You Sure You Don’t Want No Scrubs?
Workwear as regular clothing is now a thing.
Riding the bus the other day, I watched as a twentysomething woman got on at a stop in a well-heeled area of the city. I liked what she was wearing: a blue jumpsuit with a jacket over it. The overall effect was crisp and minimal; all clean lines and crease-free cotton. She sat down a few rows in front of me and I noticed something on the back of her jacket. It was a hospital logo. My momentary style crush was wearing medical scrubs.
Workwear, it turns out, is having a moment in the fashion world. Everyday uniforms that people wear for their jobs — be it a delivery service shirt or a pair of vintage checkered chef’s pants — are now being waltzed down the runway on models, sold in local malls, and listed on fast-fashion online shops. You can now buy panda-printed nursing scrubs on Forever 21’s website and high-visibility construction worker-esque jackets on Pretty Little Thing.
The trend has been around for a few seasons now, heralded early on by Allure which featured a pair of $300 Stardust coveralls by Maui label Sugarhigh Lovestoned in a 2016 issue, that have sold-out multiple times and are still, two years later, considered a street-style staple. It was also around this time that high-end fashion brand Vetements sparked a sensation by selling a $245 spoof replica of a DHL Express courier’s T-shirt.
For Calvin Klein’s Fall 2018 show, Raf Simons sent models out in orange fireman’s jackets while Temperley London traded her regular boho feminine aesthetic for a line of olive green military flight suits. If you go to an Urban Outfitters, you’ll likely find pants and overalls from Dickies, a company that has been producing performance workwear since 1922. And if you shop at Topshop or Asos any time soon, their copious boilersuit selection might entice you to let your inner garage mechanic out.
Not that workwear as fashion is anything new. Marie Antoinette often dressed as a milkmaid or shepherdess despite being queen. In the ‘90s, rappers popularized durable workwear brands like Carhartt and Timberlands. And don’t forget that denim — the cornerstone of modern casual wardrobes — was originally the fabric of manual workers’ overalls.
Of course, there are plenty of people who have to wear workwear for its intended purposes. Almost one-in-seven American workers wear medical scrubs, and the U.S. market is worth an estimated $10 billion. Given that medical professionals usually have to buy their own scrubs, it’s no surprise that they’re demanding more comfortable fabrics and on-trend details. FIGS is among the brands springing up to address this. Founded in 2013 after co-founder and co-CEO Heather Hasson had coffee with a nurse practitioner friend and was horrified by the scratchy, boxy scrubs she had to wear, FIGS now offers a contemporary range, including skinny and cargo style pants as well as joggers.
It’s the food industry, though, that has really lucked out. Never mind Michelle Williams’ Louis Vuitton cover look; the most covetable item in the September 2018 issue of Vanity Fair is a black jumpsuit modeled by New York chef Missy Robbins. In fact it’s so great that Robbins said she now prefers wearing the “chic Tilit jumpsuit” even more than her traditional chef whites.
A workwear brand for the hospitality industry that was launched by a husband-and-wife team in 2012, Tilit now clothes staff at the likes of Soho House and N.Y.C. restaurant Contra. The jumpsuit is a new addition to their range, a twill coverall with genius features including Sharpie slots, reinforced knees, and under-arm vents. Vogue magazine gave it the seal of approval when it launched, predicting that, “just as Carhartt has made its way from construction sites to street style slideshows, Tilit seems bound to go beyond the kitchen.”
What, then, is driving the current revival? For Erin Han, the owner of a vintage store in Los Angeles called East West that sells upcycled scrubs for $45, sustainability is a big factor. She’s drawn to workwear because of its durability; the fabrics, she says, are built to last — something you can’t often say about newly-made garments, which are often made quickly and cheaply.
“My business — as a sustainably-minded business — is sometimes based on opportunity,” explained Han, who used to wear scrubs as a teenager in the ‘90s. “I’m always looking for vintage workwear for our store. It’s classic, simple, functional, and built to last.”
But Han’s scrubs aren’t just hand-me-downs. They’re more unique than that. Sourced from a large unworn, vintage supply that she’d purchased, each piece in Han’s collection was altered and changed to make it even more unique. A visit to the garment dyer rendered the pants (originally a light cream color) different hues and made the fabrics less see-through. Afterwards, Han took the pieces to a tailor to have them cropped to an on-trend length. The end result is cool and contemporary, and just what you want to wear in a heatwave.
Workwear is also unisex. Both men and women can wear the same styles, which puts professional uniforms right at the center of the gender-neutral fashion movement. Well known for her inspirational, gender-blurring style, Janelle Monae recently told the New York Times that she travels in a pair of “conductor overalls” by Portland-based brand Wildfang, a “female-founded, women-run” store that has been raiding menswear wardrobes since it opened its doors in 2013.
Workwear also seems to share the same quest for authenticity as other more rebellious subsets of fashion, like streetwear. One artist who has explored this in-depth is Marian Schoettle. For more than a decade, Schoettle has been creating what she calls “post-industrial folkwear” through her label Mau Conceptual Clothing. She uses Tyvek® — a flexible, durable material commonly found in envelopes and building insulation — to create industrial-chic clothing based on English topper overcoats, bakers’ smocks and Chinese worker jackets among other things.
The paper-light garments look delicate but are actually extremely hard-wearing. They’re wind- and water-resistant, and, as Schoettle’s son recently discovered, an effective quick fix if the roof of your truck starts leaking and you have some duct tape handy.
But as more and more get turned on to the workwear-as-fashion trend, you have to wonder when — or if — the people who wear these uniforms for work will start to take offense. Because technically those who are partaking in this trend are appropriating someone else’s uniform. And is that OK? Are you allowed to wear scrubs if you’re not a nurse? A United States Postal Service employee’s hat if you’re not a mail carrier? It depends who you ask.
Schoettle acknowledges the irony in the appropriation of manual labor uniforms by people not of that class. Doing so, she told OK Whatever, “can be almost like a masquerade.” But it’s also not a bad thing.
She sees parallels with the 1960s, when flannel shirts and denim — typical laborers’ garb — were the norm for social activists expressing solidarity. Back then, people were simply “search[ing] for authenticity,” and she’s convinced that’s what people are still trying to do today. Experimenting with different garb can be both exhilarating and empowering, and Schoettle has seen the effects it can have on a person. “Their whole body-stance can change,” she said.
So, might dressing like others just be the normal progression of things? Maybe.
Workwear has become increasingly like another kind of uniform, crossing over from the building site and the mechanic’s garage into photo studios and design workshops. Overalls are pretty much the default uniform of a whole creative class now, from stylists to designers. And it’s no surprise that what they choose to wear is now trickling down to the rest of us, just as it always has done.