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How the Gay Community Helped Popularize Workwear

Workwear’s roots may have started on railroads and construction sites, but its boom in popularity in more recent history owes much to the gay community.

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Fashion has always been a signifier. Of musical tastes, of particular style tribes, of social status, even of sexuality. Countless subcultures have actively pursued certain dress codes to align themselves with like-minded individuals. Think rare Air Jordan’s for sneakerheads, oxford cloth button-downs with soft collar rolls for prep enthusiasts, selvedge jeans for denimheads.

Whether it’s a certain color, accessory, brand or silhouette, subcultures have taken anything and everything in clever and overt ways. What you might not realize is that much of the fashion that has seeped into popular menswear today has been propagated and popularized by the gay community.

For years, because there wasn’t much else available, the queer people wore heteronormative garb, passing as straight in an unaccepting society. It’s not a new thing. But as the fight for gay rights progressed, gay people found novel ways of dressing to signal their affiliation to others in-the-know.

Though the queer community has its own complex system of cultures and subcultures, we want to focus on workwear. This rugged, functional clothing was designed for coal mines, railroad tracks and construction sites, but it became popular in the queer community before it gained mainstream appeal in the last decade.

The Village People, the chart-topping musical group which made music for the predominantly gay disco scene, was famous not only for its catchy dance music, but its cast of masculine characters. Composed of a construction worker, a leather-clad biker, a cowboy, a Native American, a GI/sailor and a police officer, the group’s characters drew upon traditionally masculine ideals. And, many clothing styles popular in menswear today draw upon these same aesthetics, whether its a military-inspired coat, a moto-jacket or heavy work boots. The lyrics to ‘Macho Man’ outline the idealized masculine dress:

“You can tell a macho, he has a funky walk
His western shirts and leather, always look so boss
Funky with his body, he’s a king
Call him Mister Eagle, dig his chains
You can best believe that, he’s a macho man
He likes to be the leader, he never dresses grand”

Though the band eschews the gay musical group label and even denies the alleged subtexts and double entendres of its lyrics, the group and its music caught on in the gay scene where songs like ‘Y.M.C.A.’ and ‘Macho Man’ became anthems long before they were mainstream hits.

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Around the same time as the disco craze (but lasting much longer), there were the so-called “Castro Clones,” a group that was first mentioned in the 1970s on the “Red Queen Broadside” posters wheatpasted around San Francisco by gay activist Arthur Evans. Donning Levi’s 501 jeans and skin-hugging t-shirts, the group looked toward iconic celebrities like Marlon Brando for their style choices, with an emphasis on showing off one’s physique. The look wasn’t loud and wouldn’t really elicit a second thought amongst most straight people. But that was part of the point.

The fight for queer inclusion, acceptance and rights is still ongoing, and many in the community feel a need to “pass” as straight in certain situations. In an article by written by Paul Flynn for The Guardian, Luke Howard of the queer DJ collective Horse Meat Disco talks about some of the thought behind dressing in typical work clothes: “Boys that grow up to become gay men have often personally experienced or at least witnessed anti-gay bullying, which perhaps then becomes either externalized — I’ll be as flamboyant as I want in my attire and to hell with you all — or internalized: I’ll be more masculine-looking than the most heterosexual men.”

And, because the ’70s style has made a comeback in recent years, the Castro Clone has become more popular. Though it never completely disappeared, the look resurfaced in major films like the Harvey Milk biopic Milk which came out in 2008, just as the resurgence of American workwear was beginning to grow. The clone style eventually evolved into another subculture of the gay community known as ‘bear’ which also places an emphasis on tight clothes, buff physiques ane rugged masculinity, but with less of a workwear focus and specific emphasis on thick beards — still a familiar sight among rugged style enthusiasts today.

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In the late 2000s, hipster culture began to take foot. The style was typified with fixed-gear bicycles, legs wrapped in skinny jeans and topped with flannel shirts. Before long, both lesbian women and gay men took the style and ran with it. That was when Frank Muytjens, former head of J.Crew men’s took notice. Just as the menswear revival was about to boom, Muytjens noted the fashion of lesbians in New York City’s Chelsea neighborhood.

In an article for Put This On, Muytjens says, “Red Wings were popular with lesbians there. I just loved how they wore them with slim jeans and plaid flannel shirts, so I helped to bring the brand into J. Crew.” Coupled with the hit show, Queer Eye for the Straight Guy, which helped convince straight men that caring about their style was a good thing (indeed!), J.Crew saw even more success with its slim suits and chinos, both of which have roots in military and workwear traditions.

When Joseph Hancock asked designer Vivienne Westwood about straight men adopting gay styles in his book Brand/Story: Cases and Exploration in Fashion Branding, Westwood notes that it’s always been a thing. “Look at the Arrow Collar ads from the early part of the twentieth century,” she says. “The male gaze at the male body — the homoerotic gaze — both fascinates and terrifies straight men. They see beautiful men in beautiful clothes and envy, emulate, and revolt at what they see. When gay men flaunted a more effeminate style, it was easy for straight men to reject gay fashion. These days, the gay code of ‘straight acting’ has overshadowed the more flamboyant fun of earlier queer styles to the point that straight men feel comfortable with gay fashion.”

She goes on to note that growing acceptance accounts for some of this, but also points out that straight men may not know what they see, but they know what they like. “To put this all in perspective, however, many straight men wear black leather jackets and jeans, a look that grew out of the Chicago and southern California gay BDSM scenes in the 1940s and ’50s. They don’t know that history, but they enjoy the masculine look of it. I just wish they would adopt queer stylings sooner, such as the goatee, and let them go just as quickly.”

Workwear’s popularity has crested but is far from gone. Some brands like John Deeriere continue to subvert traditionally straight cultures like Nascar and John Deere. There’s no doubt that high-end designers, particularly from Japan, also helped to bolster the style and continue to keep it steadily afloat. As with many subcultural dress codes, however, the style has morphed and moved away from its early adopters. Like the right earring, handlebar mustache, or overall interest in style, workwear’s gay signifiers have gone mainstream, losing much of its ties to the community which it attracted. Today, if you’re a fan of Red Wing boots or workwear as a style, you can thank the queer community for making it cool.

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