When you think about fashion, the first things that come to mind are probably elegant dresses, innovative designs, and bold colors. Sturdy and practical clothing that you see on construction workers and engineers simply doesn’t fit that image. After all, fashion is meant to look good, while workwear is only supposed to be useful.
But fashion draws inspiration from the unlikeliest of sources. If you browse through magazines or take a look at some of the biggest runways, you’ll certainly see that American-made workwear found its place there. In fact, it’s been present on the street fashion scene for several decades now — and it doesn’t seem to be going anywhere. If anything, workwear-style fashion appears to be growing in popularity.
So, let’s take a closer look at how American workwear influenced street fashion and where such influences can be found. Who knows — maybe you’ll be inspired to incorporate some of it into your own wardrobe.
What Is Workwear?
As the name implies, workwear is the type of clothing you wear when doing manual labor. It usually entails sturdy pieces made of denim, wool, or canvas, with the focus on safety and comfort rather than style. For that reason, such clothes are particularly popular among railroad workers, farmers, miners, mechanics, and construction workers.
However, in fashion, the term workwear is a little narrower. Namely, it refers to the type of clothes that American manual workers wore between the 1920s and 1970s, in the so-called Fordist era. At this time, workers used to wear chore coats, dungarees, and engineer jackets, as well as garments with many pockets and tool holders. Most of these elements have found their way into the fashion industry nowadays, especially its streetwear branch.
Street Cultures With Workwear Influence
While all street cultures might look the same to an untrained eye, they certainly aren’t. In fact, you would surely get a few dirty looks if you mixed up skaters with hip-hoppers or both of those two with punks. And while all of these subcultures embraced workwear to a degree, today, we will take a look at those who did so the most.
It should come as no surprise that skaters would be as keen on workwear as they are. After all, skateboarding involves a lot of falling and spending time outside on the concrete. Thus, the clothes have to be sturdy and practical, just like the garments workers wear on railroads and construction sites.
So, what kind of clothes did skaters take from workwear and incorporate in their own fashion? Well, cotton-nylon pants with a mid-rise waist and loose thighs and calves are one such example. Being roomy and comfortable, they could often be seen on workers in American factories. Soon enough, brands such as Dickies and Wrangler saw their immense potential and decided to introduce them to the public. And clearly, that decision paid off!
There’s no talking about workwear and its influence on street fashion without mentioning overalls. Workers wear them for obvious reasons — they are practical, provide excellent protection, and have many pockets. Skaters also enjoy those features of overalls, but above all, they love how good they look. After all, with just a few tweaks, overalls can easily fit into any setting!
Skaters took a lot of style inspiration from workwear, but not nearly as much as hip-hop fashion did. In fact, considering that hip-hop reflects the harsh realities of street life, it’s no surprise that sturdy, durable clothing would become so popular in the community.
For instance, can you imagine hip-hop fashion without large, comfortable Timberland boots? These shoes have taken the entire rap and hip-hop communities by storm, so much so that rappers such as Notorious BIG and Jay Z mentioned them in their songs. And yet, if you examine them closely, it’s obvious that they make a perfect pair of working shoes. In fact, as the legend goes, the first Timberland customers were drug dealers who needed warm and comfortable shoes to stand on the streets at night.
Another popular garment in the hip-hop community clearly inspired by workwear is the Carhartt jacket. These jackets are loose, comfortable, and warm, usually featuring many pockets, just like typical worker jackets. They come in mustard brown and green, but you can also find them in other colors. For instance, 2Pac himself often wore a dark blue denim Carhartt jacket in public.
Similarly to Timberland boots, Carhartt jackets were first popularized by drug dealers who needed to spend a lot of time outdoors. Hip-hop youth would see them standing on the corners, took a liking to their style, and decided to try it out for themselves. Soon enough, these jackets became quite a phenomenon in street fashion.
Naturally, skate and hip-hop cultures aren’t the only street cultures that got influenced by workwear. But they are certainly the ones that took the most out of it. And that’s no surprise — there are obvious overlaps between these two cultures. Both communities spend plenty of time outside in the streets, where they need sturdy and cozy clothing.
But that’s not the only reason workwear became such an inspiration for hip-hop and skate cultures. Above all, what these communities look for is authenticity. They wanted unique clothes that stand out from the crowd but aren’t too expensive. Workwear fashion provided just that, as well as this genuine connection to something real and physical, which seems to be so desperately lacking nowadays.