Workwear in the Observer

Today’s issue of the New York Observer is reporting on one of ACL’s most-liked topics – the trend of workwear fashion. The article mentions some of this blog’s favorite things – Estex, Duluth Pack, Engineered Garments, Odin, the list goes on and on.

The esteemed Mr. Randy Goldberg of Kempt was quoted in the piece:

“There’s something stylish about the idea of punching the clock and feeling like the average American man,” said Randy Goldberg, editorial director of the men’s style blog Kempt.

As was your truly:

For Michael Williams, 29, a partner at a marketing firm who lives in Manhattan but grew up in Cleveland, this kind of clothing represents a return to his Rust Belt roots. “For a long time, guys just wanted to be like the rock star or the CEO,” said Mr. Williams, who (like seemingly almost everyone) blogs about style on the side. “I think that on a larger scale this signals that people are interested in being middle class again … you know, just wanting to have a nice home in a good neighborhood.”

I am obviously an idealist, but am I totally nuts to really think that way? We all know that most guys are just interested in wearing something fashionable or “of the moment” and most of this workwear, Bergdorf Red Wing hoopla will fade away into the distance just like the American middle class. Or am I just waxing philosophical about this? I’m interested to hear your thoughts.

The entire article can be seen here.

Comments on “Workwear in the Observer

    Joshua on October 8, 2008 10:19 AM:

    Great stuff…congrats on another great piece!

    Rick on October 8, 2008 10:48 AM:

    Michael Williams, 29?!

    Michael Williams on October 8, 2008 10:49 AM:

    I was quoted before my birthday…so at the time I was 29. Good pick up though!


    Michael on October 8, 2008 10:50 AM:

    I am a big fan of the current workwear trend. That said, I think underlying the trend is a pitfall of inauthenticity. In other words, I believe that people are going to be caught up in wearing the look, but not walking the walk. And at the end of the day, it will be no different than the rock star or the CEO looks. The men will be dressing the part, but going about their normal lives. And that saddens me.

    With the current economic climate, I would hope that such a trend could effect a shift in American thinking, to a time before capitalism dominated the hearts and minds of the country. Perhaps the workwear trend could be a symbol of a larger shift in attitudes towards other modes of economic, social, and political memes. I was reading a collection of letters written by Norman Mailer, gathered in this week’s New Yorker, and it capitvated me how the relevance of Marxist issues that he brought up then seem so relevant now.

    I, for one, hope so.

    larsd4 on October 8, 2008 10:59 AM:

    When I worked in the East Chicago steel mills in the seventies, I wore metatarsal plated boots, Levis, and heavy long sleeved shirts, safety glasses and a hardhat. I would shower at the plant to get the soot off, go home and shower again. Now I wear sack suits for business five days a week. There is no difference. Form follows function. A man wears what fits the task. Fashion is not even a consideration.

    Daniel on October 8, 2008 11:04 AM:

    Awesome blog. I don’t think you’re nuts. I think this makes a lot of sense. I also think (or rather, hope) that the “desire to be middle class” and nostalgia for the “working” past is more than skin deep. I mean, seriously: it’s easy to dig the 60’s aesthetic (blue collar or white collar) but a much bigger deal to embrace the values that went along with it. Here are some of those values:

    1) Complementarian (as opposed to egalitarian) views of gender. I.e. mom is at home with the kids, dad is earning the cheddar. A rising number of upper-middle class moms are choosing to stay at home with kids. My family is beginning to home school: we find that a surprisingly large portion of home schooling families in New England are progressive rather than Christian. But the idea of having mom stay at home full time to nurture the kids – let alone educate them – maps more closely to traditional Judeo-Christian values than to progressivism.

    2) Modest living. Poor women have always worked, and they’ve always worked for lower wages than men. Middle class women in the postwar period made up for “lost wages” (as we’d put it today) by running frugal homes. They cooked because it was cheaper; they replaced the servants which filled out the Victorian home with much more cost-effective electric appliances. And people saved like crazy if they wanted a house, a (single) car, etc.

    3) A lower cost of living in several respects. A family today pays way more in inflation-adjusted dollars for health car, housing, car payments, and education than their counterparts in 1975. At least two of these can be partially attributed to the acceptance of dual-income life, high mobility (thank you, automobile), and ridiculously subsidized housing (thank you, nonrecourse mortgages).

    Anyone want this stuff back? I do, but I’m one of those Christians.

    Sam Jacobs on October 8, 2008 11:33 AM:

    You’re not nuts. After I get married (next year) I plan to look for a modest house in the suburbs. I want to work in the garden and on my classic car and mow the lawn on a Saturday. I get it. Now, let’s just hope I’ll be able to afford a modest house in the suburbs. F*ckin greedy lenders!

