Last week a friend of mine forwarded a photo of an unnamed teenage London Underground worker from the mid-1950s. My friend sent it to a group of current and former workers, asking – six decades on –for the kid’s name. The picture is a kind of time capsule from an early post-war London now long gone. The boy wears a style of uniform that lasted for decades, a variation on military clothing with its the orange piping, silver buttons, and his union badge. The photo informally preserves an important piece of working-class heritage.
Working-class workwear, including uniforms like this, evoke interesting ideas. For those who have to wear them, they can be a really mixed blessing. They can serve as a source of pride, the signifier of a respectable, secure steady job with pensions and prospects. This was certainly true of the Victorian and Edwardian uniformed working class. A railway worker I once interviewed told me that on his first day at work in the late 1960s he begged, borrowed, and stole various bits of uniform so that he could walk home as an ‘adult worker’. Uniforms can also be sites of contestation and discipline. When I worked on the Underground three decades ago, managers could pull you up for relatively minor clothing infractions. Also, y plastering their lapels with union badges and other political pins, workers could display their oppositional intent.
But the uniform could be a sign of stigma, too. Often the clothes given to workers were ill fitting and made of poor quality material. I remember one workmate once telling me that if the uniform fitted, there was something wrong with you! Uniforms weren’t stylish, either. My first uniform issue in 1983 had me wearing flared trousers years after they had gone out of fashion, topped off with a rubberised rain coat designed in the 1960s — not something I wanted to be seen in by my friends
London Transport Signal Cabin ‘box boy’, Kennington South London, c1955, photo by permission of Owen Smithers. Contemporary uniformed workers may think slightly differently about their company provided clothing. Often, as in the past, it is poorly fitting and unflattering, but it is increasingly likely to feature advertising slogans promoting a brand or the latest offer. Like the billboard men of the depression era, workers today are mobile hoardings promoting their companies.
But there are other ways to think about working-class clothing, including especially now that some items of workwear have become objects of desire that the middle class want to wrap themselves in. This is most apparent when politicians go to visit the latest economic success story, be it a successful factory or a construction project. Chancellor George Osbourne(educated at Eton College and Oxford University) regularly dons a hard hat and high-vis jacket when outside Westminster in order to associate himself with ‘hard working people’. Osbourne is rarely pictured in any other form of clothing, while in interviews and speeches he extolls the virtues of the entrepreneurial ‘builders’ and the ‘makers’ in refashioning the nation’s industrial past. To be fair, Osborne did wear a uniform of sorts while at University as part of his membership of the infamous Bullingdon Club, an elite and exclusive Oxford University dining club.
Recently, a number of manufacturers have stolen clothing styles usually associated with the working class, resurrecting heritage patterns and designs of long forgotten industrial clothing. Often the cut is improved and undoubtedly the cloth is of a far higher standard than the originals, but these are unmistakably the designs that used to grace working-class bodies. One example of fashion crossover can be seen in Carhartt’s presence on either side of the Atlantic – traditional workwear in its North American heartland, cutting edge youth wear in Europe. In my local town, an expensive menswear shop has a range of industrially inspired French workwear, such as dust jackets.
So what are we to make of this trend? On one level it could be seen as a harmless tribute to the uniformed working class, perhaps reflecting a desire to be associated with the virtue of hard work. But another, less benign reading would see it as the appropriation of a vacated identity and thus akin to the gentrification of former industrial buildings. Just as with redundant factories and warehouse buildings, where a decent interval is required before they are fit for habitation by more middle-class inhabitants, the same is true for discarded industrial clothing. In both the instance of the high-vis vest and refashioned workwear, the new bearer of the clothes wants to signal that he (or she, though the trend appears more in men’s clothing) is not really working class. So when politicians such as Osbourne wear freshly minted clean tabards and hard hats atop their Savile Row suits, they signal that they are only temporarily ‘on the shop floor’. Likewise, middle-class people who wear trendy crossover industrial designs would run a mile if someone suggested that they were blue-collar workers.
Somehow working-class life and culture still has a currency, dare I say a chic, which others outside that class want to buy in to. Like the gentrified loft building it must first be sanitised and packaged in the right way. Perhaps the trend draws on nostalgia for good solid dependable jobs of the past an era when working-class identity was more mainstream and more positively portrayed in the media. Now that both that era and the respected working-class that went with it have supposedly disappeared, it’s now safe to pull on their abandoned clothing.