Working and Wearing
by: Calvin Anthony-DuScheid
Photos: Giancarlo Lobo
What clothing is beautiful?
This is the central question that fashion aims to answer. Designers, brands, models and photographers all work in finding this answer. Collectively, they all decide what is in ‘vogue’—who celebrities wear on the red carpet, which shoes everyone wants and even how skinny your jeans are. The fashion industry thus claims a great power over people and society. It can influence us to flock to stores in droves to buy the latest item, alter body images, forming “ideal” body types, even change how we divide clothing among genders to fit norms. The most important aspect of fashion’s power; however, is its capacity to question the idea of “vogue” itself. It can do this by taking clothing that is considered ugly and revealing its hidden beauty. Fashion has the power to explore the beauty in all clothing and, in many ways, to question its own purpose: why some is considered ‘beautiful and some considered ‘ugly’.
To enter legendary Boston streetwear destination Bodega, you have to pass through a real convenient store, laying a layer of irony on the iconic retailer. Its lack of signage and non-descript appearance adds to the everyday atmosphere its name would like to instill. There is a major element of exclusivity—only insiders know the store exists. When you get inside and begin to examine the high-end garments lining the shelves, you might notice something unexpected. Sure they deal in classically expensive, high quality and exclusive brands such as Stone Island, and Undercover. However, you’ll also see a denim jacket by Carhartt and a pair of Timberland boots: high end collaborations with heritage brands known for making durable, functional clothing designed for working. You’ll find a camouflage jacket by Kanye West and hiking boots by Alyx Studios: designer pieces that mimic traditional styles of work wear. These styles represent a growing exploration of functional clothing in the world of high fashion. While it might seem out of style or “ugly,” clothing inspired by traditional work clothes shows fashion’s emerging interest in challenging entrenched public beliefs about how we decide what is beautiful and what is ugly. Furthermore, workwear highlights the actual purpose for which many garments were created—to be used for a certain job or activity, without any frills or adornments. This functionality is claimed by fashion to be “beautiful,” while opulence and luxury are ignored. It is the job of the fashion industry to make claims about what is “beautiful” and, by embracing workwear, they have shifted focus to garments and people which otherwise might go unappreciated.
What work is valuable?
Fashion’s questioning of traditional beauty uncovers a larger idea: the clothes we tend to consider “ugly” usually belong to people who are not valued as highly as others in society. In the case of work-wear, fashion highlights a population that is often forgotten, yet is vital in producing the American lifestyle. Why are cargo pants, hoodies and work boots ugly while a satin gold dress is beautiful? Furthermore, and more importantly, why do we value the women in dresses so much more than the women in work clothes? High fashion’s appropriation of work clothing has lead the industry away from gaudy luxury and sleek silhouettes in a direction that works to include garments rooted in their functional history and reality, and further, the actual people who wear them.
But you don’t need high fashion Carhartt collaborations or Yeezy Season camo to understand the beauty of work clothes. Walking around Boston University everyday, you can see work outfits that have clearly been mimicked by high fashion—crewneck sweatshirts and Dickies pants; overalls and high-visibility vests; chefs trousers and black leather sneakers. These clothes matter and so do the people who wear them, but it’s easy to take their work for granted—I know I do. But when I really consider how their labor impacts my life in many significant ways, I appreciate the people wearing these clothes. Those who rake leaves off of Bay State or reload my vending machines. Who serve me food at the dining hall and clean my bathroom. In college, we are constantly taught to glorify the “professional” careers that we pursue, but the importance of service jobs can be ignored. However, the people donning functional clothing might actually be the most important in making our world function.
The world of fashion holds power, and the consequences of this power are open to interpretation. Many critics cry foul as designers appropriate cultures that are not their own—which goes just as well for work-inspired clothing. However, as with all aspects of art and culture, we can choose to understand workwear however we please. Let us follow high fashion’s appropriation of work not to further glorification of exclusivity and name brands, but to a greater appreciation of the clothes and people within which it can reveal incredible beauty and significance.