Blue-collar threads weaving their way into fashion

October 08, 1992|By Carol Teegardin | Carol Teegardin,Knight-Ridder Newspapers

Who'd have ever thought Ralph Kramden and Ed Norton would turn out to be fashion trendsetters?

Those working-class folks of "The Honeymooners" -- along with their modern counterparts on shows such as "Roseanne" and "Roc," and their real-life counterparts working on assembly lines, at gas stations and bus routes everywhere -- are providing the inspiration for Blue Collar Chic, coming soon to a coffee house, night club, school or street near you.

"It looks cool. You look like a service station attendant if you hook it up right," says Daniel Tatarian, owner of Showtime Clothing in Detroit, which sells both old and new versions of work clothes. "The idea is everything has to be big and oversized. I'm into the look now. I'm wearing a size 42 Levi, which is really huge, but it looks great belted."

Getting the proper gear is easy enough, even if you don't drive a bus or pump gas.

Stores such as Sears, Montgomery Ward and Kmart stock the real thing, at decidedly democratic prices. Look for plain zip-front jackets, painter's pants, utilitarian work boots, khaki work pants, non-designer jeans, long-sleeved pocket T-shirts, coveralls, bib overalls and short- or long-sleeve work shirts.

For an even more authentic aura, check out flea markets, resale shops and thrift stores for vintage versions. If you get lucky, you might even find, say, a bowling shirt with "Ralph" stitched over one pocket.

There are, of course, designer knock-offs. In the "trickle-up" theory of fashion, street trends get usurped by big-name designers, who cut similar styles in luxurious fabrics and charge a fortune for them.

But most fans prefer the cheap stuff, because it's . . . well, cheap, for starters. But also more authentic, which sends an egalitarian, back-to-basics, '90s kind of message: One is not poking fun at blue collar style, but rather identifying with it.

"It's so anti-fashion it's become fashionable," laughs Bridget Deaton, manager of Le Chateau boutique in Birmingham, Mich.

Le Chateau carries baggy Anti-Fit work jeans -- the store's own label -- for $39.95. The store also offers $19.99 imitations of Dr. Martens, those chunky black shoes once a staple of London's punk scene, that resemble work boots.

Ms. Tatarian says the trend originated in the hip-hop community among rap musicians and their followers. He says the style is driven by the music scene and is popular because it's so affordable.

At Joe's Army/Navy Surplus in Royal Oak, Mich., manager Michelle Avakian says work clothes are hard to keep in stock. Favorites include the Carhartt jacket, a boxy, front-zip work coat featuring a plain corduroy collar for $49. An optional snap-on hood costs an additional $12.99. Military boots, starting at $55, are also fast sellers, along with work boots ($65).

At Meijer, the Dickies zip-front duck jacket, which sells for $31.99, and chinos ($16.99) are extremely popular.

A Dickies spokesman says even President George Bush wears chinos; he buys them from L.L. Bean. Who says he's not a man of the people?

"The blue collar look is where fashion meets function," explains Jim Kindley, vice president of marketing for Fort-Worth-based Dickies, the top gun in the work-clothes market for 70 years. "Our overalls, work shirts, duck jackets, traditional khaki work pants and shirts, denim utility jeans and long-sleeved T-shirts are among the hottest sellers now.

Mr. Kindley calls blue collar chic a reaction against preppie and designer duds, trends which recall too clearly the now unfashionable conspicuous consumption of the '80s.

And even if fashion's fickle finger of fate soon points in another direction, he isn't worried. Dickies reported $400 million in retail sales last year, and the company says that remains stable whether hip-hoppers jump on the blue collar bandwagon or not.

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