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In the heart of New York’s posh Soho neighborhood, nestled between other high-end retailers on Crosby Street, sits a boutique called WIP. You might think you’ve never heard of it before, but a neon pink sign in the window displaying the name “Carhartt” in swanky glowing script gives away the brand’s more humble roots. It’s a Carhartt store — the only one of its kind in the US — that sells upscale and tailored versions of the workwear they’ve been making for manual laborers since 1889.
The first time I strolled past the store, in 2013, during my inaugural summer in New York, I had to laugh. I had moved to the city from New England, and the idea of an upscale Carhartt store was the kind of thing that would lead my entire extended family (most of whom still lived in central Maine) to decry the idiotic consumerism of the hedonistic hell I had decided to call home. I could imagine my uncle Danny, a crass, charismatic guy who gives me the hardest time of anyone about living in New York, rolling his eyes, saying “that’s wicked f---ing dumb” in a thick Maine accent, and finishing it with a staccato laugh that’s more punctuation than anything else: “hah.” He wouldn’t be wrong.
The fact that Carhartt was peddling the workwear brand’s plain, boxy canvas jackets as a trendy look, when I knew for a fact that most of my uncles had purchased nearly identical coats from outfitters that also sell steel-toed boots and work gloves intended to be worn by manual laborers, was pretty laughable. “Who would buy into this?” I remember thinking. “Carhartt isn’t a fashion brand.” And yet, in the years that have followed, the streets of New York have slowly filled with canvas jackets and knitted beanies emblazoned with the Carhartt logo.
Workwear’s steady climb in popularity has been documented by men’s style sites like GQ, which as recently as January highlighted Carhartt and Dickie’s (another clothing company with workwear roots) influence on street style. Taken as simply a fashion trend, this doesn’t seem shocking, but when you begin to consider it amid the current political landscape it presents a strange reality: Carhartt — and, more broadly, workwear — has become the uniform of both the far right and the far left.
There was a time during the initial period of shock and blame after the 2016 election when the vast swaths of white, rural America that went red on November 8th were typecast as a foolhardy demographic who fell for Trump’s promise to bring back jobs. The left denounced these promises as lies, criticizing these voters for being duped by a man who preyed on their sentimentality for an American economy that we have long since left behind. The towns where Trump campaigned had once teemed with factory work and industrial jobs that have since been largely outsourced, and when he spoke of bringing back jobs, he didn't describe the creation of forward-thinking, service economy careers. Rather, he was talking about bringing back the blue-collar careers that had been once been these rural voters’ livelihoods. Those who lived in coastal, more populous areas expressed wariness over the blinding effects of nostalgia, but it’s easier to be unconvinced by sentimental ideas of job restoration when you’re young and live in an urban area with plenty of growing white-collar job sectors.
Straddling these two ends of the political spectrum and oddly uniting the worlds of rural and urban America is Carhartt. For those who work (or used to work) blue-collar jobs, Carhartt is an actual functional part of their wardrobe. Its durable canvas fabric is designed to keep workers warm, and those who don it as a part of their work uniform are often doing hard physical labor while exposed to the elements. It’s what my uncles up in Maine wear when going out hunting or hauling cords of wood down into the cellar.
But for those who have begun wearing Carhartt for fashion, not function, it acts merely as a symbol of all of that hard labor. Affluent urbanites throw on Carhartt beanies before their morning commutes to office jobs, where they’ll spend most of the day sitting and sending emails, miles (literally, but mentally, too) away from the places where livelihoods have been lost over the decline in manufacturing work.
“There are bedrock American ideologies, and one of those is that hard work is a moral good,” Nathan Palmer, a professor of sociology at the Georgia Southern University, tells me. Palmer has studied fashion’s relationship with culture and symbolism, specifically the recent athleisure trend. Palmer argues that athleisure clothing allows wearers to dress in a way that indicates to the world they value being physically active without actually having to exercise, and says that workwear operates in a similar way.
“In a way, it’s a shortcut,” Palmer says. He describes Carhartt-wearers’ motives through the following dictum: “I want to be evocative of a blue-collar aesthetic, but I don’t actually want to do those things.”
