Why painters wore white

One would think that the choice of manual work-clothes would be appropriate to the task in hand, right? Well not always, it seems.

Think painters. No, not Salvador Dali or the beret-toting kind. We’re talking house painters, professional painters and contractors decked out in white…I bet you can visualise them.

Surely, if you were going to take on a project that required very possibly being splattered with a spectrum of colours you’d rather wear rainbow ‘cammo’ of some type, to try and disguise the mess? Surely? I challenge you to paint a wall without some type of spatter getting on to your clothing. So, wearing white would not make sense if you wanted to appear less ‘messy’, right?

(A question I must pose is: why would one need to look pristine while hard at physical work? Dunno.)

Anyway, back to the topic.

A bit of research reveals a few interesting facts why painters in days of yore wore white and why the apparel choice stuck for so long.

Kicking off the reasoning is that the vast majority of materials used by the painting fraternity for preparing surfaces are mostly white. Think about it: all the base elements used to get that working surface up to prime (sorry about the pun) from caulk and spackle, to plaster, all of these base materials are generally white.

Another thought is that white stood out and, completely white attire would serve as a “warning”, as few people by choice wear an entirely white outfit — brides aside. Upon entering a room where a person was dressed in white overalls, one would assume that some surfaces may be wet with paint and you should proceed with caution. (Dead give away would also be drop cloths draped all over and tins of paint, but you get the idea?)

Here’s an associated thought on the subject of white attire: Who has stayed in an hotel that offers coloured linen? I have personally wondered about the reasoning behind using a white face cloth, drying off with a white towel and sleeping in between white sheets. I mean, they would show dirt and stains so quickly, right?

Then it occurred to me: bleach.

It’s far easier to bleach these items than worry about washing different colours together with the possibility of colours running into each other. (I draw your attention to the oft-cited red sock that somehow gets caught up with the sheets – Voila! Baby pink linen!)

So too, it’s easier (and cheaper) to simply bleach clothes that are discoloured. While white doesn’t fade, it does slowly discolour, but nothing that a bit of bleach won’t fix. Also, white clothing on the whole, was a thriftier buy than coloured clothing. Wearing white also adds a sense of cleanliness and professionalism  (think doctors and lab technicians) and evokes a sense of confidence in the wearer as someone who cares and takes care!

Wearing one colour also creates a sense of uniformity, even if its not an actual uniform. And uniformity equals consistency, quality and well, uniformity!

If working in a hot area (eg on a roof, in the sun) wearing white opposed to coloured clothing is said to deflect heat. (I have yet to see a painter dressed in black?) This reasoning also applies to creating a sense of coolness, hence houses traditionally being painted white, inside and out, back in the day.

An older reason for wearing white as a painter came about as the Industrial Revolution swept the globe. In tandem with the surge in manual labour jobs, was also the emergence of unions. To show membership, many would don the white uniform as a symbol of unity and support of workplace rights, and to separate themselves from non-union members.

However, the following is, so it goes, the more accepted reason for the tradition of painter’s whites.

Nearly 400 years ago, English sailors took to wearing trousers made from the discarded canvas sails of ships which, strangely enough, came in a variety of colours — various shades of white. Because the fabric was made to withstand tumultuous storms and violent winds, the material was extremely durable as well as lightweight, reason enough for local painters to similarly adopt canvas sail pants as their workwear. And so the tradition was born and, although it’s no longer sail cloth as the choice of fabric, and overalls now come in a variety of colours…maybe there is still merit to wearing white?

Who would have guessed that English sailors were one of the first recyclers?

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