There was a time when the only people who bothered to don a pair of Carhartts were those who actually worked for a living. But at some point in the last decade, work wear—clothes made specifically for tough jobs like framing houses and working on oil rigs—crossed over into everyday fashion. Accountants with soft hands started wearing mechanic’s jackets and pants with double reinforced knees. In response, outdoor brands like Patagonia and Topo Designs have recently jumped into the once-niche market. Scott Molina, the work wear product manager for Ariat, a western apparel company that expanded into the work wear market a decade ago, says the evolution makes sense.
“We’re seeing a broad move to functional apparel, something that you aren't just buying for fashion’s sake, but because it’s gonna last you a long time.,” Molina says. “People are looking for something they know will be good quality that will last beyond one season.”
According to Molina, work wear is typically held to a higher standard, much like high-end outdoor clothing. It needs to function properly in the field, and it needs to be comfortable. “You can make a super durable canvas pant, but it’s not going to feel good to wear,” he says. “The challenge with work wear is to create the most comfortable pieces a guy or woman can put on, have them last forever, and have them look good.”
Molina also thinks outdoor companies are uniquely suited to the work wear space. “These companies have a background in functionality and have proven that they can design a product that’s gonna work well in the field and last.” Ariat’s new line of work wear, called Rebar, introduces technologies from the outdoor space—think wicking materials, stretch fabric, and vents—to the job site, while Patagonia’s new work wear line hinges on super tough hemp fiber, woven in with comfortable fleece and cotton.
Here are some of our favorite work wear pieces that hit the delicate style-durability balance.
Ariat Sierra Shadowland Boot ($160)
These full-grain leather boots feature a gel-cushioned, moisture-wicking footbed that feels good, even if you’re standing all day in 90-degree heat. For the hardiest jobs, the Shadowland also comes in a steel-toe option.
Patagonia Women’s Hemp Canvas Chore Coat ($150)
Patagonia knows it’s not just dudes who need burly pieces, so their new work wear line has a number of women’s pieces, including this jacket made from hemp canvas that’s more durable than conventional cotton but more environmentally friendly.
Topo Designs Heavy Work Shirt ($130)
In classic Topo Designs style, you’ll definitely be the most colorful person on the job site with this heavyweight flannel that comes with oversized utility pockets.
1620 NYCO Double Knee Pant ($155)
This straight leg work pant has a touch of spandex for added mobility and features a knife clip on the front pocket, an oil- and stain-repellent finish, phone pockets, and reinforced knees. Bonus: It comes with a lifetime guarantee so the company will replace them if they tear or wear out.
Carhartt Sierra Jacket ($120)
Classic Carhartt styling in a surprisingly soft and comfortable jacket, the Sierra is built from tough cotton duck canvas but lined with fleece. You get plenty of pockets for storing tools and ribbed cuffs inside the sleeves that help keep the cold at bay.