The Secret to Wearing Workwear

Not many clothes can truthfully claim humble beginnings.  The clichéd axiom “dress for the job you want” advocates climbing the sartorial ladder to echelons of the socially elite and powerful.  Tastemakers historically have taken queues from the aristocracy, presenting their livery as the pinnacle of style toward which all should progress.

And then we have workwear.

Despite its rather general designation, workwear is the apparel of specifically the field, shop, or construction worker.  It is a relatively new term for a style that has been around for over 100 years, when men and women needed practical, utilitarian clothing that could withstand the rigors of manual labor in harsh environments.  Over the years, individual pieces of workwear would enjoy the limelight of mainstream popularity.  Observe the awesomeness:

The sad thing about appropriation is that, when placed out of its setting, an article of clothing can appear awkward and forced.  Oftentimes, the earnest adoption of bits and pieces of a “look” comes out contrived.  These pictures don’t showcase laborers, farmers, or lumberjacks.  There is no “authenticity” in these outfits at all.

What, then, of the wholesale wardrobe adoption of a subculture?  This, in effect, is the “workwear” trend. Fok, Styleforum’s owner, can go into greater detail and history, but the interest in “heritage brands” making workwear started in the early aughts, hit its stride in 2008,  and even ten years later shows no signs of fading away.  As recently as three months ago, GQ noted that “construction core” clothing was one of the more noteworthy trends of 2016.  Back in workwear’s heyday, an article in the San Francisco Chronicle quoted Kiya Babzani as saying: “You never look stupid in workwear.  It’s easier to swallow a whole outfit because it’s classic and simple.  Some trends get a little costumey.  Not this one.”  There is truth to these words; and yet I’d argue that the trend can, in fact, be taken too far.  

What makes the basics of the workwear “trend” so easy to adopt is that they always look good together.  Jeans go great with boots and flannel shirts.  There is nothing difficult to master, and the changes in denim and leather over time only make them look better, thus ensuring the longevity of the garment as well as the style.  Additionally, workwear as a broad style has been around continuously for so long and adopted by so many other communities (skaters, punks, hiphop artists – to name a few) that these items have ceased having exclusive attachment to the blue collar worker.  In fact, you will probably sooner see them on an “digital community expert” or “full-stack developer” than on an actual laborer, the irony of which is not lost on laborers (believe me, I know – I am one).

However, it can get a little costumey.  How?  Workwear is not menswear; you don’t want to look like you dressed up.  These clothes look best when they’re a bit disheveled.  Think denim with time-worn fades and boots with battle scars.  Don’t obsess about the perfect cuff on your jeans.  Don’t sweat it if you get a little dirt (or spill a latte) on your henley.  And don’t even think about cutting holes in your jeans; you gotta earn those the hard way.  No one’s going to believe that those perfectly horizontal rips on the thighs of your jeggings happened on the jobsite, poseur.

Why is workwear so enduringly popular?  Is it because besides the suit, it’s one of the few looks that has been around for over a century?  Perhaps. Perhaps it’s a backlash against fast-fashion, against a closet full of disposables.  Or maybe it’s the sentimentality associated with faded pictures of mythical icons of the past.  Whatever the reason, it’s a look that is easy to wear.  

Just put on your clothes, wear ‘em to death, throw them in the wash when they stink, and repeat.  That’s it. 

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Peter Zottolo
Peter works in construction, but has an extensive collection of custom suits which he gets so that he can wear suits on the weekend. Even though he lives in San Francisco, he has never used the word "impact" as a verb. He writes about classic menswear and is one fedora away from being a complete dork.
Peter Zottolo

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