Postmodern, post-vintage, Post O’alls: American workwear

The predominant features of the American workwear trend (which includes sturdy leather boots, denim jeans, plaid shirts, denim and canvas jackets…), comprise boxy silhouettes, robust materials and subtle detailing that, in their appearance and construction, hearken to a bygone era of American manual labour. Inspired, as Ryan from Simple Threads claims, “by the yesteryear – a time when garments were made with best materials, attention to detail, and a sense of pride that is now almost extinct,” the style evokes images of quiet strength and gentle, calloused hands, its apparel bearing names like the “miner shirt”, the “railroader jacket,” “logger” chinos. Like the classic tropes they recall, these articles of clothing are painstakingly handmade, almost exclusively in the US, from all-American materials. The consequent expense of each piece to the customer, however, is substantial: a shirt can rarely be found for less than $150; boots will probably cost in the region of $300. Given that the median salary for a general labourer in the US is now a paltry $28k, this style is, ironically, one which the 21st century American worker probably cannot afford. On the surface, then, this appears to be yet another example of pomo appropriation and pastiche (without parody), fashioning the affluent contemporary self nostalgically, sometimes even literally, out of the remnants of a past age (many companies use vintage fabrics left over from previous decades).

Such a contention seems to be upheld when we consider that the most prominent designers of this new-old American style are, in fact, Japanese: Post Overalls‘ (O’alls) Takeshi Ohfuchi and Engineered GarmentsDaiki Suzuki. In a circulation of thought between the US and Japan reminiscent of the Ford-Kurosawa-Sturges nexus (7 Samurai, its own features determined by Ford’s westerns, in its turn inspires Sturges’ classic American western The Magnificent 7), Messrs Takeshi and Daiki viewed, from across the Pacific, the waning of traditional American workwear design in America, expertly trained in its nuances and repackaged it for contemporary American consumers.

I would contend, nonetheless, that it might be possible to consider this trend as something more than mo’ pomo and as subtly distinct from a generalised drift towards fashionable nostalgia (Americana!) and increasingly popular neo-luddite renunciations of technology and the techniques of mass production. Evolving out of these contemporary currents yet improvising upon them, this American workwear trend seems to offer something altogether more interesting than any of them; something which is suggested by the phenomenon of raw selvedge denim.

Selvedge fabric’s production on old style shuttle looms, rather than modern projectile looms (which are less labour-intensive and give a wider width of cloth) obviously satisfies certain nostalgic and anti-modern tendencies. However, it is the material’s durability or rather, its duration, its relation to time, which really fascinates aficionados. For them, raw selvedge denim offers the opportunity to craft a truly singular and personal piece of clothing out of the inchoate stuff of stiff, over-dyed material. As it is worn, folds and fading consistent with the contours and movements unique to the owner’s body begin to form; each day the pleats get a little deeper, the cloth a little lighter (you don’t really wash selvedge jeans unless you really have to). With time, then, a pair of raw selvedge jeans effectively comes to bear the interpenetrating traces of temporality and the individual. This inscription of the slow passing of time upon one’s person offers a welcome antidote to the superfluidity and impermanence of contemporary culture, we might suggest; even more than a mere vogue for the vintage (which never more than appropriates and applies the signifiers of a previous cultural moment), it inscribes one’s ongoing participation in a tradition which becomes very much contemporary and very much personal.

Of course, the cynic may see in this just another instance of contemporary prosumption, or the transfer of material labour costs from producer to consumer under the guise of personalisation (in this case, the prevalent practice of pre-washing and pre-distressing jeans). It might, on the other hand, offer a few square meters of the materially and authentically individual in an evil world of abstraction and ephemera.

All images from Simple Threads, with thanks.


~ by schoolboyerrors on April 24, 2012.

4 Responses to “Postmodern, post-vintage, Post O’alls: American workwear”

  1. hey hey Mr D , I seem to remember a tweed wearing / short back and sides ‘old fogies’ movement in the early 80s with a similar ethos. Check these acquaintances originally from Eastbourne

    • Wotcha Jim! Very interesting stuff here, fabulous cuts and materials… Thanks for the link!

  2. It’s funny, because, as an American laborer, this is basically what I wear. And as you pointed out, nobody I work with can afford to wear $300 jeans inside the damn boiler. $30 Wrangler work shirts are a luxury. You splurge on a good Carhartt jacket beacause they’ll more or less last forever. Most people don’t even wear name brand boots because you destroy them so quickly.

    That said, it’s an appealing ethos, calling back to a by-gone era of quality workmanship and “honest” living. And there’s a pair of Red Wing Heritage “Iron Ranger” boots that I would buy in a heartbeat if I didn’t go through shoes like George W. Bush went through press secretaries.

    • Yeah, it’s definitely an appealing sentiment and I greatly appreciate the predicament that the producers are in – no doubt they want to sell to labourers but the cost of materials and US-based labour preclude any drop in price. So, there’s more going on here than the usual costume-based fashion trend (“today, I unveil preppy me”) – the producers and consumers really care about the care and craftsmanship of the clothes…

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