to a passing tourist from East Asia or the Americas?): these clothes have covered a lot of distance in their time. In fact, whether the work jackets had been sent to Pakistan directly from France is anybody’s guess. So, for all I know, we may still be missing an important segment of the travelogue. Equally, of the vintage French work jackets commonly found on Etsy and eBay, I have no idea how typical this route is. All I know is that at least 2 European stores get their bleu du travail from Bangkok, rather than, say, the backwoods of Bourgogne.
If the workwear was sent to Pakistan and made good use of by laborers for 20 years before being shipped to Thailand, then the associated carbon emissions are probably justified. Nonetheless, as Bangkok is only acting as a staging post before the clothes are shipped to Europe or elsewhere, from a sustainability point of view this is clearly a chapter in the odyssey that could be skipped.
Bangkok is a major hub for the import and export of vintage clothing from the States. The city’s Chatuchak weekend market is filled with everything from old L.L. Bean hunting jackets like the one at the top of this page, to Lee and Wrangler jeans, US military surplus, and piles of Converse and Vans of unknown authenticity. Indeed, it’s said that the cool hippy guys selling vintage gear in the traveler district of Banglampoo are so well dressed because they originate from the south of the country, where the containers of imported clothing are first unloaded – there’s nothing like getting first dibs!
This fact, coupled with knowledge of the meandering journey made by the bleu du travail work jackets, made me wonder about the green credentials of vintage clothing more generally. We’re often told that buying vintage clothing is more sustainable than buying new, but if that old leather Perfecto you’ve got your eye on has run up an enormous carbon trail before making its way to your local vintage store, is this actually the case?
Prior to the fast-fashion boom of the last few decades, a lot of the more prestigious mass-market clothes worn around the world originated from the US. Not only that, but I’m guessing that levels of consumption were also generally much higher in the States (after all, extreme consumerism has a longer history in the US than in most other places). This perhaps lead to a greater level of lightly-used products flooding the US market.
If you live in the US, nearly all the clothes available in vintage and goodwill stores are likely to have been made on local soil (at least until recently, although this may be starting to change according to this piece in The Guardian). But with American denim, workwear, and sports brands retaining their appeal on the vintage market worldwide, the ships docking off the coast of, say, Holland or Malaysia are also laden with America’s cast offs – destined to be sold by weight and distributed to vintage stores far and wide. So travel to Tokyo, Barcelona, Copenhagen, Buenos Aires, Kuala Lumpur, Cape Town, or pretty much anywhere outside the US, and the majority of items you can expect to see on vintage racks will be largely identical to those back home.
As I’ve discussed elsewhere, although the transportation of clothing is undoubtedly a major contributor to environmental damage, the manufacturing of a new item of unsustainably produced clothing will have way more negative consequences than merely shipping bales of used apparel by sea-freight. Indeed, when considered pound for pound, a trip to the local mall by car to purchase a single item of clothing will likely cause as much in the way of emissions as shipping several containers of old rags halfway across the globe. To be clear, I don’t know the true figures here, however I think this seems quite probable: after all, while guzzling more fuel, a single ship will be filled with millions of items off clothing; whereas your car will contain little more than yourself and that Uniqlo “wifebeater” you just bought.
Clearly the main argument for buying vintage is simply that it already exists: why consume yet more resources to make something new, when mountains of perfectly good clothing are being consigned to landfill on a daily basis?
If you can buy from a clothing brand producing new garments in an entirely sustainable manner, using locally grown and easily replenished materials – and the alternative would be purchasing American hand-me-downs that have traveled thousands of miles in order to get to you – in this case, yes, it would perhaps be better to buy the new product. In reality though, most of us don’t have access to such a brand. At least not yet.
What’s more, buying a truly sustainable and ethical piece of clothing still doesn’t solve the problem of what to do with all the clothes we’ve already made.
For anyone outside of the US, the vintage clothing available in your local market may well have been shipped around the world (possibly even more than once) before getting to you. Clearly this makes buying vintage a little less sustainable than it might at first appear. Nonetheless, it’s worth asking the question of what happens to these clothes if we don’t buy them.
When all things are considered though, it seems that buying vintage clothing – even well-traveled vintage French work jackets – is still one of the better choices open to the ethical menswear shopper. However, there is evidently plenty of room for the vintage “rag” industry to become more sustainable than it currently is.
UPDATE: It seems that the circuitous journey made by the vintage bleu du travail workwear as told above is just the continuation of a historically even lengthier voyage.
By total coincidence I just came across an article (in French) on HuffPost explaining that what most of us consider to be “French” indigo workshirts were actually first imported to the Mediterranean region as whole (i.e. not just France) during the 1930s, and thus were also commonly worn in North Africa during this time (much of which was of course under French colonial rule at this point).
And where was the workwear imported from?
China no less.
Indeed, an alternative term for bleu du travail is apparently “bleu du Chine.”
And there I was imagining that Mao adopted workers uniforms from the French; on the contrary, it was often French ’68 Maoists who adopted the look from China.
The funny thing is that the author of the HuffPost article states that he came across something of a perplexing mystery himself when researching the article: why are bleu du travail workshirts referred to by the name of “dengueri” in the Maghreb? Search for an answer to this question sent him off on a quest exploring words for the color blue in various languages — yet without conclusive resolution.
But to English speakers, the resemblance between dengueri and dungaree is just too obvious to be ignored. And my dictionary tells me that this word comes from the name of a coarse kind of cotton cloth in one of the many languages of India.
I’ll never look on vintage French work jackets in quite the same way again.