Style / July 2016

Working It: The Romance of Vintage Workwear

Work clothes may have originally been intended for welding sky-scrapers together and herding bovine creatures, but that’s all part of their enduring romance, and their recent renaissance, says The Rake’s resident fashion history expert,…
Photograph by Cory Piehowicz courtesy of WH Ranch Dungarees.

Ryan Martin sits in his atelier, in the American mid-west, toiling at a vintage machine. It's painstaking work, and all the more so given that the results are in demand with only the tiniest - and, some might think, craziest - of niches. For Martin is not making bespoke shoes or suits. Martin is handmaking jeans.

There is a romance to his story. For six generations his family have weathered economic depressions and dustbowls alike by cutting and sewing work clothes. It's a tradition he wanted to revive and established his W.H. Ranch Dungarees to do so. And while to many work clothes - chore jackets and utility pants, moc-toe boots and shawl collar shirts, parkas and combats, khakis and caps, plenty of indigo and too many pockets - are strictly for workers, with dressing like a pre-war street sweeper of limited appeal, for others they represent a romance in themselves.

For sure, such clothes are eminently practical. In Japan, where the following verges on the cultish, they speak of Dad's Style - it's a practical look that can be worn by men of a certain age without looking inappropriately youthful, nor, ironically, without - as a suit can tend to suggest - looking like one's father. These are the kind of clothes that can take a bit of baby sick. Hell, given that work clothes tend to look better with wear and tear, they may even be improved by a splash or two.

Their appeal is, no doubt, also eminently psychological, and perhaps more so now than ever. If men - sadly - often still take their sense of identity from their employment, inevitably a sense of having been somewhat denuded entails from the kind of job that has one sat at a desk in front of a computer, the electronic paper shuffling that passes for work for so many.

Work clothes may be the acceptable face of cosplay - visit the likes of the War and Peace or Goodwood Revival shows, the Pasedena Rosebowl market, or events hosted by Nick Clements' 'Men's File', the official organ of 'revival style' to see this appreciation in extremis. But, all the same, these clothes do embody a certain masculinity, a certain Boys' Own sensibility. These, after all, are the clothes of cowboys and soldiers, stokers, farmers and labourers.

Or at least, they were. If such jobs now inevitably entail the wearing of high-tech synthetic fabrics and hi-vis vests, or polyester uniforms imagined by 'corporatewear' designers based on estates near Reading - there was a time when such clothing not only utilised wonderful fabrics - dense twills, super soft chambrays, moleskins and, of course, plenty of denim - and used the best dyes, but expressed fantastic design too.

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Contributor

Josh Sims

Josh Sims is a writer on menswear, design and much else for the likes of Wallpaper, CNN, Robb Report and The Times. He's the author of several books on menswear, the latest 'The Details', published by Laurence King. He lives in London, has two small children and is permanently exhausted.