As we prepare to kick back for the long Labor Day weekend, designated to honor the folks who bend their backs to build our homes, highways and skyscrapers and keep our cars, trains and sewers running, it seems appropriate to note that America's workers have become a fashion force.
Designers are playing with work wear. Blue-collar clothes, those durable, affordable and utilitarian staples of the rugged laborer, have been rebuilt for pretenders.
What do you want to be when you become chic? You can be a fireman, farmer, mechanic, truck driver, engineer, ambulance driver, lumberjack, plumber, construction worker.
At the New York fall collections, notable this season for a return to glamour, there were enough models working hard-hat looks to keep fashion from getting too soft.
Telephone lineman quilted vest gowns at Christian Francis Roth. Striped railroader denim at CK Calvin Klein. Ralph Lauren himself taking his bows in worked-over T-shirt and jeans. The laced-up work boot hit the runways, too, in industrial-strength high-heeled versions.
Carolina Herrera, who dresses refined ladies, stopped short of blue-collar designs, but she did show a quilted evening wrap not unlike the furniture pads those nice, strong moving men use to protect the baby grand in transit.
Historically, menswear has been a continuing influence on women's styles, changing only in respect to the kind of guy fashion chooses to emulate at the moment. In the '80s that meant dressing in corporate power pinstripes or hard-body biker shorts. In the '90s, suit sharks and gym lizards in Lycra are out of fashion.
Today's model man is Lucky Vanous, the hunk whose abs ripple by virtue of sweaty, honest work and Diet Coke. Women imagine he's the kind of guy who will quietly change their flat tire instead of shouting for help on the car phone. And that's the appeal, the chair-bound and sedentary romanticizing the rugged toilers.
The blue-collar trend cycle started about five years ago when young people grew tired of glaring designer logos and decided to get real. They turned to Dickies, Woolrich, Carhartt and Caterpillar, companies with a tradition of outfitting plumbers, pipe-fitters, farmers, line workers and night watchmen without much fuss. It was the new anti-fashion stance of youth -- dressing like the Maytag repairman and the Orkin man. Young men started shopping the discount marts and mom-and-pop shops in working-class neighborhoods.
Work wear was made. Dickies became boss on city streets with over-size overalls and stiff deep denim work jeans worn sizes too large. The Carhartt brown canvas utility jacket with contrast collar became the coat with cachet on college campuses. Today there are knock-offs and copy cats.
"You can look at work wear as it was worn in hip-hop or grunge fashion categories, they had their moment," says Dee Shoup, spokeswoman for Dickies, the work wear industry leader. "Fashion trends are fleeting. In my opinion, real work clothes will eventually become a wardrobe staple. It happened with jeans and I expect it to happen with overalls."
With the high-fashion attention work wear is getting, that doesn't seem much of a stretch. The Carhartt coat has been draped on models in Harper's Bazaar. Dickies has made it into the editorial pages of GQ and Esquire.
"The irony is that the woman who routinely shops Nieman Marcus may now pop into K mart for a Dickies jacket to go with her DKNY separates," says Ms. Shoup, "or fashionable men may mix overalls with Armani."
Then there is the in-between. Retailers who target the junior market say work looks are moving fast. "Overalls with leather straps are very popular, as are utility coats with contrast collar," says Paula Smith, merchandising rep for Contempo Casuals, "and heavy-duty denim vests are also big."
At H&H Outdoors, clothing buyer Ken Rosenblatt says he sells work gear across gender -- thermal underwear and tool bags.
There are also surprises for the fashion-forward who are willing to put in overtime in the thrift shops. Digging through the dust and jumble of a local second-hand store one day, a young woman uncovered a treasure -- a $1 chino mechanics shirt from the '50s that would have done Mr. Goodwrench proud. She worked and ripped and picked away the last three letters of the name embroidered over the pocket -- Clarence. Her name was Clare. A girl has to work at fashion.
ON THE COVER
Styling by Suzin Boddiford
Modeled by Ally Schweiger/Nova Models
Shot on location at Baltimore Tire and Rubber Co.
Jacket, $120; rayon overalls, $48; shirt, $19; thermal shirt, $18; plaid shirt, $127; boots, $127. All available at Nordstrom.