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When Did Workwear Become All-Purpose Clothing?

What is workwear? That depends on who you ask and the context in which you’re asking. One thing we can say for sure, even in the midst of so many differing opinions, is the fact that workwear has become all-purpose clothing for a lot of people. When and how did that happen?

If you asked Alsco to define workwear, they would describe it as work clothing designed to perform a specific function. Alsco is a nationwide uniform and linen provider credited with introducing the concept of uniform rental back in the 1800s. Their definition of workwear is pretty standard throughout the commercial linen industry.

On the other hand, asking a fashion designer or a retail clothing outlet to define workwear produces an entirely different definition. In the fashion industry, workwear is defined as clothing you might wear if you are planning on doing a bit of physical labor. That would include jeans, flannel shirts, work boots, etc.

Much to the dismay of uniform service providers, the fashion industry’s definition of workwear seems to be the prevailing one among the general public. That may explain how workwear became all-purpose clothing.

Workwear for Every Occasion

Illustrating the now broad appeal of workwear is an article that appeared on the Outside Online website in late July (2018). The articles title says it all: How Workwear Became Popular.

Contributor Ariella Gintzler crafted a 400-word piece that boils down to the simple truth that what was originally reserved for work uniforms has evolved into everyday clothing thanks to its prevalence on fashion runways. In other words, workwear became all-purpose clothing when fashion designers made the decision to make it so.

It is amazing to learn how much of what we see on retail store shelves starts out as a concept appearing on a runway. The most outlandish fashions displayed in London and New York may never make it to retail shops, but they form the basis for the items that eventually do sell to consumers. And these days, fashion designers do not shy away from things like canvas pants, denim shirts, and designs that are heavy on utility and function.

Gintzler unknowingly makes the case in her piece that designers have now come up with workwear for every occasion. One particular brand founder quoted in her article said that “workwear is for the industrial athlete… for the person who works on a skyscraper… for the person who is landscaping or in the natural sciences or doing DIY projects at home.” That about says it all.

Workwear No Longer Just for Uniforms

The long and short of Gintzsler’s article is that workwear is no longer reserved just for company uniforms. Do not misunderstand; uniform services like Alsco still offer plenty of workwear options their customers can choose from. But apart from branding, it can sometimes be difficult to distinguish those uniforms from the clothing you might buy down at the big box department store or your favorite outdoor retailer.

This is not necessarily a bad thing. The fact that so many people are embracing workwear as all-purpose clothing makes it a lot easier for companies to introduce new uniforms to their workers. People are already used to wearing workwear outside of work, so getting them to wear it at work is no big deal. The only caveat is that uniforms actually have to be attractive.

Workwear has been transformed into all-purpose clothing thanks to the efforts of fashion designers over the last five years or so. For right or wrong, workwear is now as fashionable as it is utilitarian, maybe even more so.