The Rise of Workwear

Media provided by Louise Giddings ’23

It’s almost impossible to walk down the street or even down the halls of Grace without spotting a pair of Dickies carpenter pants or the classic Carhartt logo on a perfectly worn pair of jeans. This phenomenon – the inescapable encounters with “blue-collar” clothing –  reflects the larger reality that workwear is back and seemingly more popular than ever.  

Workwear has been a central part of various subcultures since the 1990s, when celebrities like Tupac, the Wu-Tang Clan, and Dr. Dre were photographed with their Timberlands and oversized Dickies overalls. Even when more high-end brands like Ed Hardy and Von Dutch had a chokehold over teenagers’ fashion during the early 2000s, baggy jeans and “wife beater” undershirts remained popular among young skaters and within the cholo subculture. 

However, in the 2010s, there was an explosion in the popularity of athleisure and branded clothing, and workwear mostly faded out of mainstream popularity. Just as trends continue to cycle, workwear fashion seems to have returned with more of an influence than ever. 

Recently, “blue-collar” brands like Carhartt, Dickies, and Wrangler have become mainstream, making it normal to see people ranging from major celebrities to everyday teenagers partaking in the trend. With the help of social media and the influence of mega–celebrities, the popularity of workwear is no longer contained within certain subcultures: it’s everywhere. 

Eric, a site safety manager approached by the Gazette on West 8th Street, noted that he observed this trend, stating, “I see some young guys come into the stores that workers normally buy clothes from, wearing Carhartt jackets and Timberlands. I’m like, why does he have that on?” 

Workwear has even made its way onto the red carpet. Take, for example, Kanye West. While his former wife Kim Kardashian wore a custom Thierry Mugler dress to the 2019 Met Gala, West attended in his $43 Dickies jacket.

The ubiquity of the workwear trend makes it easy to forget that the majority of these pieces and brands were initially intended for those working blue-collar jobs: construction workers, mechanics, and farmers. Similarly, another aspect of the glamorization of workwear that often goes unrecognized is its impact on the accessibility of these brands to the workers that they were meant to serve. 

According to Eric, work clothing, specifically anything from Carhartt, became difficult to buy following the pandemic when everything was out of stock. However, he acutely noted that since the start of the workwear trend and the pandemic coincided, it’s nearly impossible to discern which had a more significant impact on the accessibility of workwear brands. What’s clear, however, is that when Eric and other blue – collar workers select their clothes, they’re considering different qualities of the clothing than those who are just partaking in the workwear fashion trend.

As Eric stated, “When you’re working, your clothes get damaged and destroyed. You want disposable clothes. [Do you] really wanna spend a hundred, $200 on some jeans that are gonna get destroyed in maybe a week?” 

Based on the immense popularity of workwear and the fact that it’s trending among celebrities and students alike, it’s clear that workwear will be part of mainstream fashion for a while. Since workwear is here to stay, it’s worth thinking about the impact of its popularity on blue-collar workers, the intended recipients of Carhartt and Dickie’s products.