Culture

Workwear: clothing of the future and the past

It will always be stylish to be functional
Culture

Workwear: clothing of the future and the past

It will always be stylish to be functional

For the debut collection of Heron Preston's eponymous streetwear label, the 33-year-old designer found his muse in the uniforms of everyday workers. During his presentation at Fashion Week in Paris last month, models sported utility-focused looks that embraced the functional needs of manual labor. Titled, “For You, The World,” the collection featured pieces like a camouflage jumpsuit, an industrial work shirt, and pants with reflective stripes running down each leg, not unlike those worn by highway workers. One piece, a pumpkin orange t-shirt with the words “Community Service” printed on the front, looks like the standard issue garments foisted on delinquent teens for court mandated labor.

Preston, who reimagined sanitation workers’ uniforms as streetwear during New York Fashion Week last year, isn’t alone in his appreciation for the blue-collar worker. The world of fashion, a paragon for precisely the opposite of blue collar, has approached workwear like eccentric outsiders. Vetements recently released a collaboration with the brand Carhartt that made sure to preserve the elusive label’s gaunt silhouette, while transposing it onto workwear basics like button-up shirts and coveralls. The New York label and boutique Opening Ceremony shared collaborations with both Dickies and Ben Davis in recent months, taking the functional essentials of everyday workers and tossing in a perceptible dash of downtown cool, with colorful flares added to chinos and exaggerated fits supplanted onto work shirts. Even safety equipment like goggles, hard hats, and harnesses have become embraced as accessories in their own right. The designer Virgil Abloh repurposed a safety harness for the strap of a purse in his latest Off-White collection.

The leather Maxi bag from the brand Off-White

The leather Maxi bag from the brand Off-White

Gratitude

The fashion industry’s interpretation of workwear serves an audience far from the concerns of those looking to do actual work in their clothes — shirts from Vetements’ Carhartt collection, for example, cost over $1,000 — but there is something distinctly futuristic about the functional design of work clothes. In the science fiction imagination, people are often dressed solely for utility, as if at some point in our not-so-distant future, the concerns of fashion wash away, replaced by the function-focused concern of work clothes. Dystopian films like the adaptation of 1984, and the classic film Metropolis present workwear as the standard issue clothes of the oppressed. Even in more optimistic visions of the future, the functional design of workwear is a staple. The characters in Spike Jonze’s 2013 film Her wore basics that stripped clothing down to its most essential. In an interview with The New York Times, the film’s costume designer, Casey Storm, described the movie’s vision of clothing as decidedly essentialist. “What a lot of futuristic films do and we didn’t, is add things. No epaulets, badges, materials, textures,” he said. “What we did instead was take things away … We don’t have any denim or belt buckles or ties or baseball hats. We barely have a collar or lapel.”

Early 20th century avant-garde designers had a similar view. The Russian painter and architect Vladimir Tatlin designed an early version of the modern jumpsuit as a uniform for Russia’s burgeoning industrial class. The garment, indebted only to functionality, was constructed in the same mechanic and interchangeable fashion as the machines that dominated the time. Work clothes in this conception could be seen as the antithesis of fashion, a reflection of a world in which humans were motivated solely by optimization in the same way as machines. Much of Tatlin’s work was concerned with this revolutionary idea of modernity. His most famous design, a winding monument to the Third International dubbed, “Tatlin’s Tower,” illustrated his belief in the potential of technology.

In the book, Against Fashion: Clothing as Art, the author Radu Stern describes Tatlin’s designs as a failure, noting the fact that the architect’s most idealistic visions never caught on with a larger audience. He argued that the utopian idea of clothing as a form of technocratic revolution was a fantasy. “Far from breaking out of their time, they strongly evoke the spirit of the twenties, and the fact that they never went beyond the stage of prototype is a constant reminder of the failure of utopia,” he wrote.

Except, the clothes of the working class have taken on a significant meaning in the public imagination. The “Man in Overalls,” as the Viennese architect Adolf Loos dubbed the farmers and laborers of America in his 1910 essay Ornament and Crime, came to represent the common man whose collective power was the cornerstone of democratic and social progress. Critics of Loos are quick to point out that his vision of a unified American working class ignored the deep stratification along lines of class and race that existed (and still exist) in the country, but his idealism wasn't entirely unfounded. During the Civil Rights era, for example, members of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, or SNCC, famously wore overalls in their organizing efforts. The group's members wore them to connect with the population of poor sharecroppers and farmers whom they strived to organize. Speaking to Ebony in 1965, the organizer James Forman said, “Basically, we’re dealing with poor people, and these are the people we identify with.”

Stokely Carmichael, Chairman of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), and a leader in the 'Black Panther' political party in 1966

Stokely Carmichael, Chairman of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), and a leader in the 'Black Panther' political party in 1966

Workwear’s connection to the common man extends beyond the factory. Gangs in Los Angeles, for instance, were famous for wearing Dickies work pants. Hailing from low-income communities of color, gang members added their own cultural flare to the clothing worn by the “Man in Overalls” of Loos’ imagination. After all, these too were working-class communities. Similarly, the birth of streetwear in the late 1990s found graffiti writers and skaters drawing inspiration from the functional basics sold at Army resale stores. Labels like Stussy, Fuct, and Supreme were born as a sort of uniform for the counterculture, indebted to the same functionality as work clothes but with a graphic element that spoke to young urbanites.

