Rosie the Riveter and “Mad Men” lead character Don Draper would be stunned if they walked into today’s workplace, whether factory or office.
In today’s world, ad man Draper might sport khakis and a sport shirt in the office if he’s not meeting clients, while Rosie might wear a pair of low-rise jeans with a pink top. Fifty to 60 years ago, blue-collar men and women wore the same clothes — which is to say, men’s clothes. It wasn’t until the past few years that makers of workwear finally gave women their own silhouettes and feminine colors.
Comfort is one of the biggest changes for both genders. Workwear manufacturers now offer apparel made with softer fabrics and technical features to make workers’ lives easier, including wrinkle resistance, stain release and moisture wicking.
The two key elements to change have been fit and fabric, said Kathy RisCassi, head of creative and design for Williamson-Dickie Mfg. Co.
“In the past, workwear was very rigid because of function,” she said, “but new fabrics have changed that.”
While the blue-collar workplace became a little more fashionable — to the point where men and women can go from a job site to a casual event or restaurant — the office worker went casual. Everyone dressed up a half-century or more ago, when icons included Cary Grant, Gregory Peck, Katharine Hepburn and Rosalind Russell. Men wore ties and women wore stockings. They dressed up to go shopping and to sporting events. “Even the blue-collar folks sometimes wore coats and ties to work,” said Joseph Abboud, chief creative officer for HMX Group.
Not any longer, although there is some movement to dress up to make a good impression in today’s competitive job market. Now, anything goes, from a dress or suit to jeans and khakis.
Bud Konheim, chief executive officer of Nicole Miller, said the biggest changes have come in the past 10 years. If a person traveled from 1950 to 2000, she would notice some fashion changes, but she would still feel comfortable and not out of style, he said. That’s a dramatic contrast from the 50 years between 1900 and 1950. Now, said Konheim, “Women are wearing sneakers and men aren’t wearing ties. It’s casual and mixed up. You can’t identify any part of society by what a person wears. When I entered this business, women couldn’t go to work without a girdle, stockings, gloves and a hat. There are no real rules now on how a woman goes to work.”
Tim Gunn, chief creative officer of Liz Claiborne Inc., blames the casual Friday movement for the decline in dressing up in the workplace. “That Friday effect eventually morphed its way into Monday through Friday, a phenomenon that is not unlike my maxim about the monkey house at the zoo — that is, when you first enter the monkey house, you exclaim, ‘This place stinks!’ But after an hour, it doesn’t smell anymore.”
Before the revolutionary casualization of the office, men were inspired by movie icons, including Gary Cooper, Sean Connery (as James Bond) and Steve McQueen (in “The Thomas Crown Affair”).
“The Fifties was a time of conformism in clothing, and that lasted until the sexual revolution in the Sixties,” Abboud said. “Men went to baseball games in coats and ties.”
When the Sixties and Seventies rolled around, men began wearing double knits and velvet suits.
“That whole double-knit era was fun, but it wasn’t very attractive,” he said. “The Sixties and Seventies were kind of fun and wild and tight to the body, but it was also the advent of the designer in men’s wear.”
The fashion influence came from French designers such as Yves Saint Laurent. Then Ralph Lauren came along. “Ralph really put American fashion on the map,” said Abboud. That’s also about the time that men began to seek out brand and designer names, rather than manufacturers’ names when they bought suits. “The Seventies was the beginning of designers in men’s wear,” Abboud said.
Career fashion was all about the power suit and tie in the Eighties. Shoulders were big for both men’s and women’s apparel.
“Shoulders got so big in the Eighties that I joked that men had to turn sideways to get through doorways,” Abboud said. “You had shows like ‘Dynasty’ with women wearing big shoulders. And then it swung back to soft shoulders.”
With the Internet explosion in the Nineties and Silicon Valley’s influence on the workplace, careerwear became more casual, starting with casual Fridays. That lead to casual summer, and then to casual everyday.
Abboud, however, sees that beginning to turn around. “Because of tougher economic times, people are dressing again for a competitive edge in the workplace, but also the younger guy wants to dress up. He wants to wear a tailored suit to feel special. It’s their sign of success.”
Much like today, celebrity and political figures inspired fashions earlier in the 20th century, said Konheim. “Celebrities moved style changes then — people like James Dean with his leather jacket and Marlon Brando wearing a T-shirt in ‘A Streetcar Named Desire.’”
However, the influence of celebrity today is different from what it was back then, said Konheim. “Everything is so fractured now, it’s hard to get anyone’s attention for any length of time. Our whole society now is about speed of information.”
