THE MAN STRIDES through the mall looking resourceful, confident and strong. He wears a faded blue work shirt, dun-colored work pants and sturdy high-top leather workboots. He's rugged and fit, and his relaxed clothes suit his easy manner.
He could be an electrician arriving to wire the floodlights or a doctor on his afternoon off. Who can tell these days?
Top menswear designers have borrowed colors and styles common to the American working man and made the look a fashion statement. It's a natural progression. The cowboy, lumberjack, high-iron worker and oil rigger have always been romantic figures in American lore. Now the clothes they wear have inspired city slickers to pursue those clean and classic looks.
"It's all about getting back to basics in menswear and you can't get more basic or functional than clothes that are worn for blue-collar jobs," says Chip Tolbert, fashion director of the Men's Fashion Association.
Ralph Lauren, never one to pass on classics, may have been the first designer to tie his wagon to the workwear trend. That tanned, silver-haired rascal pasted his booted, denim-clad image in millions of magazines and the rich ranch-hand look was born.
That look worked so well, designers went hunting for other blue-collar jobs. Now we have cashmere lumberjack shirts, butter suede work jeans and field jackets cut from the finest leather.
But much of the credit for turning scruff clothes into style belongs to high school and college students. Jim DeBeese, who now works as a cabinet installer for LCM & Associates, had an eye for style and a bargain when he was a painting student at the Maryland Institute College of Art.
"Beat up jeans, flannel shirts and army surplus jackets were a cheap way to dress, almost a college uniform. As a student I shopped the Goodwill and Veterans thrift stores. My favorites were old and comfortable mechanics shirts, some with the name of the guy on the pocket. Never found one with my own name but I still have a great one that says 'Louie.'
"I also went through the racks for old Levi's jackets. You could find them for a couple of bucks and they were better because they were broken in. Now that I'm working and can afford to shop I buy new jeans and jackets and break them in myself because clothes take on the shape and character of the person wearing them.
"My favorite jackets are from Carhartt, the ones with the corduroy collar and warm plaid lining. They're stiff when new, but get better as the outside fades and the lining gets softer."
Mark Valade, spokesman for Carhartt, the Dearborn, Mich., company that has been manufacturing durable job-specific clothes for more than 100 years, says their line is designed to stand up to tough on-the-job requirements.
"We're not after the fashion trade, but a look our customers could wear on a weekend or after work," Valade says. "We have a 7:30 to 3:30 market. After a guy bangs nails all day he wants to wear something that works with his style but is still comfortable.
"We hear that in New York and Boston our brown duck jacket is being sought as a fashion item but we haven't pinpointed that market."
However, Carhartt will be introducing a limited holiday and spring line that is slightly more fashion-forward, including a range-inspired duster. The coat is long with a snap-back vent, and has a -- that would look fine riding through a spaghetti western.
The working fashion look has been building since the '70s. Ken Rosenblatt, general manager of H&H Camping and Surplus on Eutaw Street saw it start with painter's pants.
"The kids were really buying them," Rosenblatt says. "Then dozens of manufacturers started producing them. Now it's painter's overalls with the bib. They wear them with one strap hanging down.
"Our fall and winter stock isn't moving yet, but with the cold, plaid shirt jackets will start to move. Good sellers are brown duck chore coats with plaid lining and corduroy collar. They retail between $35 and $40."
Companies that for many years have understood work clothes and their function also understand the attraction these styles have for folks with softer jobs.
Joe Caccamo, spokesman for Wrangler Rugged Wear products, which sponsored the top BASS Amateurs (Wrangler Anglers) in the BASS Masters Classic fishing tournament in Baltimore last week, explained the broad appeal of work clothes. "They're inexpensive, they're made to hold up under rough conditions and lots of laundering and they look good. And they feel even better and comfortable with age."
Blue denim, which this season is playing second fiddle to brown duck, is making a comeback with the young set. Larry Switzer, vice-president of the Sunny's Surplus stores, says trendy young men are going back to the basic five-pocket jean from Levi. "The pleated, baggy look is fading fast. And the western bandanna, which was used as a handkerchief or neckerchief has a new fashion role. Now the fellows are wrapping and tying them over their heads -- the field-hand look."
Sandra Rose, fourth generation owner of the Big and Tall Men's shop on South Broadway, has seen fashions come and go. The family store has catered to large-size and working men for 109 years.
"At a recent BAT [Big And Tall] buyers show, one of the big, really big models was wearing a tank top and bib overall shorts with one strap hanging down. It was something."