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Five classic vintage workwear styles that are making a roaring comeback!

December 29, 2017

Let’s take a closer look at five classic vintage workwear styles that are becoming increasingly popular today, and find out what makes them so appealing to contemporary vintage clothes lovers


Workwear in the UK is reportedly a $1+ billion industry, and steadily rising annually. We take a closer look at five classic vintage workwear styles that have fired the imaginations of today’s British vintage-inspired fashion

The Vintage Fashion Time Machine

Capture of the frigate Esmeralda by Chileans in Callao 1820

Capture of the frigate Esmeralda by Chileans in Callao 1820.
L. Colet, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons


To understand what makes vintage workwear so alluring today, we need to buckle up and take a quick whirl back in time. Back in the mid-19th century, “navvies” were the common work folks of the time. They commonly sported heavy boots, dawned on a pair of corduroy trousers, and buttoned up with heavy donkey jackets. The cherry on the icing was usually a flat cap and cotton neckerchief to mop up the sweat from their hectic workday.


Women of that period also left their mark on workwear fashion. Full-body coveralls and heavy leather shoes were standard attire worn by women in factories and production lines. It wasn’t uncommon to also see women in overalls and straw hats working in fields and on farms.


It’s true, as we look out the window of our time machine, we’re bound to notice that those clothes look nothing like the five classic vintage workwear styles we’re going to look at later in this post. But that’s exactly the point! What started off as the bare necessities to get the work done, evolved into “must have” fashion statements over time.


As we turn our sights to workwear on the high seas, we see deck workers and merchant seamen wearing clothes that distinguished them as being from a specific trade. Dress-blue pants and well-pressed powder blue shirts were favoured by deck crew. Cabin crew, Stewards and Wait staff usually wore whites, often short-sleeved shirts and tops – complete with white canvas shoes.


Even British dockworkers and fishermen weren’t left behind when it came to leaving their mark on vintage workwear. They often wore flared denim trousers and roll neck knitted pullovers, with British clogs to protect their feet and toes.

Five classic vintage workwear styles – Fashion Evolution

Military Uniforms, Peaked Caps.

Military Uniforms, Peaked Caps.
Military Intelligence Division of the United States Department of War during World War II, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

Over time, the lines between workwear and fashion have all but been erased. Today, a man in a flat cap isn’t necessarily a dock worker out for a stroll; and nor is a mom in overalls someone working at the nearby factory or the neighbourhood farm.  Like the five classic vintage workwear styles we review later, those workwear pieces (the flat cap and the overall) have changed over the years, and have now become contemporary pieces used by people to make individual fashion statements.


A lot of contemporary vintage workwear fashion, that we see revived today, has evolved because of changing tastes and styles. For instance, the somewhat “floppy” seaman’s cap, that was favoured by dock men and sea farers, has changed into a some-what more stylish peak cap today. And you’ll even see vestiges of the Donkey Jacket worn today by women – only they now have “softer” contours and woollen underlays to give them a more contemporary look.


But the five classic vintage workwear styles we’re discussing today didn’t necessarily evolve due to changes in tastes and style sense. Some vintage workwear also changed due to necessity. For instance, easy zip-up versions of then fashionable workwear have now replaced their buttoned-up counterparts from yore. Zippers weren’t too common back then, and only the rich and famous could afford workwear that supported such accessories.


The introduction of other fastening materials, such as Velcro, have also helped vintage workwear evolve into their contemporary versions. Where work gloves would either be laced up or clasped with hooks and buttons, Velcro snaps have now replaced them.

Our Five Classic Vintage Workwear Styles to Watch

Now that we appreciate the role that workwear played in the lives of ordinary working Brits, and how they evolved over time, lets take a closer look at some of those items that are catching on even today.

  • The Waterproof Trench Jacket

Sasha Gradiva 016 - DC Capital Pride street festival

Sasha Gradiva 016 – DC Capital Pride street festival.
Tim Evanson from Washington, D.C., United States of America, CC BY-SA 2.0, via Wikimedia Commons

A staple amongst dockworkers, fishermen and outdoors workers, this piece of garment was usually manufactured of heavy oilcloth material, and just had the bare minimum of functionality. Today, many contemporary designers have made that their inspiration, and turned it into something that’s ever popular, equally among men and women.


Today, that humble Trench Jacket supports a waterproof outer cloak, with studded cuffs that are adjustable for men and women of varying heights and builds. Most also feature detachable hoods, and have on a storm flap to make it more functional than the garment that inspired it. Quilted inside linings offer added warmth, and multiple pockets make them perfect for either work or casual wear.