    David on October 8, 2008 11:42 AM:

    I would attribute the workwear trend to at least 3 factors.

    First, at an “intimate” level, every truly fashionable person can sense, when given the opportunity for sober contemplation, that affectation in abundance hardens the soul. We do not want to look at ourselves in the morning in the mirror only to see a foreign object: something that no longer resembles what it means to toil, labor, sweat, and make sweet love in poorly ventilated bunkrooms. Perhaps we are not satisfied with the achievements that have allowed us to escape the constraints faced by Everyman. We want fundamentally to experience the raw fear and joys of Labor — and we externalize this desire into fashion. Ironically, the reaction against elite trappings is expressed in Woolrich Woolen Mills pieces that are stunningly impractical for average paychecks.

    Second, at a “communal” level, the workwear trend is a “transplant” from its more rural, more parochial origins: to many of us peering into this blog from the cities of the two coasts, the workwear trend is recognizable primarily because it is an urban phenomenon. Like the dramatic diffusion in the desirability of taxidermy mounts and Edison bulbs, our desire for Pendleton, Filson, Quoddy, and Freeman’s Sporting Club perhaps comes from a want of environmental balance. City life is grand, to be sure, but we derive some sense of health and vigor from rebelling against its isomorphic pressures. If New York City no longer has the pockets of frontier that it once had, we say #$@* it, the frontier may be gone, but my mind (and closet, and circle of friends) is a West wilder than you can imagine.

    Third, at the level of polity, it becomes almost impossible to avoid the nostalgia for a past America that somehow seemed more certain, more tangible, more secure, and of course awash in a flattering golden light. The U.S., in this globalized era, is no longer the hegemon it once was. The core industries that defined American hegemony throughout the twentieth century — in textiles, steelworking, automobile manufacturing — are mere whimpers at the dawn of the 21st, propped up by massive federal subsidies, protected by tariffs, and still losing to foreign competition. We want the artisanal pride of a label declaring “Made in USA” in an era when such a slogan is increasingly scarce. We may prefer Italian soda, eat French pastries, and drive Japanese cars, but goddamit, my denim is made in North Carolina (by Latino migrant workers).

    Or, after all that mental gesticulation, we might just be a really small niche of folks who dig this blog and create our own worlds of what it means to be cool, what it takes to cope, and how long one can bear not washing premium jeans before, in an act of amazing humanity, we baptize them.

    james fox on October 8, 2008 12:03 PM:

    this is psychology/anthropology territory, and it’s a great question… for me anyway goes right to root of who/where i am etc… veering from the correct type of knotted black silk tie to next day’s decimated carhartts that i patched myself…

    myself i do tend to stick with some original brands (lee, carhartt etc…) rather than the revamped stuff cause 1: those stores aren’t an option for me geographically and 2: having grown up in a rural area the whole “pre-distressed” idea still doesn’t quite sit right sometimes (you know, the 400 dollar ripped jeans argument…), but hey, to each his/her own.

    i think that’s why i love (the history of it all like the observer article and,) vintage trawling (real crappy vintage stores… neighborhood ones) cause you can find those deadstock Sears shirts or weird workwear items. why buy a recreated cowboy shirt from Banana Republic when with a bit of effort you get one for half the price that was made in 1960 -just like the guy that used to own the feed store wore to death… snap cuffs, pencil pocket, sanforized chambray, slim cut … (hey you are even recycling too)

    “we” or you…the blogosphere/media… might post a photo of that old boy celebrating his style, but someone else might take it as lampooning. its a tightrope. you can overthink it, or you can just enjoy it… i think i am just echoing others here now. great topic.

    Authenticity Anyone on October 8, 2008 2:30 PM:

    I couldn’t agree more with ‘Michael’ above. I weighed in on this once before (admittedly in a less than eloquent/antagonistic manner…), but your question gets at the heart at what bothers me about this whole ‘work wear’ trend- that the coastal trend setters have decided to temporarily set their all-important gaze on the average working class, blue collar American male, all the while begging us to ignore the inauthenticity and hypocrisy in doing so.

    And hearing someone say “There’s something stylish about the idea of punching the clock and feeling like the average American man,” is difficult to stomach. “…something stylish about punching the clock…”? How about “something paralyzing”? or “exhausting”? or better yet “patronizing”? I realize we all think we “work hard” but it’s nothing compared to manual labor (and I know- I spent 20 years on a farm…), and the majority of the people this trend emulates barely get by (and I don’t mean trying to pay for an apartment in wburg and nights out on the LES), truly know what it means to work hard (and I don’t mean sending email and having conference calls- that’s called ‘stress’) and live in the ‘fly-over’ states- all demographics generally dismissed as marginal and ignorant by the stylish set.

