Hipsters vs tradies: why Hi-Vis workwear is having a moment
A new class?
Last week on the way to work I saw a haute-couture vision coming out of Wynyard station; one of those older, grey-bearded hipster, Yohji Yamamoto models walked out into the light in a white boiler suit with silver reflective foiling. I thought that my Sydney Spring 2015 had been radically ruptured by an image of New York Spring 2016. I rubbed my eyes and realised I was looking at a RTA harbour bridge nightworker in DNC's latest Hi-Vis nightwear overalls. He nonchalantly walked away with a ciggie in hand, showing me the big silver cross on his obverse.
It brought quickly to mind the futuristic workwear of early 20th century Russian Constructivism. Obviously in their utopian vision of society we were all workers, and in the end fashion would all be workwear. DNC's overalls almost replicated the boldness and geometric design of the constructivists. If one looks at Varvara Stepanova's athleticwear, one is struck by the similarities. In the Bauhaus too, still a driving force of much 21st century design, Johannes Itten, the painting master, shaved his head in a monkish gesture and insisted on dressing in pared-down boilersuits.
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In both cases, the socialist vision of the future (after the revolution) was totally summed up in terms of fashion by the form follows function of a crisp pair of white overalls. They were clothes to build the new world in. No doubt that the legacy of this approach is what we still see in fits and bursts in high fashion, if a little declassed by the fact that the worker's revolution might not come after all.
But in our more diverse and segmented society, workwear is workwear, on the whole. I didn't think much of it until last month's controversy of the Village Inn at Paddington banning fluorescent work clothes. The ban effectively discriminated against blue collar workers and suggested that the post-renovation pub was changing its clientele. Karl Stefanovic wore Hi-Vis on the Today show in protest against the ban, and to show his love of 'tradies.' He finished his tirade with the signoff "get lost you hipsters."
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In a society where class is very seldom discussed, this was a rare breach. There is no doubt that this battle over high visibility wear was class motivated. Equally, whether it is Karl Stefanovic or the Prime Minister during an election year, it is good press to show your solidarity with the "working families" of Australia by wearing Hi-Vis in whatever setting you can get away with. In a world where police officers and emergency workers also wear Hi-Vis clothing, Hi-Vis has come to stand for the best and good in society. The Hi-Vis worker shows a good work ethic where things are being made and done (rather than the arcane work of a white collar number pusher).
The only thing that Stefanovic got wrong was that many hipsters now wear Hi-Vis workwear to art school and nightclubs. It is a way to rebel against middle class normality by siding with the worker. When they wear Hi-Vis, it is the ultimate statement of anti-fashion because in the ultimate paradox there is nothing more invisible (to fashion) than Hi Visibility wear. There is a form of fashion phenomena called normcore, where you wear jeans and a T-shirt to highlight your lack of interest in fashion and a society of overconsumption. The wearing of Hi-Vis by a hipster is a form of hyper-normcore. Indeed another subculture that often uses Hi-Vis wear critically is the graffiti writer. By dressing in the look of the official worker, it is amazing how long a graffiti writer will be left unmolested. It is a small point, but the Village Inn actually were potentially turning away hipsters and ensuring that all they would get was the middlebrow.
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Unsurprisingly, the recent New York Fashion Week was awash with jumpsuits, playsuits, overalls, dungarees, and hipster aprons. And in Milan, Jeremy Scott even curtailed the Hi-Vis look into couture for Moschino. By co-opting the costume of blue collar workers, the fashionista can make an ultimate statement of their social power. Even if they are wearing 'workwear', with the style guru's requisite beauty and grace, not even the Village Inn could mistake them for a worker.
Of course this drawing by high fashion on workplace garments for inspiration is nothing new. Since Coco Chanel stole the Breton fisherman's striped three-quarter length T-shirt, fashion has needed the look of sturdiness and functionality, of clothes tested in difficult environments to prop up the more effete centre. The main reason though, is for the tongue and cheek appropriation of the everyday to the lofty world of fashion. It is like the British aristocratic tradition of giving a new suit to the gardener to wear-in before you wear it yourself. You never want high fashion to look too 'fashion-y.' No wonder with all this too-ing and fro-ing, I mistook the RTA worker for a Yamamoto model.
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