Our uneasy heritage

With our love of heritage brands and classic workwear, we’re trying—and often failing—to reconnect with a more productive past.

I bought my first pair of Red Wing work boots in 11th grade. A punk rock friend pointed out that my Doc Martens were poorly made, and that I ought to check out these boots that were actually made an hour outside the Twin Cities in Minnesota, where we lived. Doc Martens were more fashionable then, but Red Wings were functional and authentic. Today, it’s precisely that function that’s fashionable.

The heritage trend, to which part of our April issue is dedicated, actually encompasses many other trends, from Americana to made in America, workwear to vintage. What they all have in common is a look backward, at a time when more apparel was made by human hands, when each job had a uniform, and career men wore suits with pride. Both the menswear business and its customers are nostalgic for this vaguely defined past, and it’s no wonder: manufacturing was mostly domestic, quality was high, suit business was brisk and the scene teemed with retailers large and small.

What’s odd about much of our obsessive re-creation of old designs and resurrection of moribund brands is our disconnectedness from what they represented. Nowhere was this more apparent to me than in the rise a few years back of the premium denim trend. Here we had a functional piece of American workwear, blue jeans, being elevated like a $25 Kobe beef hamburger to dizzying heights. And to pile irony on top of irony, more models were being artificially aged and weathered to make it look like the wearer actually worked in them. Never mind the fact that anyone who could afford such jeans had never worked with his hands.

I personally experienced this disconnect in my early twenties when I worked at a service station. I’d wear my Union 76 uniform to the bar after a day of changing oil and pumping gas, and I’d occasionally get sarcastic comments from guys who assumed I’d bought a vintage jacket at a thrift store. “Hi, Harry,” they’d sneer, reading my embroidered nametag, never considering that might be my name, or that these might be my work clothes. Because even in the ’90s, work clothes weren’t really for work anymore.

So it’s no wonder that as we veer uncomfortably further away from our manufacturing roots, we get nostalgic for the trappings and products of manual labor. It’s a sort of anti-fashion: we’re drawn to apparel that was designed with a purpose in mind, rather than whimsy.

I’m cynical about the heritage trend, even as I sit at my desk wearing a pair of Red Wings (I’m still a fan, 20 years later). It seems to me that we’re all craving a sense of order and purpose and tradition. In America, we tend to dismiss our traditions as soon as they’re inconvenient, only to scramble to reclaim them when it’s too late. So many contemporary retailers crow about their classic and built-to-last assortments. I once asked a retailer how he expected to stay in business selling such timeless and durable goods; I don’t think he knew. But the answer is simple: we’ve become collectors and colonizers of our own past. New York’s men’s specialty stores will sell us everything from logging boots to handcrafted axes. We will keep acquiring the tools and uniforms that remind us that our hands aren’t dirty, and feel a little bit sad that they’re not.

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  1. avatarMichael Bernstein says:


  2. Putting aside the trend driven aspects I think the nostalgic and US Made angle that Harry hits on are the big drivers for a lot of the heritage brand resurgence. Many of us have been hooked on Levi’s, Red Wing, Woolrich and Filson for decades and not just for their utilitarian aspects or cool factor but because they were the brands are forefathers swore by. If you grew up hunting or fishing it was what was given to you and in a lot of cases the first ever article of clothing your father handed to you. In MN where I grew up I remember getting those first Red-Wings and my father teaching me how to properly “season” them. I really embraced them and saw those boots as a right of passage just like my Firearms Safety Certificate.

    I am fascinated when something that was intended for the fields or work site becomes an urban look. Who hasn’t stopped to marvel at one of these bearded urban woodsman characters in the city who is head-to-toe logger? The Timberland craze is another example of this. While that look may seem out of place with a skyscraper back drop many of these US based heritage brands are still made with a soul, on our soil and built to last. Things you can’t discredit but more importantly, aspects we took for granted not all that long ago.

    As many of us step into our 40’s reconnecting with our youth is one of life’s natural progressions and even if it’s for a fleeting second whenever I lace up my Redwings or throw on my old Pendleton shirt I can see my father in the duck blind and a smile instantly comes across my face.

    • avatarHarry Sheff says:

      Thank you for your thoughtful comment, Chris. It’s great to hear from a fellow Minnesotan! And you’re right: I learned about these brands from my dad, too. He wore Red Wings before me, and I’m now wearing one of his Pendleton shirts from the 70s. (And it isn’t limited to workwear — I wear his old Robert Talbott ties, too.)

      I just hope that we can pass down these strong connections to meaningful brands and equipment to our own children. Not just the stuff, but the importance of domestic manufacturing, high quality and purpose-built goods.

      • Thank you for this wonderful post and mention of Robert Talbott. We at Robert Talbott are working diligently to maintain our authenticity and honor our American made products. We continue to work to bring more of our product back from overseas to our factory in Monterey, CA. It is incredible to see the resurgence of some of our original patterns of neckwear from the 50’s and 60’s come back into style. I cannot tell you how many men I talk to in their 30’s and 40’s that mention their fathers used to wear Robert Talbott ties and they are now starting to don the same tie their father once wore. Whether it is the vintage aspect, the true authentic nature of the American made product, or a combination of both, we are thrilled to see this trend and will continue to work to produce ties and clothing that our children will one day be proud to call their own and will smile knowing it was once their father’s.

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