I was in the hipster neighborhood Silver Lake (Los Angeles) recently and wandered into a shop called "Golden Age," which sells "French Workwear." The shop contained racks full of thick, cotton jackets and coveralls, all in various shades of blue. I also spotted what looked like well-worn firefighter uniforms. Everything was really expensive, too. I wondered, what's happening here? In an interview with Bidstitch, Ludvic Orlando, the owner of Golden Age, explains French Workwear:
"First, French workers' uniforms were designed in the late 19th century in France and clothes were getting more resistant with the industrial revolution. The oldest work jackets we found are from the 1920s in moleskin fabric, stiffer and thicker, made for miners and heavy machinery work. Different fabrics were then used across decades: denim, linen, combed linen/cotton, herringbone, drill cotton later on… French companies had to provide their workers at least one set of blue uniform for any type of jobs such as factory workers, construction workers, farmers, mechanics, etc… That is why those pieces are so unique, made of different fabric and used through the years in many different works indoor or outdoor, washed and repaired for decades, showing all shades of used blue!"
French Workwear is just one of many 'workwear' trends that have been popular in recent decades. Maya Ernest of Input explains:
For decades, utility-focused workwear has been appreciated for fashion over function. In the '90s, overalls and coat chores were worn by hip-hop legends like The Fugees and Tupac, while queer communities embraced workwear for its baggy, androgynous look. The '00s saw skaters and cholo culture take over the trend next, often mixing boxy labor-like pieces with wifebeaters and low-top sneakers.
Ernest goes on to ask about what it means when the workwear style is appropriated by folks not using the clothes for actual work:
The fashion industry doesn't share the practical mindset of workwear — it's about what looks good, not how something functions. Focusing solely on style, however, may be harmful to pieces created for utility. As workwear gains popularity outside of its target demographic, one has to wonder when its adoption becomes problematic. Is there an issue with the glamorization of someone's work uniform? And will that glamorization lead to increased prices for those who actually wear utility-focused styles for practicality?
When asked, "Do you see any irony in hip kids working the clothing of the old working class in France?" Ludvic Orlando, owner of Golden Age, answered:
"It is ironic, but I do understand the appeal, when I was a skate kid, this is what I wanted to wear. If you think about it, we saw the same trend phenomenon with vintage Carhartt, Dickies, Levi's that are icons of the American workwear, Kanye wore them for the last 5 years and make them very popular among the hype crowd, while always been used by the average worker… Functional, comfortable, well-made, long-lasting apparel has definitely invaded the wardrobe from the hype to the more casual customer. I always found workers, cowboys or military uniforms very inspiring by their cut, fabrics, functionality and craftsmanship. The working class have always been the most stylish in my opinion! That is why it is a big part of our offer in our stores."
Still, Maya Ernest of Input cautions that this glamorization of working-class style can cause issues for folks who actually need the clothes for work, especially as the clothes become more expensive as celebrities and hipsters buy into the style:
Unlike the groups who originally embraced workwear, modern shoppers admire labor-inspired pieces for their look, rather than their function. Practicality isn't a necessity (or a common feature) when it comes to fashion, pricing included. Consumers are paying hundreds of dollars to wear pieces that are already distressed and falling apart.
The popularity of utility-focused styles may die down soon — but if it doesn't, those who actually wear the pieces every day will pay the biggest price of all. Brands producing workwear have to be mindful of their first customers, Massony warned. Workwear "is attached to people's livelihoods," she said. "It's important to remember — and inform other people — about the roots of this trend." Without the people wearing Dickies and Carhartts for function over fashion, workwear simply wouldn't work.