Workwear, to some degree, has always been intertwined with streetwear. It wasn’t, however, a bunch of teens and young adults stomping around in steel-toe boots or standing out with hi-vis gear (although neon hues get pretty close). Rather, pieces like Dickies’ work pants, Timberlands, and chore coats were just there – appreciated for their combination of durability and style but used beyond the original purpose.
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Although Junya Watanabe’s recent efforts have brought workwear quite literally to the runway, menswear’s admiration of Americana led to a slow revival of heritage brands starting roughly 10 years ago. With it comes the symbols of American success – mainly, working hard, making something of yourself, and completely doing it all on your own – and the image of the working man – usually, a cowboy or laborer.
So, if you’re totally new to Americana or where streetwear and workwear intersect, start with the following brands:
By this point, you’re probably familiar with the history of Carhartt WIP, a European-licensed division of the seminal American workwear brand that seamlessly blends a streetwear aesthetic with jobsite-influenced silhouettes. But, for a review, the original Carhartt started toward the tail end of the 19th century in Michigan and eventually became known for its ultra-sturdy cotton-duck material that’s still a staple of its product line. As streetwear aficionados in Europe sought out these staples in the 1990s, Work in Progress was born, mixing up Carhartt’s timeless designs with more fashion-forward styling. In short, the perfect workwear-streetwear hybrid emerged and has yet to find a true competitor.
From this point onward, Carhartt WIP has operated more like a streetwear brand – a ‘zine to collaborations with other fashion houses like APC, Adam Kimmel, and Junya Watanabe. Yet, visually, its workwear roots stay prominent, and thus, it sets the standard for Americana done through a streetwear lens.
If there’s any piece exemplifying the workwear-to-streetwear hybrid, it’s the lace-up, lugged work boot, often based on a style by Timberland. Yet, these days, no one wants to walk around the city with massive steel toes holding you back, and for this reason, Timberland, as a brand, is more fashion and hiking leaning, while Timberland PRO gets you jobsite-approved footwear.
Classic Timberlands – a staple of both mid-‘90s alternative and hip-hop scenes – shouldn’t be complicated. A matte, rather than polished, leather upper, a thicker, lugged outsole, a lace-up front with metal hardware, and a bit of ankle padding for support. Although other brands like Carolina, Caterpillar, and Red Wing deliver something similar, the combination feels intrinsically part of the Timberland brand.
The chore coat, these days, looks strikingly similar to safari and utility jackets, and from a practical standpoint, its pocketed design and dark color are pragmatically rooted. Although those in the fashion sphere associate them with the late street photographer Bill Cunningham, they’ve existed since the earlier part of the 20th century and, up until a few decades ago, were preferred by mechanics. While a few brands have manufactured them, both for fashion and work purposes, Vetra, the French company that started making this dark-hued, multi-pocket staple in the 1920s, is often associated with the quintessential design.
In terms of workwear-as-casualwear, there’s two approaches around the Dickies brand. One, the company itself has developed pieces, such as their Industrial work jeans, that can be worn off the job. As such, from your pants to your shirt, your on-the-job clothing doesn’t look that different from what you’d sport fixing stuff in the garage or hanging out in the house. The only differences? Performance features, like stain resistance and moisture-wicking properties, and generally tough construction.
But, while the Dickies brand spans a wide range of products and has come far from its bib overall beginnings, skaters took to their polyester-blend twill pants back in the ‘90s. Whether tan or dark blue, they have the toughness meant to handle hours on your board, and don’t look all that different from ordinary khakis.
Like other denim brands, Levi’s has gotten back to its roots – a period up through the middle of the 20th century when jeans were primarily a workwear piece – with selvedge denim. Although adding a touch of spandex to its classic silhouettes has been contentious, its standard lineup, regardless of construction, still visually reflects denim’s glory days.
Yet, the company’s product line long ago expanded beyond jeans, to the point that the Trucker Jacket – a structured, pointed-collared utility style with multiple pockets – is equally sought after. The piece exudes similar Americana vibes, of someone hitting the open road to explore or work, without weighing you down like cotton duck.
Workwear on the runway? Beyond Marc Jacobs’ Grunge-inspired styles of the early ‘90s, it’s remained largely absent. Junya Watanabe, of Comme Des Garcons, reversed that pattern with his Spring/ Summer 2018 collection. While contemporaries seem enamored by cowboys, his presentation showcased his paint-splattered work with Carhartt, patchwork denim with Levi’s, and hiking-inspired designs with The North Face and Karrimor.
Yet, particularly with Carhartt, Watanabe doesn’t just splatter paint across a cotton duck jacket and call it a day. Instead, in true streetwear fashion, this and other workwear- or hiking-based pieces are reworked to fit better and ultimately be more comfortable for everyday wear.