    • The Classic Nurse’s Dress

    • Five classic vintage workwear styles - American Red Cross nurses in Tampa, 1898

      American Red Cross nurses in Tampa, 1898.
      Unidentified photographer, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons


The second of our five classic vintage workwear styles relate to the health care sector. No where else has workwear fashion made so much transition from vintage to contemporary, than in nursing.


It used to be that the classic nurses dress was a long white tunic, often flowing down to the ankles, with a pleated waist or a belt. Nurses in the early 19th century weren’t concerned about how they looked. They were just happy to be making their rounds and dispensing medication to their patients.


While the role of nurses has evolved in our society today, contemporary garments for nurses have been created for style, comfort and performance. And like the individual personalities that each nurse brings to the job, today’s vintage-inspired nurse’s workwear comes in various styles, colours and designs.


As fabric technology evolved over the years, today’s healthcare workwear is designed from stain-resistant materials. The use of non-fade materials also means that nurses can make their dresses and tunics last much longer than their vintage counterparts could.

    • Hospitality fashion sense

Dublin - Burlington Hotel - Friendly & helpful doorman

Dublin – Burlington Hotel – Friendly & helpful doorman.
Joseph Mischyshyn / Dublin – Burlington Hotel – Friendly & helpful doorman


In days gone by, wait staff in hotels, bars and restaurants wore drab garments – often white shirts or dresses, with nothing much to distinguish them from each other. Today, hotels and other hospitality outlets are bringing renewed focus on the looks and styles of their staff.


Like all of the five classic vintage workwear styles we are reviewing here today, Hospitality fashion too has evolved to keep pace with the times. Watch out for your friendly waiter, as he or she may now be seen in a tunic that features highly scientifically designed back vents for comfort, as well as stylishly cut designs to promote ease of movement.


Unlike their vintage counterparts, contemporary hospitality tunics are designed with open-ended zip fronts, which make the tunic almost seamless – you won’t even know it has a zip-up top! Contrast that to the large brass buttons that usually adorned wait staff’s tunics.


And where chef’s – almost exclusively males! – wore baggy trousers, more and more restaurants and hotels are supplying their star staff with elasticated waist unisex pants. These drawstring waistband garments not only adjust comfortably to the wearer’s girth, but are manufactured from lightweight fabric, like cotton or polyester, so that chef’s can move around their workspace unhindered.

  • Women’s Office Jackets

    Five classic vintage workwear styles - US Naval Hospital San Diego Nurses Modeling Uniforms ca1944

    US Naval Hospital San Diego Nurses Modeling Uniforms ca1944.
    US Navy, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

Each of the five classic vintage workwear styles we featured here today have one thing in common: They were staple workwear back in the day, and have now evolved to become common place in today’s work environment.


Women weren’t as well assimilated into the workforce back then as they are today. As a result, vintage women’s office fashion was rather restricted. The one common piece of dress wear most women possessed was a formal office jacket. Usually made from heavy fabric, this “women’s office staple” was usually of a dark colour – black, brown, burgundy or deep purple.


All that has changed, and today’s women have a wider selection of office jackets to pick from. While still remaining stylish and trendy, today’s women’s jackets are elegantly designed and manufactured for comfort and practicality. Uniquely made from contemporary fabric, such as wool, polyester, cotton blends, the contemporary women’s office jacket has become the centrepiece of most working women’s wardrobes.

  • Five classic vintage workwear styles – Men’s Office Suits

    Five classic vintage workwear styles - Studio portrait of a young man 1870-1880

    Studio portrait of a young man 1870-1880. See page for author [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

While the “traditional” definition of workwear was more or less restricted to the “working class” – labourers and outdoor workers, all that has changed in the contemporary world. And the fifth of our five classic vintage workwear styles has evolved along with the definition of workwear!


Working men used to be symbolised by the suits they wore. Typically made from heavy woollen fabric, the vintage office suit was usually a pin-striped affair, with 4 or even 5 buttons and broad lapels.


Today, the fully lined suit jackets and comfortable trousers have replaced the office suit of the old. Newer fabric technologies are evolving, making suits easier to launder and more stain resistant. While the office worker back in the day would probably own one or two suits, production technologies have made it cheaper for men today to own multiple suits for every workwear situation.

Five classic vintage workwear styles – The Eye of The Beholder

Back in the 19th century, as workwear was in its infancy, there was a definite sense of who should wear what, and where. Those distinctions no longer exist. Beauty in workwear is truly in the eye of the beholder. The five classic vintage workwear styles discussed here, not only have versions for men and women separately, but also unisex designs that can fit anyone!


What’s more, the thick red line that segregated workwear from casual and after-work wear in the past, isn’t anymore. Today’s vintage-inspired workwear are being designed to be equally fashionable in the workplace as they can be outside of it.


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