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Vintage workwear brands and work clothes over the ages

October 13, 2018

Here’s looking back and reminiscing at the endearing nature of vintage clothing and the vintage workwear brands that clothed working men and women over the ages.

Through the years, vintage workwear brands have evolved the cuts, fabric and style of their creations, but the basic designs have stayed largely true to vintage clothing from bygone eras.  The work jacket, dress pants and the work shirt haven’t changed fundamentally in design.

Model, Rita Fisher, in photo advert for Turners, February 1955

Model, Rita Fisher, in photo advert for Turners, February 1955

Same But Different!

The tastes and fashion choices of working men and women have evolved throughout the ages. Yet, vintage clothing from the past doesn’t look too different from what today’s workers wear. For instance, denim jeans worn in the early years of their existence, were pretty much the same – trouser legs, waist bands, fly closings with buttons or zippers, belt loops – as you see on workwear brands today.

But, what’s different is the type of materials used, the cuts, the accessories and many other trimmings that today’s vintage workwear brands carry. Sure, contemporary vintage has taken inspiration from the past. But they have differentiated themselves in many ways – some subtle and some not so!

Post card advertisement for Dewachter Freres department stores in Belgium and France.C.1885

Post card advertisement for Dewachter Freres department stores in Belgium and France.C.1885

Vintage Clothing Through the Years

Throughout the 19th century, there was no real formalised view on what workers wore in their work environments. Part of the reason for that could be attributed to the fact that the workforce was really not a defined entity. And because working men and women weren’t organised in the current sense of the word (i.e. represented by unions and collective bargaining units), work clothes were never a requirement.

It is believed that in the late 19th century, workers in France were seen embracing a distinctive work jacket that became the hallmark of the French workforce. While upper management and supervisors in factories and job sites were seen in white coats, the blue-collar masses were easily distinguishable in their blue grey, and often indigo coloured Bleu de travail.

Bleu de travaille jacket and trousers

Bleu de travaille jacket and trousers

 

While popular vintage workwear brands subsequently infused their own fabric and design ideas on Bleu de travail, this iconic piece of French work jacket was usually made from moleskin, cotton twill, or other equivalent but heavy-duty fabric. One of its endearing qualities was that its design comprised of several deep side pockets – making it easy for workers in fields and factories to carry plenty of supplies and materials as they moved from one work site to another.

And though today, the workforce has any number of choices to pick from, like the work shirt, dress trousers and even Tees, the early history of workwear offered little choice. Farmers, factory workers, mechanics and other blue-collar laborer’s were seen in just a few popular workwear pieces.  Among the frontrunners were the Overall and the Coverall.

Worker in overalls, Leipzig, 1952 Photo credit Roger and Renate Rössing

Worker in overalls, Leipzig, 1952
Photo credit: Roger and Renate Rössing

Overalls

The Overall was a piece of clothing that working men wore on fields and farms. It was a garment, usually made from thick cotton fabric, that did not cover a worker’s entire body. While the thick pants covered the entire lower half, the Overall stopped chest-high, and was suspended by shoulder straps. It was a piece of vintage workwear that men (and women too!) donned on over their “usual” clothing. Usually it was worn over a work shirt, and was ideally designed to protect workers that waded waist-high into dirt, grime, soil and other grimy situations.

While the Overall left the upper part of working men exposed, the Coverall changed that.  And while many vintage workwear brands throughout the years have put their unique spin on this piece of outerwear, the basic design remains the same: It is constructed of heavy-duty fabric, and designed to cover the entire body. Often, field mechanics and motor garage workers wore Coveralls to protect their inner wear, which often included a shirt, work jacket and trousers, from spills and splashes.

570px-Girls wearing overalls deliver ice.16 September, 1918

Girls wearing overalls deliver ice.16 September, 1918

Vintage Drivers

The popularity of vintage workwear today isn’t attributable just to the fact that their designs and cuts have stayed ever endearing to consumers throughout the ages. It’s true that classics like denim jeans have stayed popular because they are so pervasive and accepted as workwear. And with numerous vintage workwear brands re-releasing some of the old classics – such as Bleu de travail, the indominable French work jacket, working consumers can’t resist but gravitate to those re-imaged masterpieces.

However, the popularity of workwear pieces from the past is also attributable to the present socio-economic circumstances that working individuals face. With the existing economic climate, many office-goers and blue-collar workers are financially stretched, and gently-worn vintage work clothes are all they can afford. Thrift shops and charity outlets still offer bargains on vintage workwear brands that make assembling a work wardrobe easy and affordable.

Levi Strauss, Ca. 1850

Levi Strauss, Ca. 1850

Sustainability

And then, there’s the whole eco-sustainability movement that’s also responsible for the working masses gravitating towards heavy-duty pieces that are longer-lasting. These are conscientious working men and women that believe they need to change their own consumption habits, in order to create a self-sustainable planet.  As a result, they prefer wearing rugged vintage pieces made from cotton twill and raw denim creations from A.P.C and Hawksmill to further their cause.

The popularity of workwear from yesteryears also owes a large debt of gratitude to the fact that the designs and fashion, produced by vintage workwear brands from the past, are so versatile, that a work shirt from the 19th century, or a work jacket from the early 20th century can still blend in with today’s contemporary workwear fashion.

It is precisely this type of seamlessness of vintage work outfits, coupled with the high quality of their designs and manufacture, that has driven working men and women in today’s workforce to embrace them wholeheartedly.

