Work wear is a hell of a broad term, it encompasses just about every item of clothing in the whole associated denim scene where the favoured clothing style is by default of utilitarian beauty with vintage inspirations and aspirations, so how to narrow the field? Well, Militaria has been covered so I won’t be discussing anything military here in this piece so I am going to define work wear as clothing and accessories originally or traditionally worn whist performing a manual or skilled task in civilian life, which are still popular within the denim and work wear community to which we all belong, ok? I think that it is a fairly safe bet to say that for the purposes of this piece I will be painting with a fairly wide brush and making some fairly general statements and points, but such is the nature of practical adornments.
See, I told you that there would be broad strokes here so I thought it best to start with the broadest. When we think about work boots associated with denim we are probably thinking about American work boots, the kind popularised on so many selvedge lined ankles by brands such as Red Wing, for whom I have already stated my lack of regard. The American work boot, when done right, is truly the very image of utilitarian beauty. It is sturdy, substantial, heavy and built to last, but it is also elegant, detailed has beautiful lines as evocative as any Italian super car and depending on your choice of brand and leather it can require just as much maintenance.
The best American work boots, I mean real work boots, are made by a relatively small collection of companies. To attain the highest level of quality you need to go to a company who offer options and have the experience in the denim market to handle the exacting customers who are perhaps looking for a $400 fire proof, waterproof, none slip boot made from a leather which beautifully evolves with the correct boot grease application, only to be worn on trips to the local supermarket or to the office, I am one of these people and I hate myself for it. We want the quality, the durability and the security of boots which could really take a beating and get back up, if only they were given the opportunity.
Arguably the “big 3” makers of high end American work boots are White’s, Wesco and Viberg (of Canada), with their level of quality and options being far ahead of just about everyone else, and their popularity outside their more traditional domestic market leading them into making expansions, and even being bought out by a Japanese company in the case of White’s. An point could be made to include Alden in this grouping, but I believe that Alden are more comfortable in the luxury formal shoe and boot market rather than traditional work wear, the Indy and the Tanker boots being notable exceptions.
Outside of the big 3 there are other options from smaller companies, including Drews and Nicks who also make fantastic quality, hard wearing work boots with perhaps less flowery options in terms of leathers, heels and soles. In all honesty every brand mentioned here makes fantastic quality boots which will last a lifetime with the correct care and attention, there are differences in quality but they are small and down to the individual to ascertain whether they are worth what can be a significant gap in pricing (I’m looking at you Viberg). For my own part I have always been a customer of White’s, well for the last 7 years and saw no reason to stray until recently when a friend of mine introduced me to Wesco boots and showed me a variety of samples. As I have sold my White’s Oxfords I do actually have a space in my footwear wardrobe and I have taken the opportunity to order some boots from Wesco, I look forward to seeing how they compare on the most important stage, my feet.
The terms are getting no less general as we move on, but I think that there is an important point to be made here about the work shirt, a point which I feel is being eroded over time by subtle nods to “fashion”. A work shirt varies from a western shirt in a couple of ways, firstly and most obviously it has actual buttons rather than snaps, secondly there is the absence of a front yolk, and thirdly (and here is where things are getting muddy), it should be a much looser cut to allow freedom of movement and comfort for working…..hence work shirt.
I have a wardrobe containing quite a few of what most would term as vintage work shirts, they are all American made by brands such as 5 Brothers, Frostproof and even Levis and all date from between 1959 and 1981. At the side of these I have a few modern work shirts and I have also been fortunate enough to handle and wear some modern work shirts by amazing brands which were directly inspired by the vintage shirts in my wardrobe, and the modern versions are MUCH more narrow. My firm contention is that this is done consciously as a concession to a more contemporary cut shirt, but it does stray more into Western cut territory than work and makes things considerably more difficult for a more heroically built fellow like myself, hence my foray into the vintage market for something a little more errr…….forgiving and generous.
Modern work shirts for slimmer men are produced in great number by all our favourite brands, so it really is a matter of finding your favourite material and cut. Of all the modern brands I find that Iron Heart make the most generous cut work shirt, much more like the traditional cut. If money conservation and authentic detailing is your thing then eBay is a great place to pick up vintage American made work shirts for not much money at all.
Ok, this is getting silly now. Is there really such a thing as general as a work coat? Well….no, but there are a small variety of more traditional designs which remain immensely popular and certainly fall under the “work coat” umbrella, let’s take a look at a few of the most widely loved types, starting with the type 1, type 2 and type 3 denim jacket. These three denim jackets represent the evolution of a Levi’s basic short denim jacket first favoured by actual cowboys and ranchers owing to the comfort afforded by the short length in the riding position, and much beloved still today by truckers and motorcyclists for the exact same reason. The denim jacket is the official partner to jeans in the association of a denim tux, although denim shirts can be acceptable, worn in the right way and contrary to popular belief the denim jacket looks absolutely perfect with jeans, and by the right way I am mainly talking about getting the right colour combination and fit. Of course today every brand makes their own denim jacket, some sticking with tried and tested designs, others treading their own path, much like jeans it is a matter of material preference, practicality and aesthetic which tends to influence consumer choice, and the choice is huge.
The chore coat is perhaps what most of us think of when picturing a real work coat, chore coats can be made from a variety of materials with denim, duck a cotton cloth being the most common. In design they are made to sit hip length and usually have bigger pockets to accommodate tools, nails or anything else which you may be using to complete your chores. The extra length was added as it was assumed that the chores in question may involve a certain amount of standing, bending, crouching, kneeling and even laying, so additional coverage for the lower back is most likely a bonus in this situation. Chore coats were very popular in the USA through the 1950’s through to the 70’s and still retain a fan base today. You will still find some nice examples made by Pointer, Levis and many of the high end Japanese brands, also vintage versions are not excessively expensive.
Back in the day it was often the case that a mans profession could be ascertained by the style of his hat, hence the phrase of passing someone the captains hat when they are promoted in the corporate world. In the UK several generations of factory workers were defined by their flat caps, miners by their hard hats with lamp attachment and even postman by their tweed peaked cap. Over in USA the obsession with defining employment by hat was even more rife, with train drivers, rail workers, farm workers, cattle workers, office workers, Dockers and even sportsmen defined by their lid coverage.
The modern approach to hats is far more clumsy, with baseball caps being de rigueur for a large cross section of society at work or at leisure only to be replaced by a wool hat with an ironic pom pom for the colder months. We hardy breed in the denim and work wear scene however have more than enough time on our hands to thoroughly research which kind of turn of the century work hat we want to display, my personal choice being a short billed “umpire cap” from American brand Ideal Cap Company, who cater for a wide range of vintage styles. Elsewhere notable companies to look into are Ebbets field flannels, Buzz Rickson and most of the other high end Japanese brands who seem to change which style of hat they want to reproduce year after year.
So that, in the most general terms, is work wear. So what to do next in this series? Well, time to go somewhere unexpected next I think, so next time we will be looking into sports wear and its association with denim. Trust me, it does exist.