Workwear – Factory Floor to Fashion Statement

Last week in Glasgow, Make Works presented their second public event series in Scotland at the Glasgow School of Art with a series of talks by designers, manufacturers and researchers around the theme of ‘workwear’. Our denim contributor Bex Robinson gives the lowdown on the event. 

In one of the largest industrial cities in the UK, online factory finder Make works in partnership with A Feral Studio quite aptly held a series of 20 minute talks by designers, manufacturers and researchers around the theme ‘workwear.’ Hosted in the iconic Glasgow School of Art these talks covered a range of aspects surrounding the theme of workwear, looking at it from a wide variety of perspectives.

The talks started with an introduction from the hosts and why they felt that such events were crucial in bringing creative professionals together and linking up designers and manufacturers across Scotland. One of the hosts Make Works, founded by Fi Scott is an online creative database and platform where specialists can connect and celebrate Scottish art, design and manufacturing. Their mission is to visit and map every factory in Scotland. Their aim is “to open up, rebrand and promote Scottish design, craftsmanship and manufacturing internationally, increasing business opportunities and collaborations.”

The first guest speaker of the event was Sadie Hough, a graduate of the RCA and Victoria + Albert Museum in 2013 where she completed an MA in history of design. Her talk emphasised the history of workwear within the UK, the significance of the Overall Manufacturing Association and the evolution of workwear on the factory floor through the 60’s and 70’s. She expressed how work clothing was seen as a way of framing an occupation and went on to explain how the focus of workwear shifted in the 60’s when people started wearing fashionable (inappropriate) clothing to work (eg flares, pencil skirts) and how the clothing started to become a safety hazard in the work place. The cheap imports that flooded the market in the early 60’s meant that British workwear manufacturers had to take a different approach to their working uniforms. They had to combine durability and function with leisure and design that made workwear stylish for the first time.

Sadie highlighted how factory workers took an ad-hoc approach to clothing protection by using paper, plastic and other disposable materials as a way of keeping their clothing nice and fresh – leading to the birth of rental workwear. She explained that workwear is a “form of problem solving. Negotiation of many factors. Of fashion and tradition, domestic and industrial. When is an article not clothing but a tool?” She also focused on the experiences of working women or “women on the line.” This was supported by the powerful imagery of women working in factories and factory lines by photographer Nick Hedges . She also highlighted how women need work clothing for the domestic environment too and how they need hardwearing and durable materials to withstand hard working conditions. This is where the apron became an iconic and essential workwear item.

Second guest speaker of the event was Eldina Begic. Eldina grew up in the former communist Yugoslavia, studied at the Royal College of Art and is now working as an artist and designer based in London. The Comradettes is the name of her art and clothing project that is inspired by socialist working culture. She creates workwear specifically designed for women, shying away from the traditional elements of womens workwear being simply a scaled down version of clothing designed for men. Her clothing rejects the fashion industries appropriation of workwear as a form of luxury. She sees workwear as a means towards a sense of solidarity and community. Eldina shapes wearable products and tools for the working woman with focus on durability, versatility and quality, she also experiments with elements of casual wear.

In her talk, Eldina spoke about how she is influenced by her upbringing in the former communist Yugoslavia, experiencing no social differences and the ideology of collectivism. Her learning of value and worth and how in Yugoslavia you could trade a can of oil for a car- things did not have the same monetary value as they do in the UK. Her slides showed imagery of children in uniforms and dancers wearing matching clothing doing a collective mass performances as a way of illustrating the social differences of the communist mindset and ideology. The Comradettes aims to encourage people to take pride in utility clothing and questioning our aspirations and value systems. She is not into fashion as a concept, she believes “the fashion industry it lacks criticism and I do not work by fashion industry patterns and calendars”. When she presents her artworks she shows the clothing in a series of installations. Using found objects as a backdrop and appropriate working tools as accessories. In her photo shoots she does’nt edit or retouch any of the images as she wants to return to the social realism of the setting and does not want it to pretend to be something it is not.

The final speakers of the evening were our lovely pals Kelly Dawson and Scott Ogden of Dawson Denim (check out WGSN’s exclusive film with them here). The pair pulled on their 15 years of experience in the denim industry and unrivalled love for vintage and workwear clothing to bring a talk about “the brief history of denim”. They began with an introduction to woad – the first plant used to dye denim, then went onto evolution of of the loom (from hand to shuttle and the industrial revolution) through to denims journey from its birth in the French town of Nimes to the Italian Navy sailors of Genoese who were first to wear denim pants “bleu de Genes” then finally to the USA where Jacob W David invented the copper rivet. They also spoke about denims more modern appropriation in the 20th century, from selvedge through to mass production, and the milestones that have given the fabric its iconic status and cultural importance.

An important point made during the talk was how Kelly and Scott felt that there is definite “sea of change” in the British denim industry with a resurgence of brands in the UK creating hand made, artisanal products with a focus on quality. When asked about if “Made in Britain” is going to be such a big movement as the “Made in America denim goods” movement Kelly explained “In a way it is easier for them to source domestic quality fabrics as they have the famous Cone denim Mills. They have the luxury of having domestically produced quality denim fabric. This is one obstacle for British denim brands I think, we are forced to source fabric internationally making it harder.”

The talks were also joined by the In/Visible bookshop, a bookshop with no fixed address created by Keir McDowall. Their aim is to attend events and do ‘pop up’ appearances where they are dedicated to providing well curated and selected books, magazines and objects that are thought provoking to the environment. They brought along an array of books and magazines on the subjects of Japanese workwear, vintage denim and workwear extremely fitting for the talks.

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