Workwear & the Great Resignation

Why dressing for work without having to work is still a trend.

Key Takeaways

  1. Workwear brands have influenced how Americans dress in their daily lives since at least the 1940s. Each decade has seen these garments coopted across subcultures as signifiers to other members or as camouflage against a dominant culture (e.g. queer communities that wore masculine workwear in order to ward off harassment).
  2. In recent years the move towards WFH culture and an embrace of gender neutral silhouettes as well as a ‘90s revival have led to renewed interest in work apparel by consumers who seek out authenticity from heritage brands such as Carhartt, Dickies, and Danner.
  3. Luxury brands are capitalizing on the workwear trend by collaborating with brands or designing their own interpretation of uniforms as nostalgia takes hold of the West.

Last summer, I got roped into participating in a photoshoot for an “interactive museum” (a space for customers to take Instagram selfies) and met the CMO for the company dressed in an unironic uniform of tan Carhartt overalls, vans sneakers, and tousled blonde waves with $500 highlights. Although this was not thought of as typical attire for a chief marketing officer who works in a forward-facing position ( for a company that profits off experiential services), it’s become ubiquitous. In recent years, the rise of utilitarian workwear worn by creatives throughout the city and on social media has undoubtedly fueled and influenced style tastemakers like Ye, Bella Hadid, Justin Beiber, and Kaia Gerber to add overalls, chore coats, and work boots into their wardrobes. Today many young people shop for Dickies, Wrangler, Cat boots, and Danner to mix in with their designer duds despite never setting foot in a factory, construction site, or farmland. Consumers adopting American workwear despite the recent economic shift known as the Great Resignation, where beginning in early 2021, many people voluntarily resigned from their jobs, speaks to the strength of these heritage brands as visual signifiers outside of work. 

Workwear clothing was initially designed to keep workers protected. At the same time, they toiled in precarious working conditions in factories and coal mines during the Industrial Revolution and were later implemented into designs for the military. The fabrics incorporated into these uniforms included corduroy, boiled wool, and selvage denim. Since this clothing was meant to be worn by low-wage workers, its construction was pared back with no additional flare, and details like pocket or zipper construction were designed for ease of use, not show. Like denim, eventually, these utilitarian fabrics made their way into American clothing worn by everyone. Subcultures adopted aspects of these uniforms during each decade, reinforcing the idea of durable clothing necessary for moving through life and subverting its meaning into something else entirely. Some examples of how subcultures adopted workwear into visual signifiers include greasers wearing leather jackets and denim in the 60s, punks wearing work boots and denim in the ‘70s and ‘80s, flannel shirts adopted by grunge rockers (inspired by the uniforms of log workers) in the early ‘90s, and overalls and Timberland boots worn by Hip Hop artists. In addition, queer communities popularized workwear by using it as signifiers to others within an oppressive heternormative culture throughout each decade. In an article in Gear Patrol by Gerald Ortiz, one example from the early ‘00s of the queer uniform was the trend of slim pants, flannel shirts, and Red Wings donned by lesbians in Chelsea and later adopted by the head of J. Crew men’s before making it into the homes of hundreds of thousands of male customers via the company catalog. The emotions, close ties to various subcultures, and nostalgia that workwear evokes within the customer are why these brands have been so successful for so long.

The pandemic accelerated the workwear trend due to what management consulting company Mckinsey & Associates calls the “casualisation” of apparel because of the shift to WFH culture and Gen Z and Millenials ' embrace of uniformed attire and gender-neutral styles. Consumers have turned to casual staples and shy away from impractical ways of dressing in their daily lives and the office, save for special occasions. In this way, wearing Carhartt coveralls is an example of a one-and-done outfit without the distractions of figuring out how to style it that comes with more traditional sartorial dressing. This uniform has been adopted by mid-range and high-end brands, including Nanushka and Bruno Cucinelli. The current 90s revival contributes to renewed interest in workwear clothing adopted initially by skaters and hip hop artists during the period. The oversized loose silhouettes worn by some during the 1990s seamlessly transition into today’s gender-neutral looks meant to obscure the body. In addition, the growing interest in sustainable and slow fashion has led many people to reevaluate their wardrobes and decide to focus on what are essentially seasonless staples. Consumers have developed an appreciation for the attire and craftsmanship of the past, so it’s natural that lifestyle brands such as London’s Labour & Wait (founded in 2000) have emerged to fit the demand. The East London brand developed an entire wardrobe based on “timeless, functional products,” producing chore coats based on those worn by French janitors or fisherman sweaters worn by Irish fishermen. 

The workwear brand Dickies celebrated its 100th birthday by debuting its SS22 collection. Staples of the brand including the Eisenhower Jacket, Classic 874 Work Pant, and Work Shirt have been updated in a pastel colorway while retaining the durability the brand has become known for. Much like its other workwear contemporaries, Dickies are affordable and continue to create clothing that is necessary for manual laborers, in addition to appealing to consumers outside of the traditional work demographic. By establishing an archival line at a higher price point that reissues pieces from their past, as well as recent collaborations with retailers including the now-defunct Opening Ceremony, the brand has been revitalized and found favor with an entirely new audience. VF Corp purchased the brand for $820 million in 2017 adding it to its portfolio which includes Supreme, The Northface, and Timberland proving that workwear sales are lucrative and not going away.

Luxury brands have taken notice of the workwear trend. While designers have often mined the archives of American workwear and military surplus designs as inspiration for their collections  (e.g. Junya Watanabe’s menswear, and pretty much everything Ralph Lauren designs) today many brands are collaborating with the originals. Heron Preston the NY-based brand known for its affinity for uniforms, collaborated with the NY Department of Sanitation to create clothing with “fluorescents and other elements of the actual sanitation worker’s actual uniform,” according to Grailed. The New York-based Wardrobe.NYC, itself a capsular collection for the urbanite, created a collaboration with Carhartt WIP meant to be both fashionable and functional. Still, other luxury brands, like Balenciaga are heavily influenced by workwear but put their own spin on it. Balenciaga’s exaggerated bomber jackets, overly padded puffer coats, and the Balenciaga x Crocs tall boots that resemble the Wellington boots worn by farmers in the UK are all an homage to laborers disrupting the classic uniform.

Work has changed over the last few years, with many people experiencing a dissolution between the personal and private as hybrid work becomes the norm. Many people have found new ways to monetize their hobbies or are increasingly dependent on a gig-based economy to make ends meet. Still, others have left the workforce entirely because of poor opportunities for advancement, low pay, or feeling disrespected in the workplace, according to a poll conducted by Pew Research this year. The impact of how our idea of work is changing has led to feelings of nostalgia for simpler times when people worked with their hands or were able to clock in and out after working their designated shifts. Despite the numerous hazards and inequities that were present, it’s evident why we as a society are romanticizing those kinds of jobs and by extension embracing the dress of blue-collar workers. As brands continue to revitalize their signature garments in new colorways and fabrics while simultaneously working to ensure that they do not alienate core customers (by keeping those products affordable), it’s unlikely that this sector of fashion will show signs of slowing down any time soon.