    But here we are, with a bunch of coastal stylists, knowledge workers, hedge fund associates and blogists discussing this season’s hottest (lower) middle class ‘work wear’. Personally I find it patronizing- and it smacks of appropriation.

    Lastly, keep in mind i’m not accusing anyone here specifically of being inauthentic or lampooning the middle class, and I do TRULY enjoy this blog, but I’d prefer people stop fetishizing a lifestyle they know nothing about.

    Daniel on October 8, 2008 2:38 PM:

    Let me add another personal appeal: this stuff reminds me of my father as he was when I was a boy and a teenager. He did shiftwork in a factory till I was 16, when the factory closed. (He now teaches economics at a small college, having earned a PhD at 50 – American resilience, anyone?) His and my grandfather’s work clothes. Wool hunting jackets and pants. Nylon work-uniform winter coat (made for upstate NY winters) with the ghost of a name tag still on the breast and a snowblower exhaust burn on one sleeve. My grandfather’s pine-paneled home office. The smell of pipes and cigars. Tall boots. Has anyone said this? These kinds of clothing reflect that we reject the patricidal hippie ethos: we love our fathers and grandfathers. We like modern aesthetics, but this is an un-modern thing to do. We’re not modern any more.

    Michael Williams on October 8, 2008 2:47 PM:

    All this aside, the interest in workwear is good for American manufacturing. Thanks for all of the comments, pro or con.


    Randy on October 8, 2008 3:05 PM:

    I’m pretty sure the Observer article was meant as a fashion trend piece, not a deep dive into the history of the class system in the U.S. These posts are certainly interesting, but I think some of the responses really over-think the issue. Interesting that workwear is an emerging fashion trend while our economy tanks? Sure. Anything more than that? Probably not. Fashion, at the end of the day, shouldn’t be taken so seriously–at least in the opinion of Kempt… (

    A A on October 8, 2008 3:24 PM:

    Agreed on making American manufacturing cool again- i’m all for it.

    Tom Paine on October 8, 2008 7:39 PM:

    I really like work wear which for me is just classic men’s clothes from jeans, to a well fitting pea coat, a well used work shirt, a thick thermal henley, Alden boots, and in winter I top it off with a Filson 4 Mackinaw Cap. And put on those aviators when the sun is shining.

    These are clothes which never go out of style.

    Emily on October 8, 2008 9:42 PM:

    But on that note, Randy, to understand fashion you have to look at the psychological implications fashion has. Fashion is fun and frill on the surface, but if you delve a little deeper, you realize it reflects greatly on culture and where we are at any given time. What was meant to be a trend piece can actully be a great starting point on cultural dialogue.

    Though on a side note, it is a little silly to see brands my grandfather wore while driving a beer truck for Miller on the South side of Chicago considered fashionable…

    giuseppe on October 9, 2008 1:32 AM:

    Right On!, authenticity anyone.

    Couldn’t have said it better myself.

    sarno on October 9, 2008 2:38 AM:

    The current workwear fascination is odd, given that most jobs involving Americans “working” in these clothes have gone overseas. If these clothes suggest anything it is a preoccupation with the absence of fatherhood altogether (as opposed to nostalgia for a simpler time.) The ruggedness an attempt to mask male impotence. The appropriation of proletariat workwear is not new–the beats and knobby-headed artists of the 40’s and 50’s liked their Levis, too. I have a beat up pair of Red Wings (from many years working “in the trades” un-ironically) and I can’t imagine ever wearing them with a $500 Michael Bastian sweater. That would indeed be ironic.

    giuseppe on October 10, 2008 1:10 AM:

    Right on, Sarno.

    larsd4 on October 10, 2008 11:29 AM:

    These clothes may represent a return to tradesmanship as an aspiration. Once offshoring of white collar jobs gets fully underway, people will be clamoring for careers that cannot be easily shipped overseas, such as an electrician, plumber, nurse, carpenter.

    Thom on October 10, 2008 5:03 PM:

    As much as I enjoy wearing these clothes (especially Engineered garments), I can’t help but think that some of them are priced far beyond the “class” they are trying to emulate. And I’ve begun to think that rather than just look like I punch a clock maybe I should learn some of those skills…

    Chris Williams on December 15, 2009 7:56 AM:

    Something stylish about punching the clock? Are you kidding me? Try getting up at 5 30 am 5 days a week and working hard in order to pay off your bills/student loans/rent etc. My father, brother and I are working class blue collar people who have been doing this all our lives, its only stylish to people who don’t have to work and can afford a 300 dollar chore coat from a high end producer. Ill stick to regular USA made any day.

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