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In the Always-On Economy, Workwear Is Getting a Fashion Upgrade

Rachel del Valle

As technology has stretched the boundaries of labor, the rules of what to wear to work (and what even qualifies as work) have become less clear.

Street style from Paris Fashion Week Spring 2020. 

Every time I hear someone bemoaning their lack of productivity or extolling the benefits of a "flow state" I think of a monologue from Anton Chekhov's "Three Sisters". Irina, the youngest and most idealistic of the titular siblings, wakes up one morning with the sudden belief that she can find meaning and happiness in life through work. "How delightful to be a workman who gets up before dawn and breaks stones on the road, or a shepherd, or a schoolmaster teaching children," she muses. To Irina — a "young woman who wakes at twelve o'clock, then has coffee in bed, then spends two hours dressing" — a more industrious life seems ideal: "Just as one has a craving for water in hot weather, I have a craving for work," she says. 

If recent fashion trends are any indication, we, like Irina, have a craving for work. Jumpsuits, puffer vests, overalls and chore jackets — utility-oriented clothing originally designed for manual labor, now grouped together under the umbrella of workwear — are more prevalent than ever. Meanwhile, over the past few years, jobs have become more sedentary. If people wear athletic clothes because they want to project the image of fitness, you could say that people wear workwear because they want to appear useful.

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As technology has stretched the boundaries of labor, the rules of what to wear to work (and what even qualifies as work) have become less clear. In an equally murky clothing market saturated with synthetic fabrics of uncertain durability, it makes sense that some people are gravitating towards clothes that look and feel secure. Brian Sheedy, vice president of merchandising and design at Dickies, says that consumers are drawn to heritage brands because they "offer real quality and value while promising more meaningful, hard-wearing, long-lasting apparel." Clothes made for physical work are timeless because, by design, they're functional.

Street style from Copenhagen Fashion Week Spring 2020. 

The premiumization of workwear has followed the typical trajectory of trends: something becomes popular because it's cheap and good, then people take notice and create related, but more expensive versions of the same thing. Legacy brands like Dickies and Carhartt are reasonably priced and widely available — but those who prefer their jumpsuits nipped at the waist or their work pants accented with knee patches can shop collaborations like Nike x Carhartt (under the latter's design-forward sublabel, Work In Progress) and Madewell x Dickies, which take classic silhouettes and update them with fashion-forward adjustments and detailing.

Upmarket workwear options have appeared in traditionally uniformed industries, too. For hospitality workers, there's Tilit, which recently collaborated with chef Missy Robbins to design a jumpsuit that "goes seamlessly from workwear to the street." For those in healthcare, there's Figs, which offers medical professionals an attractive, wear-everywhere alternative to scrubs.

Workwear has an anonymity that's attractive and malleable, both to individuals and to brands. (Sheedy says that Dickies thinks of itself "as a blank canvas for self-expression.") It seems natural, then, that in the past few years, "workwear," as a category, has stepped out from spaces of utility — like factory floors, construction sites, and car shops — and into creative workplaces, Michelin-starred restaurants and boutiques that sell skincare serums and prepackaged tonics.

Choosing to wear, say, a jumpsuit for the sake of fashion rather than safety is also a subversion of conventional status dressing. Emma McClendon, associate curator of costume at The Museum at FIT, whose most recent exhibit, Power Mode: The Force of Fashion, examines this theme, says that the practice of the upper-class borrowing garments from the working one dates back to the first half of the 20th century: As outdoor leisure activities became more common, designers and consumers started to take cues from the functionality of workwear, adapting the cuts and contexts to outfit things like gardening, hikes, picnics and days at the beach. 

Then and today, McClendon says, when workwear forms are adapted into the mainstream, the associated imagery constructs a fantasy of labor that takes "the hard work out of the equation."

Street style from London Fashion Week. 

California-based designer Jesse Kamm's signature design is a pair of high-waisted, wide-leg sailor pants made with workwear-inspired cotton canvas, available in colors like "Mechanic Blue." It kicked off a wave of imitators in the past few years and helped normalize the appeal of heavy-duty fabric in tailored silhouettes. "The modern woman is incredibly productive, creative and hardworking. She needs a wardrobe that applies to that new role," she says. 

Kamm's pants can easily be dressed up and down, and make it through a day of activity, from the morning school dropoff to the office, to client meetings, to a grocery store run. The designer says an overarching theme of the feedback she hears from customers goes something like: "Thank you for creating this thing that I get so much use out of. I feel so good investing in something that really supports me through my busy life." 

While the idea of clothing supporting a lifestyle isn't new, the kind of lifestyle that's enabled by workwear-inspired garments is. In an always-on economy, pencil skirts and blazers seem impractical next to sturdy, wrinkle-resistant pants and easy-to-layer puffer vests. If you're going to be working all the time, you might as well be comfortable.

In a culture that's become increasingly centered around productivity, it makes sense that clothing designed to help people work more effectively has become so popular. And when it comes to designer clothing, workwear gives a semblance of practicality to garments that are otherwise simply expensive. But perhaps what's most intriguing about workwear is the sense of purpose that it represents. No one wears a jumpsuit — or for that matter, a business suit — to sit around the house. Instead, you wear a jumpsuit, or a chore jacket, or work pants because you're doing something. You're on your feet (wearing sneakers or clogs or work boots, of course), moving around, even if that movement is punctuated by long periods of sitting in front of a computer. Workwear acts as a constant reminder to get up and do something with yourself.

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