A Carhartt vest.
If you pay attention to fashion – or what many people around you are wearing – these days, you’re sure to notice work clothes everywhere. Think Carhartt jackets, raw denim, Dickies, jumpsuits. It’s a trend that’s taking the fashion world by storm – but it didn’t start in the fashion houses and reach the masses.
This is what Dennita Sewell calls a great example of “growth” fashion.
Sewell is director of Arizona State University’s FIDM Fashion Program and a professor there. She spoke to The Show more about workwear — and what it says about our current cultural and economic state.
DENNITA SEWELL: The trend is going by a variety of names. Workwear, utility style are just some of the more popular ones, but we’re seeing jumpsuits, we’re seeing cargo pockets, we’re seeing patch pockets, we’re seeing all these different variations of carpenter pants, khaki jumpsuits, vests , different types of articles that have really started in the working world.
Yes, like blue collar workers.
SEWELL: The world of blue-collar work, yes.
A lot of Carhartt, a lot of Dickies, things like that. OK. OK. So is this new? Like the conversation about where some of these items originally came from, these have roots that go far back in American history.
SEWELL: They, they do, are iconic products. And right now they are being re-imagined in our time by designers and fashion brands who are seeing a cultural trend for an interest in very practical clothes, practical clothes that offer functionality, comfort, style. And many of these pieces actually transcend the seasons as well. And I think it’s that blend of comfort and style that has workwear leading the way in our post-COVID world.
So during COVID, I think, you know, athleisure became the thing and we were all wearing leggings and sweatpants and all that stuff all the time. So you’re saying this is kind of the next level of that.
SEWELL: Yes, it’s comfortable, but it’s, it’s a little more suited to outdoor living. And I also think there’s a casual nature of dressing now. You know, people were trying to predict what would happen after the end of COVID, you know, would it be too worn? But I think overall we are still transforming as a society. We don’t all go to the office every day, we have a mixed life. And I think this kind of casual wear overcomes that.
Yes. So if we’re talking about the kind of fashion history of this workwear trend, we should also talk about the 1990s and hip hop, right? If only many of these were big then. And we’re also seeing a lot of ’90s fashion resurgence all over the world right now.
SEWELL: Right. Absolutely. Hip hop style was very much about adapting Timberlands, different items of clothing from this workwear world that became cool because of their association with that cultural movement and music.
Yes. Yes. OK. There’s also something that’s so American about it, like, uniquely American about it. What do you think this represents in terms of similar American ideals?
SEWELL: Well, if you look at one of the earliest items of work wear, it’s jeans. And this comes from the American miner. And this idea of the miner and hard work, and its complete transformation as a piece of heritage workwear into a fashion statement has mostly happened in this. And it’s really an American ideal, and America is where ready-to-wear really found its sea legs where it flourished.
You know, Paris is known for fashion. America really developed the ready-to-wear system and many of these work clothes, the classics were born from the functionality of work and they are growing, in culture as these style icons when they are worn by style leaders, there is a romantic image of work life , a romantic connection with authenticity, with reliability. And I think culturally, that’s very important for our time.
So there’s a cultural aspect to that as well, and I’m not sure where that’s going to go, but there’s something interesting about the high fashion kind of taking on blue-collar worker looks and brands. For example, what does this say about how we are playing with class or how we see class today?
SEWELL: So the earliest theory of fashion was the river. Where the emulation of social classes would come from the upper classes to the middle classes to the lower classes. And then, you know, in our world of fast fashion, we’re looking at the point where a style appears at several price points all at once.
But the main thing we are looking at with this trend is the trickle up, which starts in the lower grade and is copied up to the upper grades and the textiles often change the volume, the proportions. But this is a very interesting social phenomenon where the upper classes are taking on the ideals associated with these iconic objects, their utility, their heritage, their style.
OK. So last question for you then, because there are kind of cycles to these kinds of trends. Do you think you can predict what’s coming next, if workwear is what we’re doing now and sports is what got us here?
SEWELL: I think we will continue to see volume and comfort. I think people have become very nomadic and what technology is offering us today, this mobility to work to be, to communicate from multiple places is very attractive to people. Although we are able to go back to work, now people still want a hybrid life. And I think the comfort and functionality of style, performance fabrics will become increasingly important as durability and comfort continue to be priorities for the consumer.
At the same time, last week was Paris fashion week. And one of the hit shows was John Galliano for Maison Margiela. And he featured corsets on many of the designs. And these kinds of swings from extreme comfort to restraint and style exist in our times. At the same time, you see a general public still wearing comfortable clothes, and you see celebrities performing in really exaggerated performance-style costumes.
And there’s a lot more independence now, a lot more personal identity and a lot more freedom to be who you want to be, I think there’s ever been to adopt the style you want to have. And the main thing about fashion is that there’s always something to learn and that’s why it’s a big multi-billion dollar business, because the honest truth, even top fashion designers don’t know the future.