Freedom in a Boiler Suit

Isabella Martin 9 April 2019
A boiler suit from a painting and decorating shop. Image Credit: Isabella Martin

The rise of utility and workwear is redefining the way we see clothes with an emphasis on functionality over fashion, with liberating consequences for the modern wearer.

Utility and workwear is a trend with its feet firmly planted on the ground, rooted in wartime struggles and the hardships of industrial factories. These new roles demanded tougher clothing and uniforms were made of hardy textiles such as corduroy, cotton drill or sturdy moleskin. Multi-purpose and loose fitting, the garments could be worn as a protective layer over other clothes, as well as incorporating patch pockets for storing small tools and parts.

Image Credit: Wikimedia Commons

An intrinsic component to industrial labour, the French ‘Breton work jacket’ was a uniform item purpose produced for French labourers in the late 1800s. The unique quality of its fabric became integral to its identity: a specially woven material for maximum strength, usually sturdy cotton drill or moleskin. These jackets were practically indestructible and any holes were simply patched up with pieces of cotton. Brands such as Mont Saint Michel started their regular production in 1913 and have been going strong ever since. You can still find original Mont Saint Michel jackets in vintage shops; a testament to their durability and longevity.

It is from this historical context of industry and military use that this ungendered, neutral style of clothing was born. These clothes were more than mere garments but tools for the user: they had to serve a practical function and fulfil a specific purpose. Fashion stylist and art director Liz Thody notes that during the war when fabric was scarce and women had to take on roles previously occupied by men, ‘women had to wear more masculine clothes out of practicality, appropriate to their new circumstances at work. Utility clothing required durability and needed to suit a multitude of shapes and sizes and in many cases work across men’s and women’s wear.’

Anna-Rose Gordon McChesney in a boiler suit found in a vintage shop in Paris

The ascent of designers Margaret Howell and Katherine Hamnett in the 80s marked the launch of workwear into the fashion arena. Modelling their pieces on vintage finds, the designers reworked these pieces into updated versions which still bore the trademarks of clothes manufactured for their original industrial or military purpose, whilst using natural fabrics such as cotton drill and jersey. The normalisation of the utilitarian aesthetic provided significant grounding for the consequent cross-hatching of gender boundaries. In the 80s, fashionable girls took on a tomboy-ish look with short haircuts and deliberately masculine style clothes. Although this never felt like a strong gender statement, as Thody observes, it is by no coincidence that the current resurrection of utility style clothing comes at the same time as a great wave of gender fluidity.

For the modern-day wearer, the neutrality of utility clothing denotes a new liberation from any pre-disposed gender associations related to clothes. The maker is also freed from any ‘gendered’ stylistic norms, as the garment is constructed with function in mind. This newfound approach to producing clothing comes alongside a recent wave of gender fluidity and rejection of societal gender norms. The utilitarian aesthetic itself becomes the bridge by which the wearer can breach these boundaries.

Boiler suit bought in a painting and decorating shop

Thody even links the longevity of the utilitarian aesthetic to the very sustainability of its materials, ‘the utility style doesn’t date.’ There is no doubt that the importance of materials remains integral for designers seeking to produce high quality, long lasting clothing. Katherine Hamnett greatly embraced the use of natural fabrics and became a huge campaigner for sustainably used cotton in the 90s, becoming one of the early pioneers of the eco-fashion movement. Howell is an example of a modern-day brand with a highly recognisable utilitarian aesthetic which favours quality and simplicity over superfluous design. The ‘expert of pulling the threads of British tradition, quality and skill together,’ she produces practical clothes made for living in the ‘real world’.

Equally, Old Town, British designer and maker, prioritises purpose over design as ‘the aim is for simplicity and restraint with minimal styling, letting the construction influence the look. References are made to costume of the past but the intention is for contemporary relevance.’

Whilst Old Town, Hamnett and Howell tend towards a more nostalgic take on the utility aesthetic, a new wave of workwear style is exploding on the catwalks from a more modern day perspective. Designers are exploring subtle riffs on traditional workwear themes: moving on from a paired-down utilitarian style to the use of high-vis and fluoro motifs alongside oversized jackets and accessories.

The AW19 catwalk is testament to brands toying with neon and fluorescent motifs, and oversizing, as seen at Dior, Prada and Balenciaga. Off-White, the Italian streetwear brand based in Milan, describes itself as ‘defining the grey area between black and white,’ again playing into the neutrality of the workwear aesthetic. This young brand marks the fresh interpretation of workwear, blending a strong military aesthetic with neon and fluoro- pieces.

In Thody’s words, ‘I can’t think of a time in the last 30 years when there hasn’t been an element of utility in fashion.’ Margaret Howell and Katherine Hamnett are still strong contenders on the fashion scene, making a solid case for the utilitarian aesthetic. Even Paul Smith bought a factory in the early 90’s which exclusively manufactured workwear and produced it under the R Newbold label. Labels Carharrt and Dickies have been a ‘go-to’ for utility style menswear for many years and have only recently gone mainstream.

So why is this trend, rooted in history, such a pathbreaker today?

The rise of utility reflects fashion’s concern for authenticity and a shift away from any pre-established clothing and gender norms: by dressing with a view to purpose over style you are defining your clothes, not vice versa. The rise of androgyny not only signifies a new movement in fashion, but a liberation for the individual from societal pressures.

Don’t let your clothes define you. Make them work for you.