Real People: Another Take on Workwear

I can admit it. I suffer from American workwear fatigue. There’ll always be a place in my closet for work boots, raw denim, and plaid flannel shirts, but the concept of resurrecting honest, blue-collar clothing (and selling it to “knowledge workers” like me, who build/repair/produce nothing tangible) has been wrung dry the past few years, to the point that I’ve started to forget what I liked about it in the first place.

Syeknom, an Englishman living near Brussels (and a knowledge worker, as well) demonstrates a European take on design, heritage, and workwear that doesn’t have mud caked in its Vibram-soled boots.  Syeknom owns a sharp suit wardrobe and moderates reddit’s Male Fashion Advice forum, but recently has been wearing more tonal outfits, fuller-cut trousers, and substantial, dress-inappropriate shoes. The textures, patterns, and shapes he favors are those used by designers like England’s Margaret Howell and SEH Kelly, among others. That means a lot of gray tones, matte fabrics and leathers, and longer casual outerwear. Howell, who’s been designing clothes with a dash of blue collar influence since the 1970s, has said that drawing influence form the past and workwear can help us relate to new designs, but that reproduction is too literal. Syeknom said he doesn’t choose these clothes out of a sense of national pride, but rather just because they feel right to him—unfussy, organic, and relaxed. He’s also mixed in baggier, even less traditional stuff like Yohji Yamamoto’s designs and the Margiela-n influence of his current home, Belgium.

Pinning down what works and what doesn’t in the context of looser, quirkier clothes can be more difficult than following the more defined (although variable) rules of modern tailoring or the illustrations from vintage L.L. Bean catalogs, where there’s more of an objective standard of rightness, but it can be liberating to relax and allow for a certain degree of imperfection. It’s also liberating to wear some looser pants.

-Pete

Deck Jackets

I probably should have anticipated this before I started a blog called Die, Workwear!, but as we get closer to winter, I’ve been thinking about getting myself a deck jacket. The term deck jacket refers to heavy winter coats worn by sailors during the mid-20th century. They’ve become highly prized among vintage collectors and workwear aficionados, not only for their history, but also their durability and protective warmth.

Some of the earliest deck jackets looked very much like the US Army’s winter combat jacket (also known as a tanker jacket). It had a dark blue outer shell made out of a heavy corded cotton, and a basic zipper-front design. Over the years, however, it’s been improved upon by the US military for naval use. In 1943, for example, the jacket was lengthened and lined with alpaca fur so that it’d be more protective for sailors. The knit waistband, exposed knit cuff, and patch pockets were also done away with, as they were at risk of snagging on different parts of the ship. As replacements, the knit cuffs were brought in, sort of like the storm cuffs you see today on certain Barbour jackets, and the jacket’s hem was made with a drawstring. The basic zipper front also saw the addition of a button-closure wind flap, and then later metal hook claps, which were easier to operate when you had big gloves on.

There are still many makers of deck jackets today, and they typically come in the garment’s original colors - dark blue, light olive, and dark green. My favorite version is probably by Mister Freedom, who released one with a striped blanket lining a few years ago. Most sizes have long sold out on their website, but you can sometimes find some floating around on eBay. Other makers include the many Japanese companies that specialize in workwear and military reproductions, such as Buzz Rickson, Toys McCoys, The Real McCoys, and The Few. You may also want to look into stores such as Blue in Green, Self Edge, Superdenim, and Bench & Loom, who either carry those aforementioned brands, or similar ones.

Unfortunately for me, all those are well outside my budget. I’ve seen slightly more affordable models by Spiewak, Engineered Garments, Orvis, and Pike Brothers, but they’re still pretty pricey. Going vintage here won’t yield any more savings, as collectors have been hunting for originals on eBay for years. For a good vintage piece, you can expect to pay anywhere from $300 to a whooping $1,500.

So for now, no deck jacket for me. Perhaps for the better, since I don’t think you can look like a sailor with a size 36 chest. 

(Pictures above from Secret Forts, Superfuture member Five, Christophe Loiron, and Good Wear Leather)

The U.S. Supreme Court, in a case regarding compensation of steelworkers for time spent donning protective, er, clothing, endeavors to define clothing, unsuccessfully.

