Actual Japanese Workwear

Check out these absolutely stunning Japanese firemen coats. Known as Hanten coats, these were worn by Japanese firefighters in the 19th century. At the time, the technology to spray water at a high-enough pressure hadn’t been invented yet, so Japanese men had to fight fires by creating firebreaks downwind. Doing so, however, put them in danger of catching on fire themselves, as hot embers can travel up to a mile. So to make their coats more protective, they were continually doused with water. 

The symbols and designs you see are for several things. Some are just for decoration, of course, while some signal the fire crew that the wearer belonged to. Others are lucky symbols or refer to a heroic story, giving the wearer encouragement to be strong and courageous. 

You can see these coats in person (along with many other awesome things) at Shibui, a shop in New York City for Japanese antiques and collectibles. They’re moving at the end of September and are having a sale right now to lighten their load. Select items are discounted by up to 50%, including lots of boro fabrics, which is a kind of heavily patched and mended Japanese textile. You can see examples of boro here.

For those of us outside of NYC, Shibui has a Google+ page you can admire (they’ll take phone orders, if you’re interested). There’s also a book titled Haten and Happi, which is all about traditional Japanese work coats. 

Old Town

One of our readers saw my post on Monty Don yesterday, and wrote in to say that he suspects Don gets many of his clothes from Old Town. Having just perused their online shop, I think so too. Our reader says the folks at Old Town are “knowingly retro in a hipster way, but lovely people and very interested in clothes.” Everything is apparently made-to-order either in their shop or by outworkers in Norfolk, England. The designs look rustic, and the quality is purportedly good. If you spent as much time as I did admiring Monty Don’s style yesterday, maybe this shop will interest you. 

Pictured: a pair of high waisted corduroy trousers and a pull on shirt, which I believe are the same as what Don is wearing in the first photo above. 

(Thanks to Tom for the tip!)

How to Dress for Gardening

Monty Don, an English TV presenter and writer on horticulture (perhaps best known for presenting the BBC television series Gardener’s World) once wrote something for The Guardian on "dirty dressing." That is, how to dress when one needs to get some gardening done. Lots of rules are laid out here, including the things one must wear (high waisted trousers and leather boots) and sartorial no-nos (shorts and baseball caps … though, we disagree with his sentiments on the second). For me, as a guy who doesn’t garden, the best part is reading the opinion of a man who feels strongly about clothes. A long excerpt:

Over the past 30-odd years I have evolved certain rules about my wardrobe. Never wear jeans. They are absurd items of clothing - cold in winter, hot in summer, slow to dry once wet and chafe in places where chafing is not required. I have not possessed a pair for at least 20 years.

Never wear tight trousers. Always buy trousers at least one waist size too big, make sure that the pockets are big enough to comfortably hold penknife, hanky, string, phone, pencil, labels and perhaps a mint or two. The pocket thing is a matter of fine tuning. Too deep and you are rummaging around up to your elbow in them. But I have big hands and if they are too small you cannot find the knife/hanky/label and extract it without causing uncomfortable restrictions or having to let go of the object in order to extract your hand.

Lots of professional gardeners wear shorts all summer, but they always strike me as hopelessly impractical. If I am honest I also feel that, having been bought up in an age when small boys were forced to wear shorts, long trousers are a privilege that I still cling to and shorts are for sports.

Belts are needed to attach your secateurs’ holster to, to support your back when digging and to stop the size-too-large trousers ending up around your ankles when reaching up to prune the apples. Regard your belt as a piece of gardening kit and buy a really good quality, thick leather belt made by a British leather worker. It should mean business. Braces are much more comfy - especially with high-rise trousers - and I wear them most of the time.

If you are not familiar with their joys, highrise trousers are fantastically comfortable and keep your lower back warm. My children still squirm with embarrassment every time they see me in them (which is most days) but that is probably some kind of seal of approval. If you are uncertain about the required cut, check out photographs of agricultural labourers in summer (ie jacketless) circa 1880-1914. The only two fabrics I use for trousers are corduroy and cotton drill. I have two weights of the latter in identical cuts, very heavy and light. Twice as many heavy as light. You have to accept that gardening trousers get wet, muddy and stained, so need washing a lot. If they are ‘good’ they will be much loved and probably expensive, so must last the wear and tear outdoors and in the washing machine. Anyway, good trousers only start to feel right after a year or so.

Wear thick socks summer and winter, if possible of pure cotton or wool. Gardening in light shoes is a joy, but a rare one. I have a pair of handmade leather boots that I use for all digging and heavy work. These cost as much as a holiday for two in the Bahamas but were worth every penny and much preferable to a holiday. I can dig all day in them without any discomfort and they are wholly waterproof. Get a good pair of wear one as a vest in winter. Shirts are the thing. I like pull-on ones that button down to the chest. Get them big with lots of room under the armpit and long enough to cover your bum. Check that the cuffs are wide enough to easily roll up above the elbow. Cotton drill is best. A chest pocket is useful, too. It goes without saying that no gardening shirt (and no other item of clothing of mine) ever sees an iron.

A tweed jacket is really good and I have a number of old ripped ones I often wear at home. They are thornproof, warm, showerproof and have pockets. They won’t let me wear them on telly because they say it looks too patrician. I have yet to work out if that is patronising or right, but I meekly demur. I like waistcoats either waterproof or leather. The latter is by far the best thing for keeping a cold wind at bay and for protecting you from thorns. A waterproof waistcoat with pockets is ideal if it is merely damp. If it is too wet for that to be sufficient protection it is probably too wet to garden sensibly outside. Fleeces are ubiquitous and inevitable, but I wear them surprisingly little nowadays. They are best as an underlayer when it is wet. On the whole I prefer a good jersey. Cashmere is the ideal inner layer when it is really cold and you can pick them up amazingly cheaply nowadays. A thicker roll-neck jersey makes a good outer layer.

I don’t like hats very much. I have no desire to shelter from the British sun and it is rarely cold enough to need headgear. But I especially loathe baseball caps. Not only are they useless but a symbol of a kind of Disneyfied decadence. A wide-brimmed hat is much more effective and keeps the sun and rain off better. Tweed flat caps are good, but distinctly agricultural. I have a Soviet military hat that I bought off a soldier in Berlin. It is great for pruning the more viciously thorned roses. 

You can read the whole thing here.

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.