You almost certainly own workwear already: jeans, khakis, denim jackets, maybe a chore coat or a chambray shirt. Many wardrobe classics were designed for working in – that’s hard, physical work – and it’s their straightforwardness and durability that have seen them stick around, many since the 1920s and 1930s.
But workwear today is made up of labels taking inspiration from this hardiness and practicality to produce clothes at once functional but also stylish – sometimes by making out-and-out, stitch-for-stitch reproductions; sometimes by mixing and matching details to come up with a new idea of what easy, useful clothing might be.
Its functionality is just one reason to enjoy workwear though. Steeped in history, workwear tends to attract a nerdish kind who can wax lyrical on a particular garment’s backstory and who might well pay a fortune for an original example of the same. It’s workwear that commands megabucks in vintage collector circles. Alternatively, you can just wear it and take pleasure in the fact that it can take anything you throw at it.
What Is Workwear?
Before you start thinking ‘shirt and tie’, workwear isn’t something you likely actually wear to work, unless you’re employed in the construction industry, or you’re a graphic designer. This isn’t the American imported term ‘workwear’ – meaning office attire. Rather, this is the kind of utility clothing designed and built for manual labour, even if, from a style angle, it’s rarely actually worn for that.
And small wonder, because while workwear can be cheap – much of it is simply and mass-produced, for practicality, not panache – these days it can also be on the expensive side, with tricky-to-do design details and exclusive fabrics.
Workwear essentially encompasses clothing that takes its inspiration from a blend of specialist, military and classic American sportswear, which in turn has proven the bedrock of what’s come to be called ‘heritage style’. This has seen the revival of many long-dormant brands, but also an explosion in new ones re-thinking the practical, comfortable workwear aesthetic to give it a more contemporary edge.
This has helped workwear move beyond a style that made its wearers look, well, like they’re off to a Depression Era construction site, and more like they’re just wearing cool, rugged casual dress with a functional bent.
Here’s clothing with plenty of pockets, in hardy get-better-with-age fabrics the likes of cotton twills and denim, and, of course, coming with a slightly macho reminder that, although you may sit at a desk all day, deep down you’re only a step away from being able to cut down a tree or put up a wall.
The Best Workwear Brands
It’s one name but two different products: in its native US Carhartt still makes ‘real’ workwear, as it has done since 1889, latterly becoming a skater favourite.
In Europe, it’s still grounded in its roots, but offers a more contemporary take on tough chinos, sweats, carpenter pants and its much-copied chore jacket, the design of which can be traced back to 1917. Check out its Carhartt WIP sub-brand for a more directional, streetwear-focused product.
Stan Ray, a Texan brand, has been making what it calls clothing “with minimum fuss and maximum practicality” since 1972.
Practical people surely love it, though it would be hard to confuse a pair of its wide-legged chinos with a spanner – yet for all that, when Stan Ray originally launched as Stanley, the tool company of the same name sued and forced a name change. More recently Stan Ray has expanded its collection to include bolder colours and more graphic prints.
One of the first modern brands to look to workwear for its inspiration, Engineered Garments makes – as the name suggests – clothes that it says are more ‘engineered’ than designed. That’s the practical aesthetic of New York-based founder and keen outsdoorsman Daiki Suzuki, who launched the label in 2002.
Suzuki was previously head of design for Woolwich Woolen Mills – for which he won the prestigious CFDA Best New Menswear Designer award. Engineered Garments is best known for its Big Yank-inspired overshirts and semi-formal blazer-style jackets.
The Japanese are arguably makers of the best workwear-inspired clothing around now, following their famed love of denim and all things Americana. Orslow is pitched as a timeless, anti-fast fashion brand with clothes often made using time-consuming handcraft methods. The garments are classic – work pants, chambray shirts, denim jackets – but the fabrics are world-class.
Newcastle-based Nigel Cabourn has been a menswear designer since the 1970s, back when he also started collecting vintage military style workwear, which makes his archive today world leading. That forms the basis of his contemporary updates of functional menswear styles, from British World War II army trousers to medical shirts and monkey pants.
Best known for his outerwear classics – the likes of his cameraman or Mallory jackets – Cabourn is huge in Japan. More recently he bought and relaunched the historic British workwear brand Lybro.
It’s not just American and British work clothing that has inspired new brands – Arpenteur takes its cue from French menswear, from the classic ‘bleu de travail’ work jacket to breton tops and simple overshirts.
Launched in 2011 by cousins Marc Asseily and Laurent Bourven, Arpenteur – which means ‘surveyor’ in French – ploughs through the archives of the old clothing factories it works with and then gently updates them to create its easy, casual styles. Everything is made in France too.
Established in Chatre sur Cher in 1931, Danton once made proper work clothing, from gardening aprons to chef’s whites, as well as the kind of thing you’d have seen on road sweepers and brick layers. But thanks, of course, to the interest of the entrepreneurial Japanese menswear crowd, it’s become the latest historic workwear brand to be reborn.
Styles today include the serge jackets Danton made 80 years ago, but now also encompass banded collar shirts, shawl collar pop-overs and T-shirts.
Workwear doesn’t have to look backwards in style. Designer and denim expert William Kroll’s brand Tender might look to long-lost methods – not to mention Kroll’s collection of British Rail uniforms – but the results are decidedly modern.
Old-school ways of making a pocket or a shoulder finish, for example (and rarely used dyes such as madder or logwood) come together in easy, hard-wearing garments, all made in England.
More properly known as the Williamson-Dickie Manufacturing Company, established 1922, Dickies made a name for itself making uniforms during World War II and specialist clothing for the workers of the ’50s oil boom.
More recently though it’s become a streetwear favourite thanks to its 874 work pant, a simple, straight-legged chino made in a multitude of shades from a tough, wrinkle-resistant poly-cotton twill. Wear them with Vans or, come winter, a stout pair of Red Wing boots.
American workwear isn’t just a Japanese obsession – it’s big in Germany too. That’s where Fabian Jedlitschka and his wife Anna Schafer set up the American-sounding Pike Brothers. Actually, the name was taken from a Notting Hill tailoring shop that made uniforms for US servicemen during World War II. Pike’s best known for its custom fabrics – from the jungle cloth it has woven for its deck jackets, to the indestructible cotton ‘elephant skin’ it uses for waistcoats and trousers.