Book Review: Workwear: Work Fashion Seduction

At first glance, fashion and workwear seem diametrically opposed. Fashion values novelty and newness, ornamentation and form. Workwear can’t embrace these values, designed as it is for comfort, protection, and to make work easier and, occasionally, possible. “The fashionable garment, ephemeral and melancholic, dies each season. The working one is made to last, “Olivier Saillard writes in his introductory essay in Workwear: Work Fashion Seduction. But as the book quickly reveals, the relationship between utilitarian clothing and high fashion is a fruitful one.

Workwear has existed for as long as we’ve had women in the fields and men descending into mines, but the industrial revolution and the division of labour changed our notions of appropriate gear. As factories and power plants got more dangerous, inventors and designers had to come up with ways to protect employees. High-tech fabrics allowed them to enter hostile environments and handle materials that would’ve meant certain death in the past. Boots, masks, and gloves changed the human silhouette in almost alien ways.

But despite the obvious differences, the distance from the boiler room to the runway isn’t as far as you think. The book is structured as a series of photographs of work clothing. jumpsuits, overalls, protective masks, and fireproof boots, contrasted with runway shots and magazine spreads loosely or directly inspired by them. Saillard’s essay mentions Russian photographer Alexander Rodchenko, who designed a pair of overalls with pockets for his pencils, rulers, pipe, and other personal objects. He wasn’t the only one. Other artists from the first half of the century (the modernity-worshipping Futurists being just one example) were inspired by the mechanical aesthetic of the factories and looked to workwear for inspiration.

And fashion followed suit. Take the zipper as an example: invented in the U.S. in the 1890′s, the interlocking metal teeth and precision of the zipper were a modern counterpoint to the much more organic feel of the button. Functional materials such as rubber, plastics, or heatproof fabrics also found (and find) their way from the factory floor to the designer’s studio. In fact, reading Workwear becomes a bit of a guessing game. Is that a spread from the pages of L’Umo Vogue or from the pages of an industrial wear catalogue? When printed on thick paper stock and bound in an art book like this one, banal rubber gloves and boots take on a certain artfulness. When you look at a welder’s mask, its function is obvious, but shot and framed on a plain white background, the clean line and sleek surface of the mask are accentuated. The editors of the book exaggerate the effect even more by showing even more by showing us pages from a 2007 issue of Vogue Italia where models don the protective gear as an accessory. Many of these high-fashion photos also raise an interesting tension. Workwear, at its core, wipes out the semblance of personality. When a factory worker puts on coveralls and protective gear, he or she becomes a part of an industrial process, a human cog in the machine, replaceable and interchangeable.

Fashion might see workwear as an inspiration and an easy connection to a mode of dress that shrugs off trends, but what it really does is lend workwear individuality. Fashion, with its emphasis on personal style and uniqueness, turns utilitarian uniformity on its head. The end result, with its conflicting ideas of mechanical anonymity and self-expression, is worth looking twice.

Oliviero Toscani and Olivier Saillard – Marsilio Mode, 2009
book review by Ron Nurwisah

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