This is the first of ‘Almost Trashed’: a series of shorter, five-minute pieces based on ideas that aren’t enough to spin out into 1500-word humdingers but we still want to broadcast to the world.
I want to start this series off by talking about the fashion brand Carhartt and certain underlying stuff about production and consumption. I’m not one hundred percent sure about the rest of the UK/planet, but here in England the brand is pretty ubiquitous. Walk into any vaguely hip establishment (you know the kind: bespoke bare-brick walls professionally crumbled, with a limited but gourmet-burger-intensive menu and some sort of complex about serving anything without the word ‘craft’ in front of it), and chances are the sea of hats you’ll wade through to get to the bar will mostly be Carhartt.
Carhartt originated in Detroit, starting out as a durable and no-nonsense workwear brand for the massive amounts of people working the car factories. The story goes that in the 80s a bulky Carhartt coat with lots of pockets became popular amongst practical weather-and-stash-conscious crack dealers, and from this the coats became a bit of a style hit in Europe. On the wave of its new hipness, the brand split into two branches: Carhartt – the plain, unsexy workwear brand that trundles on to this day – and ‘Carhartt: Work In Progress’, it’s reinvented streetwear counterpart.
It’s this second branch of the company that I’m interested in, as it’s the branch of Carhartt that’s making a killing here in the UK. Here is the point where I should probably admit that Yes, okay, I do own some Carhartt clothes. But I think the idea of it still being workwear is a complete farce: no-one in their right mind would pay thirty quid for a t-shirt to wear on the production line, or – wait for it – 340 quid for a somewhat flimsy-looking coat to trudge home in on a wintry post-industrious night. It’s ‘streetwear’: It’s branding position is basically that of Stussy’s more sensible and robust tutting older brother.
So just why the gratuitous dining-out-upon of their workwear heritage, especially in light of the fact that the price of these clothes make them kind of a bad idea to work in? Why have a supposed workwear brand targeted at the young middle class? Prepare for some pretty loose and varied theorizin’, in order of mundane to far-out.
1) These are just well-made, well-designed clothes, and I’m thinking way too hard about this. This is somewhere between possible and probable.
2) Carhartt’s marketing team is good, really good. Carhartt, a major producer, is using the image of production as a way to sell consumer products, with the implication that to do so is to take a stance against consumerism. Let it be known that I don’t think this is unduly exploitative, or at least no more exploitative than any other great marketing strategy. The genius of their branding is that they’re selling a completely simulated and idealised view of production as a product to consume. It’s branding appears to say ‘Don’t be a consumer, produce!’, when in fact what it’s really saying is ‘We all consume, buy why not consume in a way that makes you appear to be aligned with producers?’ A talented marketing team is very likely a big factor to their success, but probably only insofar as they engage with certain stuff to be discussed below.
3) The trend is just a simple continuation of the trend for all things industrial, hence why the sea of Carhartt hats, t-shirts, and coats is almost always most readily seen wherever there’s unaccidental bare-brick walls and an abundance of hessian. This leads us to
3a) Fashion trends are basically just arbitrary and things sort of just unfold without revealing anything deep-seated about their followers other than a desire to fit in with their chosen social environment. This is not that possible, plus its uninteresting, so I’m gonna go ahead and discount this one.
3b) Yes, this is a part of the trend for all things industrial, which is itself perhaps something to do with the whole idea of selling the image of production as a form of consumption that we discussed above. Probable, for reasons to be discussed a little bit in theories 4 & 5.
4) For young image-conscious men, wearing well-designed clothes that look a bit like workwear is a kind of recoil from the noughties metrosexuality that this same demographic is either trying to move on from or grew up horrified in the shadow of. It’s a reassertion of conventional masculinity. For women who don the beanie and bulky jackets, its a statement against being squashed into conventional feminine roles of floral daintiness and no-dirty-work, which is totally fair enough. It’s a rejection of conventional femininity, which is a really important thing to do, so long as this is carried out as more than just a fashion statement. Both of these seem pretty probable to me.
5) This one could offend, and it’s getting pretty far into wild conjectural territory that has a lot to do with Marx and maybe even Baudrillard. Theory five is that the trend for all things industrial is a deep-seated uneasiness about our post-industrial culture, where wearers of the brand – who are very often young creatives or people who live on the fringes of creative circles – have some sort of instinctual shame about how the things they produce leave no callous on the hands. Things like ‘reworks’ or ‘re-edits’ of tunes made on laptops (never, ever, just a good old-fashioned ‘remix’, not in these circles), or really really good coffee, or music videos, or marketing campaigns, or blogs for that matter. This gulf between product and elbow grease is breached by simulating the appearance of an industrial worker, a greasy-elbowed producer. Uncomfortable, but somewhere on the probable side in a lot of cases, I think.
END OF LIST
Seeing as this is just a short piece, I’m ducking out of the responsibility of expanding on the various cans of worms I’ve just opened. If you’re keen on yet more theorizin’ then fire away at me and we’ll lets take things to the so-far much-neglected comments section. Keep in mind that all above theories are just… Works In Progress.