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How workwear went from functional to fashionable

Kristin Schwab Jun 20, 2023
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From Timberland boots to Carhartt beanies, workwear seems to be having a moment. It's popular even with people who don't operate heavy machinery. Matthew Eisman/Getty Images for Pandora Media

How workwear went from functional to fashionable

Kristin Schwab Jun 20, 2023
Heard on:
From Timberland boots to Carhartt beanies, workwear seems to be having a moment. It's popular even with people who don't operate heavy machinery. Matthew Eisman/Getty Images for Pandora Media
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Fleet Farm is a retail chain in the Midwest. The store is exactly what it sounds like: a place to buy animal feed, tractor parts and hunting gear.

“Very much farm store,” said regional vice president Chris McCool. “In fact, the stores were based off of where literally the most cows were — based off of the census in cows. And that’s where you’d build a store.”

Fleet Farm’s customer base, including the one at the outlet in Monticello, Minnesota, comprises mostly farmers and exurban dwellers working on home projects. But in the past few years, McCool’s been seeing more people coming into the store who he thinks are probably not doing a lot of manual labor.

“All of the high school girls want a men’s Carhartt hat in the winter,” said McCool, referring to the brand’s beanies that come in a rainbow of colors. “It is the most popular thing, and we can hardly keep them in stock. I joke about even, like, the ‘Yellowstone’ effect. Everybody wants to look like the Duttons.” (For the uninitiated, they’re the family at the center of the TV saga.)

Call it the “Yellowstone” effect or the hipster effect, it seems like everyone is wearing workwear, including singer Rihanna and former President Barack Obama. Timberland work boots and Dickies overalls are worn by everyone from plumbers to software engineers. Urban Outfitters even sells Carhartt crop tops, which are probably not made for operating heavy machinery.

Which was, of course, the original purpose of workwear.

Throughout most of the 1800s, clothes were made for people individually, said Peter Liebhold, a curator emeritus at the National Museum of American History. “You didn’t just go to a store and buy a ready-to-wear piece.”

Even farmers and laborers had their clothes tailored, which was expensive. So they needed durable garments like blue jeans. So they needed durable garments like blue jeans. In fact, the term “blue collar” actually comes from the widespread wearing of fabrics like denim.

During World War II, Dickies made Army uniforms and Levi’s made jeans for women who stepped up to work, called Lady Levi’s. That was a start to workwear going mainstream. Fast forward to the 1990s, when skaters adopted it for its tough material and hip-hop adopted it for its tough look.

“You often saw Snoop Dogg repping the brand,” said Sarah Crockett, chief marketing officer at Dickies. “That extended into music genres.”

Lately, Dickies is seeing more mass-market interest. Walmart is now one of the brand’s biggest retail partners. And in 2019, Dickies expanded its line of everyday clothing, workwear silhouettes in lighter fabrics and brighter colors.

“It’s a very simple product,” Crockett said. “That means as a blank canvas, it can be styled five different ways or for five different usage occasions and it looks completely different.”

That’s one reason Jeremy Epstein in Brooklyn, New York, is a workwear collector. He’s guessing he’s spent around $1,000 on Carhartt alone in the last year. His style inspiration?

Jeremy Epstein shows off his customized “ephalent” Carhartt jacket. (Courtesy Epstein)

“Elmer Fudd. Yeah, you know, he’s got the hat, he’s got the big boots. He’s kind of an icon,” he said.

Epstein used to work on Wall Street. Now, he’s a college professor teaching audio for film.

“I’m much more of a poseur than a real, you know, American truck-driving guy,” he said. “My hammer loop rarely has a hammer in it.”

One of his favorite pieces is a Carhartt bomber jacket made of heavy black canvas. On the back is a custom silk-screen design. It reads “ephalent.”

“E-P-H-A-L-E-N-T, which is how my daughter used to say ‘elephant’ when she was little,” Epstein said.

He hopes that since it’s workwear, it’ll last forever.

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