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Workwear on the catwalk? ASU professor calls the trend 'trickle up' fashion

If you pay attention to fashion — or to what a whole lot of people around you are wearing — these days, you’ll probably notice workwear everywhere. Think Carhartt jackets, raw denim, Dickies, jumpsuits. It’s a trend that’s taking over the fashion world — but, it didn’t start in fashion houses and trickle down to the masses.

This is what Dennita Sewell calls a great example of "trickle up" fashion.

Sewell is the director of the Arizona State University FIDM Fashion Program and a professor there. She spoke to The Show more about workwear – and what it says about our current cultural and economic state.

Full interview

DENNITA SEWELL: The trend is taking on a number of names. Workwear, utility style are just a couple of the most popular ones, but we're seeing jumpsuits, we're seeing cargo pockets, we're seeing patch pockets, we're seeing all these different variations of carpenter pants, khaki jumpsuits, vests, different types of items that really started in the work world.

Yeah, like blue collar workers.

SEWELL: Blue collar work world, yes.

A lot of Carhartt, a lot of Dickies, things like that. OK. OK. So is this new? Like talk about where some of these items kind of originally came from these have roots that go pretty far back in American history.

SEWELL: They, they do, they are icon products. And right now they're being reimagined in our times by fashion designers and brands who are seeing a cultural trend for an interest in very practical clothing, practical clothing that offers functionality, comfort, style. And a lot of these pieces actually transcend seasons as well. And I think it's that blend of comfort and style that has workwear as a leader in our post-COVID world.

So during COVID, I think of, you know, athleisure becoming the thing and we were all wearing leggings and sweatpants and all that kind of stuff all the time. So you're saying this sort of is the next level of that.

SEWELL: Yeah, it's comfortable but it's, it's a little bit more geared for outdoor life being outside of the house. And I also think there's a just a casual nature to dressing right now. You know, people were trying to predict what would happen after COVID ended, you know, was it gonna be very dress up? But I think all in all we're still transformed as a society. We're not all going into the office every day, we have a blended life. And I think that this kind of casual clothing transcends that.

Yeah. So if we're talking about the sort of fashion history of this workwear trend, we also have to talk about like the 1990s and hip hop, right? Like a lot of this was big then. And we're also seeing a lot of '90s resurgence in fashion across the board right now.

SEWELL: Right. Absolutely. Hip hop style was very much about adapting the Timberlands, the different items of clothing from this workwear world that became cool because of their association with that cultural movement and, and music.

Yeah. Yeah. OK. There's also something that's so American about this, like, uniquely American about this. What do you think this represents in terms of like American ideals?

SEWELL: Well, if you look at one of the earliest items of workwear to trickle up, it's jeans. And that comes from the American miner. And that idea of the miner and hard work, and its complete transformation as a garment of a heritage workwear into a fashion expression has probably happened the most in that. And it's really an American ideal, and America is where ready to wear really found its sea legs where it blossomed.

You know, Paris is known for the couture. America really developed the ready to wear system and a lot of these workwear, classics were born out of functionality of work, and they are rising up in, in culture as these style icons when they're worn by style leaders, there's a a romantic image of working life, a romantic association with authenticity, with credibility. And I think that culturally, that is very much relevant to our times.

So there's a cultural aspect to this as well and I'm not sure where this will land, but like, there's something interesting about high fashion sort of taking on the look and the brands of blue collar workers. Like, what does that say about how we're playing with class or how we even see class today?

SEWELL: So the earliest theory of fashion was trickle down. Where social class emulation would come from the upper classes to the middle classes to the lower classes. And then there's, you know, in our fast fashion world, we're looking at at trickle across where a style appears instantaneously across multiple price points.

But the key one that we're looking at with this trend is trickle up, which begins in the lower class and it's copied up to the upper classes and the textiles are often changed the volume, the proportions. But this is a very interesting social phenomenon where the upper classes are taking on the ideals that are associated with these iconic items, their utility, their heritage, their style.

OK. So final question for you then, because there are sort of cycles to these kinds of trends. Do you think you can predict what's going to come next, if workwear is what we're doing now and athleisure is what led us here?

SEWELL: I think we're going to continue to see volume and comfort. I think people have become very nomadic and what technology is offering us today, this mobility to work to be, to communicate from multiple locations is very appealing to people. And even though we're able to go back to work, now people still want a hybrid life. And I think that comfort and style functionality, performance fabrics will only become more and more important as sustainability and comfort continue to be priorities for the consumer.

At the same time, last week was couture week in Paris. And one of the hit shows was John Galliano for Maison Margiela. And he featured corsets on many of the models. And these sort of swings from extreme comfort to restriction and style are in our times actually existing. At the same time, you see a vast public wearing comfortable clothes still, and you see celebrities performing in really exaggerated performance style wear costumes.

And there's a lot of independence right now, a lot of personal identity and a lot more leeway to be what you want to be I think than there ever has been to adopt the style that you want to have. And the big thing about fashion is that there's always something to learn and this is why it's a big multibillion dollar business because the honest truth, even the top fashion designers don't actually know the future.

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Lauren Gilger, host of KJZZ's The Show, is an award-winning journalist whose work has impacted communities large and small, exposing injustices and giving a voice to the voiceless and marginalized.