A big workwear shakeup is happening right now. No, we’re not talking about the decline of office culture and, in turn, its dress code. Instead, workwear is the industry term referring to utilitarian, heavy-duty clothes and accessories intended for those in manual labour – or fashion inspired by such attire (a 2016 GQ article gave it the dubious nickname of “construction worker style”).
At its core: functionality, versatility and durability manifested through evergreen pieces such as chore jackets (name says it all); utility vests (ditto); blue jeans (relaxed fits only, please); newsboy caps; and safety boots. Usually, the colour palette is all neutral and military tones – think khaki, navy and olive green – because the look is not about standing out, but buckling down and getting one’s hands dirty. Forget normcore, which involves a deliberate attempt to be anti-fashion. Workwear is as real as fashion can get.
A Fashion Week attendee at the Sunnei Spring/Summer 2023 show, dressed in some of workwear’s must-have items.
And in Singapore, it’s finding a growing league of devotees. For one thing, it’s comfortable in our weather. Plus, aren’t we a famously pragmatic bunch? And at a time when many are relooking how they shop, its anti-trendiness makes it a value-for-money middle finger to consumerism. The secondhand stores that have popped up here in recent years have further helped to spread its credo. Many focus on casual wear and streetwear from the ’90s and right after – when workwear first entered mainstream pop culture, what with rappers donning dungarees and grunge rockers flannel.
At the same time – with few things safe from the clutches of fashion – workwear has been co-opted into what Gen Zers call an “aesthetic”. Carhartt and Dickies – American heritage brands that started out making clothes for railroad workers and farmhands respectively – now join the ranks of some of the hype-iest streetwear labels around.
One of the most viral things on Tiktok now? Videos featuring Dickies’ 874 pants – a rugged, straight-cut style from the ’60s – that as of press time had clocked a total of 1.8 billion views. Its legion of Zoomer fans wear it with the waistband folded down like a badge of pride: Besides revealing the branding on its inside, the choice of styling is in fact an old-school way of cinching its waist in – #iykyk.
The result is not only a vibrant community of workwear buffs, but also one that’s shifting it away from its roots as an exclusively boys club. And, while early adopters of the look tend to be purists (wear it head-to-toe, and nothing from brands seen to be cashing in on the style), the new patrons of workwear are putting their own spin on it, flipped waistband notwithstanding. As Fahmy Ismail, longtime fan and founder of local workwear-inspired label Kerbside&Co, puts it: “It’s interesting when people mix things up… There are more facets to the workwear style than just putting on a chore coat and pairing it with jeans and boots.”
Ahead, some of the style’s advocates in Singapore give us the lowdown on the workwear revolution.
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