Liz Claiborne’s Gunn believes every individual benefits from having a fashion icon or mentor, such as George Clooney or Angelina Jolie. “It helps when that mentor mirrors our size and shape, coloring and, roughly, age,” he said. “I’m always saying to older women, ‘Look at Helen Mirren! Look at Meryl Streep!’ And to women who aren’t a size 10 or 12, I say, ‘Look at the opera divas — they look fabulous.’”
Gunn noted that films featuring great clothes for women far outnumber those for men, basically because women have traditionally had more style options than men — who were often dressed in a suit.
“Historically, we have great fashion films like ‘The Women,’ ‘Funny Face,’ ‘Blow Up’ and, more recently, ‘The Devil Wears Prada.’ But ‘The Thomas Crown Affair,’ both the original and the more recent remake, featured just as many great looks for women as it did for men.”
Nevertheless, the office is still a casual place. Gunn said he doesn’t see people dressing up, and he attributes that to what he called “The Comfort Trap.” The casual workplace has enabled people to dress “to feel as though they were at work in their pajamas — loose fitting, oversize clothing that neither constrains nor flatters,” he said. “However, if one is inclined to dress up in a suit these days (and you get five stars from me if you do), then women should eschew the matching jacket and skirt or pants and men should be cognizant of fit. Baggy is out and fitted is in.”
The Liz Claiborne brand was launched in 1976 to fill the wardrobe needs of working women. “The Seventies,” Gunn said, “was the threshold for a meteoric rise of American women entering the workforce for the first time. Their fashion options were limited [to] men’s wear tailored suits or frilly, girly dresses.” Claiborne offered women separates that helped them transition from the office to picking up her kids at day care or an evening out.
“Liz Claiborne also presented the mix-and-match opportunities of her line in a single location on the retail floor, which was unheard of at the time,” Gunn said. “Not only did Liz Claiborne revolutionize how working women dressed, she brought a corresponding revolution to retail merchandising.”
Donna Karan, who introduced her first women’s clothing collection in 1985, also came along at a time when women’s workplace uniforms more often than not resembled men’s suits, but with bow ties. Karan said she juxtaposed the masculine look with feminine styling to give women comfort, sophistication and soft tailoring.
Anything goes in today’s workplace fashion for women, Karan said, adding that women have found their personality and what works for them.
Workwear has come a long way from 1873 when Jacob Davis, a Reno, Nev., tailor, came up with the idea of putting metal rivets at stress points on work trousers made of denim. Davis contacted Levi Strauss, owner of a wholesale dry goods business in San Francisco, and a client, to help get the project rolling.
Levi’s jeans and jackets were worn as workwear and Western wear through the first half of the 20th century, according to Lynn Downey, historian for Levi Strauss & Co.
“When youth culture adopted jeans and denim in the Fifties, things began to change.” Levi’s denim was worn as workwear and casualwear through the Seventies, but when Levi’s jeans entered international markets, they went in as fashion, she said.
Working men have worn denim or twill pants for decades. In fact, workwear didn’t change much — except for fit — from the Thirties until the 2000s.
“People were slimmer in the Thirties and Forties,” said Dickies’ RisCassi. Now, Dickies fits everyone. “We have six body fits in long pants and in shorts,” she said.
Dickies, which dates back to 1922, always had denim and added twills during World War II for the war effort. It still offers utilitarian bib overalls in its catalogue, as well as new casual looks in cargo and carpenter shorts, five-pocket jeans and thermal Henleys and crews. The fall catalogue introduces the Storm Collection, which includes fashionable jackets in waterproof, breathable and wind-resistant fabrics.
Dickies went to its archives for the Dickies 1922 Collection, currently in U.S. and European boutiques. According to Tad Uchtman, senior vice president of marketing, merchandising and licensing, Dickies re-created the Twenties pattern, found the original fabric (Swift-Galey’s Cramerton) and button makers in the U.S., and produced the collection in its Uvalde, Tex., facility.
Companies also do more consumer research than 50 years ago. “The future of our brand is dependent on what the consumer thinks,” said Uchtman. “Everything is formed by our consumer research — product development, design, merchandising — the whole go-to-market process.”
He emphasized that Dickies “stays true to its roots. The consumer wants authentic looks and brands that have a heritage.”
Nevertheless, Dickies is showing up in interesting places. Bow Wow wears it in the movie “Lottery Ticket,” as do Ben Stiller and other characters in “Little Fockers.”
