From Construction Sites to the Runway: How Workwear Brands Became Fashionable

The history of workwear fashion brands: If you’ve watched a runway show or picked up a fashion magazine in the last few years, you may have noticed a surprising trend. Alongside the designer giants, names like Dickies, Carhartt, and Levi Strauss are starting to make an appearance. Overalls are taking their place alongside A-lines, but why?

carhartt fashion

Workwear fashion has come to the red carpet, but how and why did it get there? The journey of this durable, hardwearing style and what it says about American values is fascinating. Read on to learn more about how blue jeans started from the bottom and now they’re here.

Where the Brands Started

For the most part, the brands that play the biggest part in the workwear fashion craze – Levi Strauss, Dickies, Carhartt, and Red Wing, to name a few – started out as companies genuinely trying to provide a quality product to workers.

Most of these companies got their start in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. This was a time when many people were doing manual labor, and they needed clothes that could keep up.

vintage workwear ad

Levi Strauss

Levi Strauss first started producing ultra-tough pants in the late 1800s. Before long, his company was also making overalls and jean jackets. Their clothes were riveted together at points of high strain and were designed to stand up to hard manual labor.

old dickies workwear ad


Dickies also got its start around the turn of the century, launching in 1922. They started out making bib overalls, but during World War II, the Army commissioned them to make uniforms for millions of soldiers. Like Levi’s and other workwear brands, their focus has always been on producing durable clothing.

carhartt old ad


Carhartt launched in 1889 in Dearborn, Michigan with a mission to make clothes for railroad workers that would provide “honest value for an honest dollar.” That sort of hardworking integrity would come to characterize workwear fashion’s move onto the red carpet, as we’ll discuss more in-depth later. Carhartt produced hard-wearing, durable clothing, some of which was flame resistant, much like this product.

For a long time, the durable clothes of the working man stayed just that. These companies and others focused on providing hardwearing clothes, grew along with the American economy until they became household names. So when did these clothes move from everyday work clothes to high-brow fashion?

Moving into the Punk Rock World

Workwear fashion’s move to the red carpet can probably be attributed to the rise of the humble computer. During the 1970s and ’80s, the digital age was just getting its start, and more and more jobs centered around this fabulous new machine. As technology improved, 9 to 5 factory jobs became desk jobs in cubicle farms.

As the prevalence of manual labor jobs decreased, so did the status of workwear clothing as daily wear. People weren’t wearing blue jeans and overalls to work anymore; instead, they were wearing khakis and neckties. Workwear companies still made durable clothes, but the problem was people didn’t need durable clothes so much anymore.

This is when a new demographic came to the rescue for workwear fashion: the punk community. Attracted as always to brands that were on the fringe, skaters and other such communities started buying Dickies, Carhartt, Levi, and Red Wing. But they didn’t just choose the brands for their outsider status.

As always, these brands carried on making good quality clothes that could take a beating and didn’t cost a fortune. They were authentic in a way other name brands weren’t, and they were accessible. People who spent their days hanging around skate parks needed good clothes for cheap, and workwear fashion fit the bill.

It wasn’t long before these workwear brands became something of a uniform among the punk rock community. It was a new life for the companies who had left behind their mature, hardworking origins. Suddenly, these brands weren’t just dependable household names; they were trendy.

Stepping into the Spotlight

The movement caught on, and by the late ’90s and early 2000s, these workwear brands were reinventing themselves. They kept their old production standards and still produced long-lasting clothing with the quality guarantee their names carried. But now they were focused on making their clothes stylish, as well as functional.

This opened a whole new world of possibilities to the workwear fashion world. What if they could now market themselves as a name brand like any other in the fashion world, but with the ring of history and authenticity that the others lacked? Workwear started showing up on Fifth Avenue and on fashion show runways.

Nowadays, you can find a pair of overalls for the same price you might expect to pay for any designer handbag. Fashion icons like Justin Bieber and A$AP Rocky are wearing workwear jackets and pants, and we’d be willing to bet the next issue of Harper’s Bazaar features some of this style. What started as a plan to sell workmen pants that wouldn’t fall apart is a week has now become a high-power fashion trend.

The Motivation Behind the Movement

But what is it that appeals to people so much about workwear fashion? You could argue that it’s the quality and durability. After all, if you pay $400 for a pair of pants, you want them to last you for a while.

But there’s something deeper behind this sudden love of solid, durable clothing. So much of our society today is digital that there are fewer manual labor jobs than ever. Odds are, most of us have never worked anything other than a desk job in our lives, and that trend will only continue.

Thus, the rugged hardworking nature of workwear fashion appeals to all kinds of people. As one clever professor of sociology said, the desire is, “I want to be evocative of a blue-collar aesthetic, but I don’t actually want to do those things.” The work ethic of the manual labor jobs still appeals to us; we just don’t want to do the work.

Learn More About the Future of Workwear Fashion

The rise of workwear fashion is an interesting view of the ideals of American society clashing with the reality of our daily lives.

If you’d like to read about other interesting pop culture topics like this, visit the rest of our site at Pop Culture Tees. We have articles covering things like the winding history of wristwatches and hottest jewelry trends of 2018.