About white, blue, grey and pink collar workers

Clerical collar of an Anglican vicar (TRC 2018.0902).

Clerical collar of an Anglican vicar (TRC 2018.0902).

Last week the TRC was given an Anglican priest’s detachable collar (the so-called ‘dog collar’; TRC 2018.0902), this week we were given a small collection of blue shirt collars. All of which led me to think about the English language idioms ‘white collar worker’ and ‘blue collar worker.’

A ‘white collar worker’ is associated with the detachable shirt collars made of white, highly starched linen or cotton. These were worn by professional and administrative staff, such as managers and accountants in the nineteenth and first half of the twentieth centuries. In contrast, ‘blue collar workers’ were generally manual workers and associated with shirts of blue, brown, etc., which were easier to keep clean. These two terms represent two different social groups and occupations.

Origins of the terms

There are references in various sources to detachable collars being developed in the early nineteenth century, probably in America, and that by the end of the same century the use of detachable collars was widespread throughout the Western world.

The first written use of the term ‘white collar worker’ in the USA may date to about 1910, as there is an article in the Norfolk-Nebraska Weekly News Journal (1910) to a homesteader who:

“…. had the good sense to leave a cheap, white-collar job, deny himself fleeting luxuries, take up the cross, and follow—the plow.”

By the mid-1920’s the term ‘blue collar’ started to appear in various newspapers, and so forth. But it was only in 1945 that the two terms terms were used in the prestigious newspaper, The New York Times. It is possible that the words were introduced into Britain by American service men during the Second World War (1939-1945), but this is not certain.

The death of detachable collars took place in the 1950’s with the introduction of garments made of synthetic materials that were easier to clean. More significantly, however, was the widespread use of domestic washing machines, which meant that keeping garments clean became much easier and less time consuming.

Pink and other hues

By the beginning of the twenty-first century the idioms blue and white collar worker are still used in the West and various people had created new idioms to reflect the changing nature of society in the late twentieth century. These include the ‘pink collar worker,’ whose work involves service oriented functions, such as food preparation and entertainment or, according to other sources, for women working as nurses, secretaries, and teachers. ‘Green collar workers’ are those working in conservation and sustainability, while ‘gold collar workers’ are those working in professional (and lucrative) fields of law, finance and engineering.

It has been suggested that ‘grey collar workers’ are those who continue working well into their 60’s. The term ‘open collar worker’ refers to someone who dresses in an informal manner at work. More dramatically, a ‘no collar worker’ is someone who refuses to wear collars (and ties) at all.

Digital source

Gillian Vogelsang, Sunday 8th April 2018


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