What blue-collar workers think of workwear as fashion

Carhartt, Dickies and Wranglers were once the dress code for craftsmen and manual workers. Now these brands line the walls of Urban Outfitters.

For decades, utility-oriented workwear has been valued for fashion rather than function. In the ’90s, overalls and coat chores were worn by hip-hop legends like The Fugees and Tupac, while queer communities embraced workwear for their loose, androgynous look. The 2000s saw skateboarders and Cholo culture overtake the trend, often mixing square work-like pieces with women and low-top sneakers.

Yet the popularity of social media – which circulates trends and influences within minutes – had helped workwear break out of its past subcultures, making the style more mainstream. Now, everyday work uniforms are worn outside of their traditional and historic setting: utilitarian-oriented pieces are appearing on catwalks, on celebrities and on the shelves of streetwear shops.

Men’s Clothing S / S 2020Kristy Sparow / Getty Images Entertainment / Getty Images

The fashion industry doesn’t share the practical mindset of workwear – it’s about what looks good, not how something works. Focusing only on style, however, can be detrimental to pieces created for utility. As workwear grows in popularity outside of its target population, one has to ask when its adoption becomes problematic. Is there a problem with the glamourization of someone’s work uniform? And will this glamourization lead to a price increase for those who actually wear utility-oriented styles for convenience?

Already, traditional workwear brands like Carhartt and Dickies have seen more love for “high end” versions of their work-inspired outfits. Streetwear brands like Opening Ceremony, Stüssy, Madewell and Union have collaborated with Dickies, while the recent acquisition of the workwear brand by VF Corporation (which owns brands like Vans, Wrangler and Supreme) will likely give Dickies more opportunities to develop within the fashion industry. .

On the other hand, Carhartt’s Work in Progress line – which has been around since 1994 – was recently adopted by Kanye West, Shia LaBeouf, Bella Hadid and Jonah Hill, alongside anyone else willing to pay over $ 300 for classic pieces like chore coats and carpenter pants .

As paid and aesthetic-seeking consumers quickly reap profits for workwear brands, companies need to make sure they don’t stray from their workwear roots. This would risk alienating their consumer base of true workers – without whom they would not exist.

Dickies x opening ceremonyDickies


Phil Courtman, 42, worked in roofing for 25 years, most of which he carried Carhartt. The brand’s canvas pants protect it from burns caused by hot tar – which melts through synthetic fabrics on the skin – while its cotton t-shirts provide breathability. “Roofing is like riding a bike, except the bike is on fire and you’re in hell,” Courtman said. Grab, accentuate the warmth of work. The day after talking with Grab, he planned to work in more than 100 ° of heat.


Likewise, Courtman’s wife Mona, 44, wears brands like Carhartt and Dickies when she gardens. Having worked in landscaping for eight years, she loves the comfort of double-knee pants, saying the style keeps her cool when she “gets down and gets dirty.”

“Where the [real] job in progress. ”

For Phil and Mona, work clothes serve as a daily uniform, not a fashion statement. “I don’t go out to dinner in my Carhartt pants,” Mr. Courtman said, “but I guess [other] people do. ”The trend is“ fun ”for the couple, they say, but it’s easy to see the allure of work clothes:“ When you wear [workwear], we feel good in it – you’ve got the whole outfit, ”Ms. Courtman explained, describing the put together look of her canvas pants and boots. Yet neither of them said they would wear their utilitarian clothes for style. Who wants to wear their work uniform after hours?

Carhartt Work in progress

Before speaking with Grab, neither Phil nor Mona had ever heard of Carhartt Work in Progress, let alone paying over $ 300 for cargo pants. “I would never pay so much for [workwear]”said Mr. Courtman Grab. “Unless he came with a car, or maybe some radiation shield.” Carhartt is already expensive, he lamented, adding that the price of his canvas pants has gone from $ 60 to $ 85 over the years. The change, however, isn’t because people are wearing trendy work clothes – it’s just inflation, argued Mr Courtman.

For the sake of convenience, the Courtmans buy their work clothes from retail outlets, only buying items from official Carhartt stores that they would not wear to work. “Our work clothes are really damaged,” Ms. Courtman said. It wouldn’t make sense to spend hundreds of dollars on work clothes if they had to be replaced every six months, which is roughly the life of their clothes, she said. “Where the [real] work in progress, ”added Courtman.

That’s right, consumers pay hundreds, if not thousands, to look the same as the Courtmans. In recent years, distressed styles have exploded in demand, glamorizing ripped clothes and pre-soiled sneakers. The worn look gives off an “effortless” vibe, ironically (or stupidly) contrasting its premium price. It really gives a new meaning to “dirty rich”.


Workwear silhouettes are meant for function rather than fashion, Theresa Massony, senior style editor of Elite Daily, Recount Grab. As she first noticed utility pieces in the ’90s, she said the past five years have seen the workwear trend gain in popularity: “Hipsters in metro areas love brands like Dickies, Carhartt and even Wranglers and Dockers, ”explained Massony. And a few years ago, big fashion brands like Celine, Vetements and Stella McCartney were sending uniforms and coveralls to the catwalks, she added.

“Fashion generally reflects current events,” Massony said. As the pandemic pushes consumers towards functionality – and perhaps dystopian design – utility uniforms have become more fashionable. “[Workwear] is a little modest, ”said Massony. “It allows people to dress androgynously – Dickies button-down shirts and pants are not inherently gendered.”

“[Workwear isn’t] intrinsically sexed. “

The homogenizing nature of workwear allows them to adapt to unisex and non-sexist fashion trends. “For me, as a lesbian, it allows me to explore a genderless style while still feeling safe,” Massony said. “I think [utility-focused pieces] are very easy to adopt building blocks for the androgynous style. Even outside of the LGBTQ + community, she noted, workwear has flourished. “It’s foolproof,” she said. “That’s why he’s so attractive. “

Whether it’s Dickies pants, Docker’s buttons or a Wrangler denim jacket, the work-inspired pieces “work for everyone,” added Massony, noting the inclusive size range of clothing brands from job. The styles are very versatile, she said – while each uniform-like style offers a put together look, outfits can be personalized through colors, bandanas, patches and more. Because of this, Massony said she could see the styles persist over the next decade, given their role in decades past.

Since the introduction of work clothes – around 1922, according to Dickies – the fashion world has interpreted utility-oriented styles in its own way. When women joined the industrial workforce in 1943 as a result of World War II, men’s workwear made its way into the fashion trends. The ’60s and’ 70s adopted work-inspired styles like overalls and boxy silhouettes, while the ’80s saw basic workwear incorporated into the street style. In 1992, skateboarders adopted Dickies pants for their durability – and now workwear isn’t necessarily related to “subcultures,” notes Massony.

Unlike the groups that originally embraced workwear, modern buyers admire work-inspired pieces for their look rather than their function. Practicality is not a necessity (or a common feature) when it comes to fashion, price included. Consumers pay hundreds of dollars to wear parts that are already damaged and falling apart.

The popularity of utility-oriented styles may soon fade away, but if they don’t, those who wear the pieces every day will pay the highest price of all. Brands producing workwear need to be mindful of their first customers, Massony warned. Work clothes “are linked to people’s livelihoods,” she said. “It’s important to remember – and educate others – about the roots of this trend. Without the people wearing Dickies and Carhartts for function rather than fashion, work clothes simply wouldn’t work.

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