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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