Mark Valade, president and ceo of Carhartt and great-grandson of the founder, Hamilton Carhartt, said the company still sells models it had 50 years ago to older men, Carhartt’s core customer. “For them, it’s a tool. It fits their needs for endurance,” he explained, whether they’re wearing it for construction, farming, the lumber industry, or any other tough job.
Younger men expect softer apparel because they grew up with stonewashed denim, but they also demand durability. They want more colors and updated fits as well as lighter-weight fabrics that are durable, breathable and fast drying.
However, the biggest change that Valade has seen is at retail in the last three years. “Retailers want their goods at once, when they need it,” he said. “As the merchandise sells, they will reorder. It’s important for us to partner with them.”
VF Corp. has a slew of workwear brands that not only serve rugged outdoor workers, but also chefs, maids, hotel workers, restaurants and automobile manufacturers. Apparel at Red Kap, founded in 1923, hasn’t changed except by adding various finishes and performance treatments, such as flame resistance. It introduced executive wear (i.e. hotel workers) and women’s apparel in 1975.
Casual looks, such as industrial polos and pleated khakis, came along in the mid-Eighties, as well as wrinkle-resistant cotton, said Janet Rives, vice president of merchandising for VF Imagewear. About three years ago, VF became more consumer-driven when it began grassroots research by visiting job sites and talking to workers about their needs.
The Imagewear division’s workwear brands are more influenced by fashion than ever, Rives added, primarily because of the service market. “More women are coming into the market,” she explained. For example, the division went to JA Apparel about four years ago for an exclusive license for men’s and women’s uniforms for hospitality and services occupations.
Riggs Workwear is a fairly new brand, introduced by VF in 2003. “Riggs has evolved as the market has changed,” said Kaye Wyrick, senior merchandise manager for Wrangler Outdoor Brands. “The research done before launching the brand helped us build in what working men said they wanted and needed.”
Riggs worked with Cotton Inc. and 3M for technical innovations, including DuraShield (partnered with Cotton Inc.). The workwear has other helpful features, including a leather patch on the right pockets of shirts. Tops are more influenced by fashion trends, but they’re also made for function.
This category hardly existed 10 years ago, but five years ago, Carhartt launched a women’s line after it learned about one-third of its consumers were female. “We found that a lot of women were buying it for lifestyle, as well as work,” said Valade. “We added softer fabrics and different finishes. They weren’t looking for durability as much as they were the [style].”
When Uchtman joined Dickies three years ago, the company didn’t have a true design team. “I brought in a powerful design director [RisCassi]. With her help and expertise, we reinvigorated and relaunched our women’s line.” Named 774 Original Work Pant, it’s based on Dickies’ flagship 874 Original Work Pant men’s line, but has feminine colors and low-rise fits.
“Everybody wants to look good, especially women,” said RisCassi, adding that some of the Dickies line is true workwear and some is work-inspired. “We added some looks that are eye candy.”
But Dickies also took a retro turn for inspiration for its fall offering. “We were looking at Rosie the Riveter and paying homage to the past,” she said.
Dickies’ work in women’s wear has paid off. Uchtman said women’s now represents a significant portion of Dickies’ volume, and is the fastest-growing segment.
The Social Media Era
Another major change over the past few years is the advent of social media. While maintaining their traditional print and TV advertising, companies also have set up Facebook pages, Twitter accounts and blogs to reach the consumer.
Dickies recently introduced “874 Versus,” an integrated marketing campaign comprising a series of Web films that can be viewed at 874.dickies.com and on YouTube. The films are part of Dickies’ comprehensive integrated marketing campaign that includes traditional, digital and social media channels, as well as experiential and public relations initiatives.
It’s a sign of the times. “If you look back over the past 50 years of advertising, one trend that’s emerged is using consumer research to drive your advertising, and then build that message and make sure it’s the right message,” said Uchtman. “I don’t think enough attention is paid to what the consumer thinks, especially in apparel. Social media is the buzz right now. We’re building a buzz about our brand online, things like espn.com.”
Levi’s launched a “Levi’s Guy” Facebook presence last year, and is in the midst of a contest to find the “Levi’s Girl,” the company’s first social media coordinator that will serve as the female voice of the Levi’s brand to its community of Facebook followers. Levi’s also launched The Levi’s Workshop, an interactive series of multifaceted venues.
Carhartt’s Valade said companies have to do this today. If a person sees his friends on his social network are wearing Carhartt, he’ll want to wear it, too. “If anything new comes along, you try it to see if it works,” he said.
Rosie and Don would agree with that.