doc martens will class style on International Workers’ Day
Working class fashion never took off in America like it did in China, where the “Mao suit” was all the rage. Tattered factories. A strapped working class. labor history, “May Day” sounds more like a desperate call for help than an expression of worker power.
At least we can take solace that the workers have won the fashion war even if the capitalists still control the means of production.
Denim jeans. Trucker hats. T shirts. Chinos. Dr. Martens. Dickies. Flannel shirts.
“Work wear might not have risen to high fashion,” says fashion historian and Kent State University Museum Director Jean Druesedow. “But it’s become part of a national identity and style.”
The rise of working class fashion in America took off in the early 1960s, shaped in large part by music trends, says Druesedow.
In the process, it changed attitudes and ideas about fashion and style.
“You’d have Yves Saint Laurent buy a peacoat in a store for a few dollars and then turn around and make one that would sell for thousands of dollars in the couture salons of Paris,” she says. “As a result, you started seeing fashion that goes up from the street.”
While the rise of street and work wear came after World War II, class warfare in fashion goes back centuries.
You know the phrase, “I wouldn’t be caught dead in that outfit”? Well, it might have literally happened during the French Revolution, when elaborate costumes, associated with the aristocracy, were ditched in favor of simpler attire.
Off with their heads and out with their silk and velvet, ribbons and lace. Long Live Cotton!
“Revolutionaries wanted to look different from the aristocracy, so they didn’t wear knee breeches,” says Druesedow. “They wore long pantaloons, which became both a political statement and the fashion.”
A group of left wing radicals consisting of urban laborers became known as the sans culottes French for “without knee breeches.”
Even Marie Antoinette tried following the new simpler fashion a little too late, however. She was convicted of treason to the revolution and became the ultimate fashion casualty.
No beheadings were reported when the T shirt made its way into American fashion. The garment,
long worn by laborers and ranch hands, enjoyed a trendy rise when Marlon Brando wore one in the 1951 film “A Streetcar Named Desire.”
The shirt became shorthand for “working class guy” in the Tennessee Williams play. Stanley Kowalski not only lived in a working class neighborhood; he also worked in a factory.
That’s not to say people who started wearing shirts were trying to be working class heroes.
The T, like so many other articles of clothing with working class roots, morphed into signifiers of cool, the street and various subcultures.
Jack Kerouac epitomized working class style with flannel shirts, chinos and bomber jackets. Simple colors, nothing flashy, understated and cool. Washington. “The look becomes more about having street cred or appearing to be authentic in some way.”
The problem, says Washington, is that “street cred” became a packaged style one that carries a hefty price tag.
“The early hip hop look quickly became designed to go for $200, thanks to guys like Tommy Hilfiger,” he says. “It’s like having a revolution without the actual revolution.”
Or a uniform for a token rebellion.
The flannel shirt has long been the accessory of choice for skaters. Grunge also adopted the flannel and added the work boot to the outfit which did for the hair metal look what the revolutionaries did to the aristocrats of France, sans the guillotine.
The bandanna comes and goes, depending on the season. The trucker hat enjoyed a rise in the late ’90s, first as ironic gesture, then as, well, just another accessory.
“It’s impossible to make an assumption on what people are thinking when they choose to wear something these days,” says Dave Petrovich of This Way Out, a vintage clothing shop in Cleveland. “The past has been revisited so many times,
and each time it happens for a different reason.”