Valerie Steele, the director and chief curator of The Museum at the Fashion Institute of Technology, points to a hunger for authenticity as a reason for workwear’s timeless appeal. “More than just being functional, traditional workwear has this aura of authenticity which contemporary people I think crave in clothing,” she said. “Especially now, because there’s so much sort of fakeness to fashion.”

The demands of labor — flexibility, comfort, breathability — are also genderless. Commenting on SNCC’s predilection for overalls, the writer Tanisha Ford describes in The Journal of Southern History how the utility of the garment gave female organizers a level of freedom, as well as a necessary form of protection. Ford describes how police tactics used on female organizers weaponized the "proper" clothing women wore at the time. She recalls the story of Anne Moody who, when arrested alongside other female activists at a protest for the slain organizer Medgar Evers, was subjected to an especially dubious form of police torture. The mostly male officers locked the women in a cramped trailer and turned the heat up for two hours. The method, which forced women to sweat through their dresses and skirts, was a way of circumventing rules that forbade male officers from body searching female suspects, it also put these women in danger of being sexually assaulted by the police, which was not uncommon at the time. As the organization grew, female organizers began adopting the overalls of the male activists in response to these tactics. By not conforming to the standards of what “proper” women should wear, female SNCC organizers were on a more even keel as their male counterparts.

Today, women are once again using work clothes to buck against stifling gender norms. In October, Urban Outfitters unveiled its collaboration with the storied workwear brand Dickies in a campaign targeted solely to young women. The campaign featured a group of girls in typically male fields like skateboarding with quotes from them describing how they overcome gendered expectations. Aubrey Bauer, an architecture student featured in the campaign, said, "I hope that women of the future will not grow up feeling 'less than' or gendered in any negative way."

It has remnants of the idea that the masculine is the modern and the functional.

Over the phone, Bob Levy, a co-owner of the workwear emporium Dave’s in New York City, noted that he’s seen a marked increase in young women shopping at the store.

“When you walk in, the store definitely smells like a guy’s store, I’ll be honest,” he joked, “but lately we’ve been seeing a lot more young women coming in to buy certain items.” Levy explained that even though brands like Carhartt and Dickies make lines specifically catered toward women, they come in for the men’s clothes. “Just like everyone else, the women want the authentic, original stuff,” he said.

Steele is careful to point out that there is still a gender imbalance at play when women adopt the work clothes of men.

“People always talk about unisex, but I think mostly what you’re seeing is the appropriation of menswear by women. I’m not seeing too many men wearing sarongs,” she said. “I think it has remnants of the idea that the masculine is the modern and the functional, even though there are women’s clothes that are equally functional but haven’t really gotten that type of acceptance.”

The campaign for Dickies and Urban Outfitters' female-focused workwear collaboration.

The campaign for Dickies and Urban Outfitters' female-focused workwear collaboration.

For all of its working class charm, something about high fashion brands co-opting the uniform of laborers seems, at the very least, disingenuous. What could the cocooned denizens of fashion's ruling class know about an honest day's work? What purpose do Urban Outfitters' marked up work pants really serve? John Lewis once lamented that the overalls SNCC adopted to connect with poor farmers risked being co-opted for selfish purposes. “We have adopted a uniform which we wear everywhere in a self-righteous way. Do we really wear it to identify with the working class, or is it now a status symbol?” He said.

Steele notes that middle class leftists, looking to identify with an idealized working class, have over the years shown a tendency to infantilize work clothes.

“You certainly see middle class leftists as seeing worker's clothing as indicating a sort of model of equality and honest labor,” she said. “I think the working people themselves might not see it that way, but certainly leftists have sort of idealized that vision of the worker.”

For his part, Bob Levy seems unfazed. The high-fashion replications of workwear, he says, can never compete with the real stuff.“I see a lot of the big fashion brands making workwear, but I think what people look for is the original,” he said. “Why pay some extravagant price for something when you can get the real stuff for cheaper?”


The current sartorial fascination with the clothing of blue-collar workers comes as the very nature of labor is changing. According to a collaborative study by Harvard, Stanford, and UC Berkeley last month, only half of millennials earn more than their parents when they were their age. A growing trend in our labor force is “alternative work arrangements,” ephemeral jobs like contract work or “gig economy” labor that comes with none of the bargaining power of the traditional workforce. Automation continues to creep into industries like manufacturing, trucking, and shipping. The slow, irreversible dissolution of many working class jobs has already begun, and there is no reason to think the trend will slow down. In their book Inventing the Future, authors Nick Srnicek and Alex Williams suggest that “What the next two decades portend, is a future in which the global economy is increasingly unable to produce enough jobs (let alone good jobs), yet where we remain dependent upon jobs for our living.”

The “Man in Overalls” once represented a powerful block of workers, advocating government on behalf of the common man, it appears that today, workers of all sorts are in a more perilous position than ever. Maybe the trend of workwear is anticipatory in this regard, preserving an aesthetic that, by all accounts, will soon be extinct.

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