The way that fashion works from a sociological perspective, Palmer tells me, is that for something to be adopted as a fashion trend, it must be something that’s not currently being done. “To be conspicuous, you have to be away from the norm,” Palmer says. “You have to do something that distinguishes yourself from what everyone else is doing.” By that token, you could say that for blue-collar workwear to become a fashion trend, blue-collar work had to become a thing of the past.
Carhartt first emerged as a fashion brand in the 1980s, amid the hip-hop scene. Around the same time, it was adopted by gangsters working in inner cities. “The grit of criminal life necessitated affordable outerwear, and Carhartt’s work jacket offered a certain anonymity,” explains Gary Warnett, co-author of The Carhartt WIP Archives, which details the upscale streetwear line’s story. WIP was founded in 1989, in Europe, though the location in Soho wouldn’t open until 2011. But, of course, the slobbering masses of the middle class eventually ruin all things that were once hip. (Is having an upscale Soho boutique the kiss of death for something “cool”?) Fast-forward 30 years and everyone from art school kids to stroller-pushing dads could be seen clad in a Carhartt jacket or beanie. Even Mickey, the effortlessly cool LA twentysomething female lead in Judd Apatow’s show Love, wore Carhartt overalls in an episode.
What is it about Carhartt that appeals to code-writing, desk-sitting cityfolk? “Some favor the severity of the aesthetic: stark, simple products that are expressive,” Warnett offers. “Others gravitate toward the timeless look — with staple silhouettes barely changed over the decade.”
And, as Palmer points out, some consumers have just gotten sick of the dizzying churn required to keep up with this season’s trends: “Among a certain class of people, the distinctiveness of affording these luxury items has worn off.”
Those who can afford to buy into and be aware of fashion trends operate in circles that are mostly white-collar. And for the same reason that blue-collar work needed to lose prevalence before workwear could be popularized, white-collar jobs (and the literal popularization of white oxfords and business clothing) needed to be made more accessible to middle-class workers before a desire to return to the blue-collar aesthetic could take hold. “One of the factors that would play a role in someone making the decision to mix in blue-collar clothing next to their Prada bag,” Palmer says, “is that ultimately what this is about is having the craft-person’s mindset, or the ‘roll up your sleeves and get to work’ mindset. All of these things have always been very prized in the United States.”
Workwear allows us the opportunity to eschew the wealth we have. The plain canvas jacket represents the more frugal, down-to-earth lifestyle of a manual laborer (even though most of us have cash to burn on boozy brunches, and the biggest physical threat we face is being carpal-ruined by the time we’re 40). You might argue that guilt, then, is a major motivator in choosing the aesthetic over chasing the fashion machine’s whims: We want to hide from the fact that we live in excess. “Workwear is the antithesis of fast fashion and planned obsolescence,” Warnett says. What all of this means is that now we have a certain class of urban elites who are trying on the clothes of lower- and middle-class Americans, while simultaneously criticizing those same lower- and middle-class Americans for being sentimental over the loss of blue-collar jobs in an increasingly service-based economy. Yet, by the very fact of wearing their clothes, we’re clearly romanticizing that past, too.
Maybe what this means is that we all have more in common than we like to think. We’re all guilty of idealizing the era of American history when you could work a factory job for 30 years and count on your pension being there when you retired. (It’s easy to forget about the physical side effects of these types of jobs, especially when you’ve never had a job that wasn’t at a desk.) Maybe we romanticize it because work back then just seems more straightforward than work today, when concepts like perma-lancing and the gig economy prevail, health care is expensive, and our future feels increasingly uncertain.
The scariest truth of all is, perhaps, what this reveals about our souls: That we always want to be seen as useful and needed, lest our deepest fears come true (that we are not necessary, and that, despite our efforts, we all end up dead and buried). As Palmer put it, “the workwear trend is just one example of how Americans are responding to their deep-seated need to be productive members of society.” For now, Carhartt is riding the white-collar wave of inadequacy for all it’s worth. And my family in Maine will continue to shake their heads.