One of the most obvious things about the modern fashion industry is how relatable it is getting — it is no longer a VIP-only playground where the rich gather to play dress-up. Fashion is becoming more accessible as more designers are drawing inspiration from every aspect of life, from their hobbies, street arts, architecture and occupations (just to name a few). These clothes resemble a significant part of our lives rather than existing in their genre.
The history of workwear is long but can be summarized in a short sentence: workwear refers to the ‘fashion spin-off’ of workers’ attire, usually blue-collar workers. Similar to my previous article on skate fashion, workwear is another prime example of how designers reimagined and repurposed something mundane.
So you mean to tell me that construction workers’ uniforms are supposed to be fashionable now? Yes ... and no. The source of inspiration cannot be deemed fashionable just because blue-collar workers heavily inspired workwear. However, the utilitarian and rugged essence of these uniforms is what was isolated and amplified. And in the age of fast fashion that lacks individuality, workwear is one of few ways to stand out without devastating your bank account.
Dressing like you repair clock towers for a living (minus the mess and grease) may be a daring concept for you. However, from a different perspective, workwear fashion is just a vintage iteration of protective gear (as opposed to techwear, the modern version). Both are fashionably practical, but one opts for old-school denim and cotton-nylon to make jackets and cargo pants; the other incorporates new water-repellent fabric technologies for rain jackets.
Dressing in workwear used to be strictly occupational, but now it seems like it has transcended into a fashion statement, expressing the calloused and gritty side of artistic minds. Since the late 80s, the elements of workwear have been slowly bleeding into streetwear; it is easy to spot where the line crosses between workwear and skate fashion as well. Brands like Carhartt, Levi’s and Timberland were manufacturers of durable uniforms for heavy-duty workers, but now they are staples in many fashionistas’ closets.
Workwear was the bedrock of fashion in cities that gave birth to various hip-hop icons like New York, Detroit and Los Angeles. We can see in music videos from the early 80s to 00s where Dickies, Carhartt and Timberland made frequent appearances. This fashion aesthetic greatly represents the struggles and utilitarian side of people’s lives. When money is the driving factor in fashion decisions, cheap clothes that are durable and versatile will be at the forefront of people’s minds.
On the other hand, even though the workwear trend in New York has crept its way to its Northern neighbour in Toronto, this sense of fashion pragmatism has yet to make a proper introduction in Vancouver. As practical as Vancouverites can be in terms of fashion, we are falling behind on world trends. But don’t worry, let this article be a gateway into workwear.
Eisenhower jackets, cargo/carpenter pants, denim jackets and overalls are vital components of workwear. As mentioned earlier, dressing in a rugged and gritty fashion is the key. Items that resemble mechanics, construction workers and engineers are encouraged. You could even add a Canadian twist and layer yourself with flannels underneath jackets. The possibilities are endless.
Colours are often limited with traditional workwear. After all, it is mimicking uniforms in dangerous and heavy-duty working conditions, which means that bright colours are usually avoided. Earth tones (brown, beige, green, etc), dark blue, grey and white are common colour palettes to pair with. If you are not a fan of traditional earth tones, experiment with pastel colours. I would recommend leaving your desire for bright colours for accessories like beanies, caps and scarves.
Once again, these are not absolute requirements, this is just a guide intended to incorporate the workwear aesthetic into your daily life. I personally find it the easiest to draw inspiration from celebrities that are often seen in workwear: Ye (recent name change from Kanye), Shia Labeouf, Tupac, A$AP Ferg, etc. If you dig deeper into the rap history of Harlem and Compton, you’ll also find workwear galore. Indeed, workwear was popularized mainly by rappers, especially the brand Carhartt, so it makes sense that fashion goes there for ideas.
The workwear trend is also really popular in Asian countries and brands like Kapital and Vuja De are great places to look for styling inspiration too.
Although workwear relies on mimicking workers’ uniforms, remember to not get lost in the mimicking part (same goes for other fashion aesthetics). Make sure to incorporate your personal style into it as well. Fashion is nothing if it isn’t personalized.