JUSTICE ALITO: Why is it that the jacket and the pants in that picture are not clothes? MR. SCHNAPPER: In our view—well, let me—part of it—first of all, they are designed for a protective function, to protect you from catching fire.
JUSTICE ALITO: This is one of the aspects of your argument that seems really puzzling to me. I don’t know when a human being first got the idea of putting on clothing. I think it was one of the main reasons, probably the main reason, was for protection. It’s for protection against the cold, it’s for protection against the sun. It’s for protection against—against thorns. So you want us to hold that items that are worn for purposes of protection are not clothing?

-Pete

The U.S. Supreme Court, in a case regarding compensation of steelworkers for time spent donning protective, er, clothing, endeavors to define clothing, unsuccessfully.

JUSTICE ALITO: Why is it that the jacket and the pants in that picture are not clothes?

MR. SCHNAPPER: In our view—well, let me—part of it—first of all, they are designed for a protective function, to protect you from catching fire.

JUSTICE ALITO: This is one of the aspects of your argument that seems really puzzling to me. I don’t know when a human being first got the idea of putting on clothing. I think it was one of the main reasons, probably the main reason, was for protection. It’s for protection against the cold, it’s for protection against the sun. It’s for protection against—against thorns. So you want us to hold that items that are worn for purposes of protection are not clothing?

-Pete

An indelible clothing image from my childhood: Ben Davis. Union Made. Plenty Tough.
They’re not union made anymore, sadly - they had to drop that from the logo. Still the uniform of working guys in the Bay and cholo dads in plaid shirts with the top button buttoned.

An indelible clothing image from my childhood: Ben Davis. Union Made. Plenty Tough.

They’re not union made anymore, sadly - they had to drop that from the logo. Still the uniform of working guys in the Bay and cholo dads in plaid shirts with the top button buttoned.

We Got It For Free: Vintage Menswear

I spent my after-dinner hours last night flipping through a copy of Vintage Menswear, which was delivered to me courtesy of Laurence King Publishing. This large-format, full-color book highlights some hundred-and-fifty pieces owned by Douglas Gunn and Roy Luckett. Together, the two have been buying vintage men’s clothing for about thirty-five years, and their collection now occupies a kind of half-museum, half-retail space in London called The Vintage Showroom.

The book’s 304-pages are divided into three sections: Sports & Leisure, Military, and Workwear. Each section shows fifty or so odd garments, almost all from the early- to mid-20th century. Some are particularly interesting. Take, for example, what seems to be a boldly striped boating blazer in the Sports & Leisure section. On closer inspection, instead of two crossed oars embroidered at the chest pocket (as is common on boating blazers), we see a pair of boxing gloves. It turns out this is a “university boxing blazer,” and was worn at a time when boxing was considered as much of an upper-class sport as a working-class one. “Pugilism as a noble activity for gentlemen,” the book’s author writes. An undergraduate student recognized as a local hero for his sporting accomplishments would be allowed to wear this lively blazer around campus. Much more impressive than the campus-store bought sweatshirts and sweatpants that college athletes (some Olympians) wear today.

Another interesting story comes from the book’s Military chapter, which shows a seemingly ordinary pair of black boots. These were designed by Christopher “Clutty” Clayton-Hutton, a technical advisor to the British War Office during World War II. During his service, he designed “escape and evade” pieces for British airmen, including bicycle pumps that concealed torches, buttons that concealed compasses, and silk handkerchiefs that would secretly double as maps if you knew how to look at them. For these particular boots, Clayton-Hutton constructed the “top section” so that it could be easily cut away with a sharp blade. With the sheepskin-lined “shaft” gone, these hefty boots were transformed into plain oxford cap-toes. This allowed British airmen shot down over enemy territories to pass unnoticed among the civilian population. Very clever, I thought.

There are many other wonderful stories like these, but admittedly, much of the book also only superficially describes the clothes shown. Descriptions of game pockets, Ventile fabrics, and various fastening devices might not present anything new to people already familiar with clothing design. At times, I wished there was more written about the social histories behind the clothes shown. Still, even for such sections, I found it fun to just look at the pictures. I’m not romantic enough to say that these things, with their patinas and patches, “tell a story,” but they certainly inspire story making. I enjoyed flipping through, thinking about the sporting, fighting, and working men who wore these garments, and imaging the kind of heroic lives they led (entirely made up in my head, of course). 

Vintage Menswear has a listed price of $50, but goes for a more appealing $31.50 on Amazon. At that price, I think this can be a nice addition to a personal library, particularly for people who appreciate workwear, vintage clothing, and men’s clothing design.

Laurence King Publishing has a nice video promoting the book, which you can view here.