Re-working Workwear 

23 mrt 2023

What do a pair of jeans, overalls and a military-style jacket have in common­? Well, actually we can think of two things: they all are basics in our wardrobe and they all evolved from functional workwear.

This realization is the seed of Workwear, the new fashion exhibition at Het Nieuwe Instituut, in Rotterdam. The title of the exhibition is quite revealing, and it focuses on how workwear’s emphasis on wearability and ease of use has shaped the way we dress nowadays. The originally-purely functional workwear, conceived to protect and support the wearer while performing heavy tasks, is today a powerful symbol of the “working class” with an unavoidable presence on the street and the catwalk.

Thought to exist outside fashion conventions, designers were often involved in creating these work garments, especially when they were produced on a large scale. Later on, fashion pioneers like Elsa Schiaparelli turned workwear into luxury couture. Not only the design aspect is considered in this exhibition, also the message it conveys. From technical aid it developed into a social tool, becoming a symbol of solidarity and equality. The industrial look and its association with the working class characterize the most diverse subcultures, and uniforms break through class, gender, education and ethnicity.

In this exhibition, the visitor will be looking at the past, the present and the future. How would workwear look in the future? The answer to that question definitely requires imagination. At the request of Eldina Begic and the Nieuwe Instituut, spoken-word artist Elten Kiene and fashion designer Sam Cruden of Rotterdam label C. Cruden would be creating new pieces specifically for this section of the exhibition. Whatever the future holds for workwear, what is clear is that one feature would be sustainability. In this sense, Het Nieuwe Instituut proposes the timelessness of traditional methods and materials as an alternative to the transience of disposable workwear.

For our selection of “workwear” garments from Modemuze’s partners collections, we decided to interpret the concept from a wider perspective. When we wake up in the morning, take off our pajamas and get ready to go to work, the decision of what to wear can be based on the functionality of the garment, but also on what we need it to represent. From the functional point of view, we have selected some examples of industrial, sports and uniform clothing in the lines of Het Nieuwe Instituut’s concept.  That said, we also wanted to showcase that practical design of workwear also applies to other jobs outside the archetypal image of industrialization, which are often overlooked because of their association with the world of female domesticity or the arts. Therefore, as representative objects of this idea, we have included the complex design of a pair of ballet pointe shoes, and a sample of different women’s aprons for housework. The same applies to sportswear, even if not acting as workwear per se. For example, the cycling costume shows how functionality started taking over in the twentieth century and led to the introduction of trousers in the female wardrobe.

When we said that sometimes we need workwear to represent something, it is related to the idea of the garment helping an individual play the role their position imposes. In this category we do not look at workwear as a peak of functional design and technical aid, but as a means to convey an image. This workwear might need to establish status or rank (military, judges, academic robes, etc.), symbolic power (kings, priests, etc.) or, more literally, help the person impersonate a role (actors, singers, etc.). It may seem that we are stretching the concept too far, but think about it: Have you never dressed for work according to the image that was required of you or that you thought more fitting to your role?

Finally, we also thought relevant to reflect on how the concept of workwear is not universal (especially in the past) but varies according to where we find ourselves. That is why we have tried to portray in our small selection some garments and photographs of practical and symbolic clothing in different parts of the world, like China, Sri Lanka, Papua or Greenland.

We hope with our selection of objects from Modemuze to contribute to the interesting concept around which this exhibition revolves. To the ever-blurring boundaries of where does our personal life stops and where does our work life begin, now we add the blurring boundaries between streetwear and workwear. Don’t miss Workwear at Het Nieuwe Instituut, opening on March 26, 2023!

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