Dickies Workwear – Brand History, Inspiration, and Iconic Products
There are some brands that started out as workwear—as in clothes you wore to actually do work in (laying bricks, not graphic design)—that evolved into…well, let’s just call it fashion, and Levi’s is probably the strongest evidence proving this point. (It’s been a while since copper-riveted pockets held gold nuggets as EDC.)
But there are other brands, ones like Dickies, that have forged a stronger bond to their workwear roots. Sure, there have been fancy pants collabs and special editions, but more likely than not, if you see a guy wearing Dickies, it’s less about swagger and more about putting a sturdy layer of protection between him and drips of motor oil or pipe dope.
The History of Dickies
But that doesn’t mean Dickies don’t look cool, and they have for nearly 100 years (here’s to to the almost-here, Super Cool Centennial Special Editions). From the Dickies About page:
The company has its roots in the small town of Bryan in Texas, where C. N. Williamson and E. E. “Colonel” Dickie began their careers in the “vehicle and harness” business. In 1918 they made what turned out to be a momentous decision when, with a few friends, they established the U.S. Overall Company. Four years later, the company was renamed the Williamson-Dickie Manufacturing Company. From these modest beginnings Dickies has transformed itself into the largest workwear manufacturer in the world.
And when you really think about it, that “largest workwear manufacturer in the world” line isn’t really marketing hype, especially when one considers that, in the 99 years since they’ve been in business, most “blue collar” jobs that required a uniform–from mechanics to my dad who worked for a dairy in Pennsylvania–wore Dickies. Everyday. (They also made about nine million military uniforms during WWII, so yeah.)
Iconic Dickies Products
The various items, like pants, shirts and jackets, came in a wide variety of colors, so one could coordinate with a company’s “branding” and look professional. For instance, my dad’s were Lincoln Green, and yes he wore a patch of his name over the left pocket. And no occupation is as closely associated with Dickies as the auto mechanic is, but not so much the full service attendant of old movies and TV (“Check your oil and tire pressure, sir?”) as the pin-up tattoo’d hot rodder with the wallet chain hanging from the back pocket of his 874 Work Pants (circa forever).
874 Work Pant
Without question, the 874 is the Dickies product, and at less than $30 a pop (I’ve routinely gotten them on sale for less than $20), they are the workin’ man’s chino. The epitome of the anti-fit fit, the 874 sits at the true waist, but that makes them incredibly high-waisted by contemporary standards.
With a slight taper, double-wide belt loops, and 8.5oz poly-cotton blend construction (they don’t shrink), they wear like iron without wrinkling. Oh, and stains rarely stick. You’ll want a new pair far before you need a new pair, and these pants don’t fade, unless you consider a tear resulting from the jagged edge of sheet metal destined to patch the quarter panel of a ’56 Ford Galaxie a “fade.”
Short Sleeve Coverall
The Short Sleeve Coverall comes in a close second as the wrencher’s best friend, a steal at only $37, just $7 more than the pants alone.
Other groups that adopted the Dickies as their signature look were amongst Latino communities in the American Southwest, the standard uniform being the khaki 874’s (or, just as often, the 13″ or 15″ short of the same cut) and white t-shirt/tank de rigueur.
Undoubtedly, white suburban skaters from the late-’70s through today took their cue from that same lowrider culture, as they pushed Dickies to their limits, dragging countless knees across the dry pools of Southern California. Here in Venice, I see at least three kids a day in Vans Authentics and low-slung Dickies. And you can buy them just about anywhere, from their own site to Amazon to stores that sell garden hoses and peat moss. Depending on where you shop, you can probably put “New Dickies” on your grocery list.
Of course, it would be great if Dickies were about to hit the hundred-year mark still under the founding families’ ownership but, well, there ain’t no Santa Claus either. Just recently, VF Corp. (who already own brands like Wrangler, Timberland, Vans and The North Face) acquired Williamson-Dickie Mfg. Co. for about $820 million in cash. Not too shabby.
And while a buyout from a big player like VF might usually fill me with the fear that synthetic materials will start being used and manufacturing will head overseas, all that’s already been happening for years. Yes, some Dickies are still made in Texas, but the vast majority are made in Mexico, Asia and the Middle East. (For more on that, with some personal stories of a few international workers who make Dickies, there’s this wonderfully informative piece on Racked.)
Back in 2010, Dickies did create a line of American-made clothes with inspiration drawn from their archives, their 1922 Collection.
But with shirts at $175 and pants at $200, you’d likely have been better off finding that look somewhere else. The great thing about Dickies (as long as you wish in your heart, as I do, that they’re trying to do the right thing by their international employees) is that they’re not supposed to be fetishized or expensive. They are not heirloom quality. In fact, they’re disposable like hospital scrubs (something they also make), and that’s the point.
Dickies has also, inexplicably, tried to sell special collections of their clothes to the people who are already buying them (Brew Crew…really?)–I guess the folks in marketing have to earn their keep. But if you ask me, it’s when we start to futz with the simple magic of uncomplicated things that we need to take a hard look at our motivations as consumers (Beverly Hills Range Rover owners, I’m looking at you.)
The world already has enough Pommes Frites…sometimes, can’t I just have some french fries? And while I’m at it, I’ll let the Heinz drip on my 874s, because it don’t stand a chance.