Why Do We Say White Collar and Blue Collar?

By: Kristen Hall-Geisler  | 
blue collar white collar workers
Why do we still use the terms white collar and blue collar to refer to workers? And who in the world thought pink collar was OK to designate jobs for women? Sira Anamwong/Shutterstock
Key Takeaways
  • The terms "white collar" and "blue collar" originated in the early 20th century to differentiate office workers from manual laborers, based on the typical attire worn in these roles.
  • White collar workers generally performed administrative or managerial tasks and wore white dress shirts, while blue collar workers engaged in manual labor and wore durable clothing like blue denim.
  • Over time, these terms have also come to imply class distinctions, though the lines have blurred with modern changes in workplace attire and job types.


When Did the Terms First Appear?

The terms "white-collar jobs" and "blue-collar jobs" pop up in discussions about work, the economy, education and class. But why are jobs sorted like loads of laundry by collar colors, especially in a world where a lot of people where t-shirts and hoodies to work, no matter what they do? The answer is about a century old.

Interestingly, white collar was the first to appear, in 1910. A Nebraska newspaper used the term to contrast office workers and farmworkers in the Midwest. Men would often wear clean, starched white-collared shirts to church on Sundays. Who wouldn't, the paper wondered, choose a job where they could wear a white collar to work and remain clean over the dirty, grimy, sweaty physical work of the farmer?


Once white collar entered the language, it didn't take long for its workplace corollary to emerge. Blue collar first appeared in 1924 in a newspaper in Iowa to refer to men working in the trades, such as carpentry. These men didn't really wear blue-collared shirts all that often, but they did wear blue-dyed jeans and overalls to do their jobs. The shirts they wore were usually darker colors to help hide the stains that came with doing their work.

What Do White Collar and Blue Collar Mean?

The two terms gained traction after World War II. As the 20th century progressed, the terms became shorthand for different types of jobs. White collar workers were usually in offices, in administrative or management roles, and were paid a salary. These jobs often required college degrees.

Blue collar workers were often working outside or on job sites, doing manual or technical labor, and were paid hourly or by the piece. These jobs often required vocational training or an apprenticeship, or they may have had on-the-job training.


Along the way, these terms picked up a class distinction, too. Blue-collar workers were perceived as being "lower class" than white-collar workers. This is despite the fact that many of these jobs, whether they were in management or trades, paid similar wages.

Are the Terms Obsolete?

The terms are becoming outdated for a lot of reasons, first among them being their false class connotations. They're also rooted in jobs that were only available to men. And there's the fact that a lot of jobs don't require shirts with collars at all anymore.

We're far past "Mad Men"-style suits and into a "The Social Network" phase of workplace attire. Jobs that used to be considered blue collar, like factory work, are cleaner and more technical than they used to be. New terms, like "industrial workers" and "industrial artisans" are cropping up to replace the old.


Frequently Asked Questions

Are there any specific dress codes for white-collar and blue-collar jobs today?
While traditional dress codes have relaxed, white-collar jobs typically still require business or business casual attire, whereas blue-collar jobs often involve wearing uniforms or practical, durable clothing suited for manual labor.
How have the roles of white-collar and blue-collar workers evolved in recent years?
The roles have evolved with advancements in technology and the economy, leading to an overlap where some blue-collar jobs now require technical skills and some white-collar jobs involve hands-on tasks.