Of Collars and Colours

A collar is innocently defined as ‘.. a piece of clothing, usually sewn on and sometimes made of different material, that goes around the neck’. So when and why did the word become so loaded with connotations of class, occupation, gender, etc. etc.?

Collar

It seems to have started more than a hundred years back, in the early days of the 20th century. In a practice that started in about 1924, people involved in manual labour started to be referred to as blue-collar workers, as they wore sturdy, inexpensive clothing in colours like blue that didn’t show dirt easily. They were usually daily-wagers. The famous American writer Upton Sinclair is supposed to have coined the term ‘white-collar workers’ in the 1930s, for the white shirts that were popular with office workers at that time.  These are usually clerical, administrative and managerial workers who work on a regular salary.

And in the last few decades, as the nature of work changes, the number of collar colours has exploded.

Here is a look at some of these terms—some fairly common, and some pretty esoteric and niche. Nor is the meaning uniform across the world—a single colour can have many different connotations.

  • Gray collar jobs fall in confusing area, where it is not quite clear if the jobs are white collar or blue collar.  It sometimes denotes under-employed white collar workers.  Some use it as a term for people in the information technology sector. Yet others use it to denote older workers.
  • Red collar workers are those who work in government, supposedly because they draw their salaries from budget lines denoted in red ink. In some parts of the world, those in occupations in primary sectors like agriculture are called red collar workers.
  • Green collars work in environment related jobs and renewable energy jobs. This will hopefully see an explosion as we move towards carbon targets.
  • Black collar workers are those who are involved in manual work in sectors like mining or oil drilling. But sometimes it is used to denote those involved in illegal occupations.
  • Pink collar jobs used to denote job in domains traditionally staffed by women, but has now  fortunately expanded to stand for workers of all genders in the service sector.
  • Orange colour workers refers to prison labour.
  • Gold collar jobs refer to those occupations which need highly-skilled people, and people with specialized knowledge, such as doctors, lawyers, scientists.
  • New collar jobs are those which emphasize skills and capabilities rather than formal educational qualifications, such as the IT industry is moving towards.
  • No collar jobs are for the free spirits such as artists who pursue their passions, rather than money.
  • Popped colour jobs is a new emerging term for young people from rich families who take on 9-5 jobs for character building.
  • Virtual collar or Chrome collar jobs are used to denote robots performing automated, repetitive tasks.

So collar colours are alive and well! Never mind if many of the business icons of today as well as many workers wear collar-less shirts! Sadly, collar colours continue to stereotype people by their occupations, and make assumptions about their level of education, job responsibilities, working conditions, financial situation and even social class.

Well, the only lesson is ‘Don’t judge people by their collar colour’!

–Meena

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