A Levi Strauss advertising sign painted on a brick wall in Woodland, California

A Levi Strauss advertising sign painted on a brick wall in Woodland, California

Unforgettable vintage workwear brands

There are many contemporary vintage workwear brands today, with many of them being inspired by classics from the 19th and early 20th century masterpieces. A case in point is the timeless French work jacket that has inspired and encouraged many of today’s designers to come up with vintage workwear classics of their own.

The Bleu de travail has stirred labels like Oliver Spencer to feature the French icon’s style and cuts into their own contemporary collections. Vetra and Margaret Howell’s joint efforts on vintage workwear revival also produced a version of the jacket inspired by de travail.

And of course, when we talk about vintage workwear brands, we can’t ignore Levi Strauss & Co., who produced the first of many vintage work pieces – the first blue jean – way back in 1873. The faded denim jeans have since become an icon for working men throughout the world.

Here’s a look back at some vintage workwear brands active today. Some have been around for decades, while others are relatively new:

Assortment of workwear branded clothing on display,Tokyo, Okachimach

Assortment of workwear branded clothing on display,Tokyo, Okachimach

Dickies

When “Colonel” Dickie launched his workwear business in 1918 – under the name of the U.S. Overall Company, his creations became the most sought after for working men and women across America and beyond.  What started out as a bib overall manufacturing operation, today produces a wide range of vintage workwear, including chore coats, denim jeans, work pants and the indomitable Dickie’s work shirt.

Carhartt advert from 1917

Carhartt advert from 1917

Carhartt.

Carhartt is yet another one of the timeless vintage workwear brands that is well-known for its high quality vintage work clothing.  What began as primarily an operation to produce and supply bib overalls in Detroit in 1889, soon branched out across the US and the rest of the world.

Carhartt today offers workwear pieces that span the spectrum, including its work jacket – then known as the “Engineer Sack Coat” in 1917, a range of outdoor wear products, vests, tops and shirts. You can get a range of vintage workwear with the Carhartt brand on them, including denim jeans of all cuts and styles – slim fit, mid-rise, high-rise and low-cut.

In addition to its signature vintage clothing pieces, like the bib overalls, Carhartt today also produces its vintage-inspired version of the French work jacket – affectionately known as the Duck Chore Coat. This is yet another confirmation that producers of contemporary vintage workwear brands are still inspired by icons from the past, such as the Bleu de travail.

The Woolrich factory in Woolrich, Clinton County, Pennsylvania, c. 1887

The Woolrich factory in Woolrich, Clinton County, Pennsylvania, c. 1887

Woolrich

Pennsylvania-based Woolrich burst onto the vintage workwear scene in 1830, when John Rich, the some of a wool weaver, founded his Woolrich brand. Despite so many changes in how corporate America operates, 7th and 8th-generation Rich family members still have a say in this iconic vintage workwear manufacturers business.

Despite the changes to fashion tastes and preferences of working men throughout the 19th century – during Woolrich’s formative years – and through the early 20th century, the company continued to grow and flourish. Today, this historic producer of vintage clothing is no longer just an American success story, but has branched out to become a truly global player. The company produces and distributes a range of high quality woollen wear, and works with other global heritage brands, including Baracuta, Barbour and Velva.

Miss Bamboo

If you are looking to wear that authentic 1940s or 1950s look for work, then Bromley Cross, Bolton-based Miss Bamboo is where you’d like to head to. Sure, she’s a relatively newcomer with her own Bamboo labels, but her vintage workwear brands also include leading US and Brit names that working men and women would love to wear for work.

Freddies of Pinewood

Whether you are a blue-collar worker, or whether you work as a bank teller behind a counter, you’ve probably worn casual clothing to work at some point or the other. More likely than not, your work wardrobe comprises of denim jeans and other vintage classics that you just can’t live without.

Well, if you are a jeans lover, then Essex-based Freddies of Pinewood might be worth visiting for a refresh to your vintage workwear collection. Considered long-standing Vintage royalty in their own right, Phil and Jo Whyte have a wide array of vintage workwear brands that will certainly inspire you.

If it’s a vintage-era work shirt you are looking for, you’re guaranteed to find it here. And what about adding a nice work jacket to your wardrobe? Well, Freddies has you covered there too.

Helly Hansen shoes

Helly Hansen shoes

Helly Hansen

And if your work takes you into the outdoors, and you are looking for high quality vintage wear that’s synonymous with durability and comfort, then Helly Hansen is one of the most trusted vintage workwear brands out there.  The company has been around a long time – from 1877 actually! – to have witnessed the changing styles and tastes of working men and women through the ages.

For outdoors workers, the HH brand guarantees heavy-duty protection from the harsh elements. The company has been at the forefront of many innovations, and their clothing – from the work jacket to skiing outfits, and from the work shirt to rain weather gear – has all included some of the most cutting-edge fabric and clothes manufacturing technologies over the years.

Links [i] [ii] [iii] [iv] [v] [vi] [vii] [viii] [ix] [x]

[i] https://www.apc-us.com/veste-jean-us-codbs-h02223#Indigo

 

[ii] https://hawksmill.com/

 

[iii] https://www.missbamboo.co.uk/

 

[iv] https://www.freddiesofpinewood.co.uk/about-us

 

[v] https://www.hellyhansen.com/about-us/heritage/

 

[vi] https://field-grey.com/blog/field-grey-icons-a-history-of-the-bleu-de-travail-workwear-jacket/

 

[vii] https://www.levistrauss.com/our-story/

 

[viii] https://www.dickies.com/history.html

 

[ix] https://www.carhartt.com/category/carhartt-men-coats-jackets

 

[x] https://www.heddels.com/2018/01/woolrich-history-philosophy-iconic-products-2/

 

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