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A brief history of dungarees – exploring

a brief history of dungarees

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Writer Adam Foster

Illustrator Megan Metcalf

We explore gentrification through the ubiquitous wardrobe staple

Everyone in Margate seems to own a pair of dungarees. Okay, not quite everyone. But I’ve seen them worn by everyone from carpenters, painters, and mechanics right through to people like me who have never done a hard day’s work in their lives.

Originally conceived as utilitarian clothing made from hard-wearing material, dungarees were designed to be worn over a shirt and trousers as a much-needed shield against grease, oil and mud. It’s fair to say I don’t need protection against either grease, oil or mud as I sit writing this at my desk – yet here I am wearing a pair of dungarees all the same. Why, you might ask? Well, because they look cool, I suppose. And they’re comfy too. But what’s the history of dungarees? And why do they remain such a ubiquitous presence from the high street to the vintage shops of

Margate’s Old Town today?

I was in Manchester a few months ago. For the past ten years or so the extended family on my mum’s side have descended on a rental property somewhere in the UK: the

Cotswolds one year, Stratfordupon-Avon the next, the Peak District the year after that; the two sides of the family, north and south, workingclass and middle-class, meeting somewhere in the middle of this green and pleasant land. This year’s destination: Manchester.

I’m writing a book about class at the moment, so I’d gone to Manchester with a vague notion that I might write about the north-south divide in my family. I also intended to read Orwell’s The Road to Wigan Pier, as I’ve always found there to be something quite satisfying about reading a book in the vicinity of the place in which it’s set. But the trip to Manchester ended up being most notable as the place in which I bought my very first pair of dungarees.

I get off the tram at Piccadilly and head straight for Afflecks, the iconic indoor market in Manchester’s Northern Quarter. I browse some of the vintage shops there, looking mainly for jackets – leather and denim jackets – but I can’t find any I like. For a moment I feel compelled to look in a record shop next door but quickly remember that I don’t own a record player, so there’s probably not altogether that much point in buying any records. At a loose end, I leave Afflecks and look up “things to do in the Northern Quarter” on my phone. Like Margate, the Northern Quarter is an area of Manchester that’s been heavily gentrified in recent years, with former factories turned into co-working spaces and coffee shops selling £3.50 flat whites.

How does a place become gentrified?

That’s the question I have in mind as I walk the Northern Quarter’s gridlike streets on this August afternoon, the sun occasionally poking through fast-moving clouds. It’s a question I’ve often wondered in relation to Margate too, although it’s fair to say this area of Manchester is a few years ahead of where Margate is now.

Manchester, of course, was once the centre of the industrial world. During the industrial revolution it rapidly expanded from a few small settlements, farms, and fields into a bustling metropolis. By 1853 there were around 108 mills in the central Manchester area alone. As the city’s mills continued to churn out goods, Manchester became not just a centre for industry but also a world-leader

in commerce. But, as the first world war ended, manufacturing started to move elsewhere, and over the course of a few decades, trade, commerce, and manufacturing all started a steady decline in the city.

By the early 1970s the area that would later become the Northern Quarter was suffering badly. The 80s weren’t much better, but there were green shoots that would go on to help the area become the place it is today. One was the opening of Afflecks Palace which became a platform for artists, and even highly respected fashion designers, to show off their creations. As is often the way with gentrification, the area’s derelict buildings were cheap and provided the perfect spaces in which to settle and start a business – and so the artists and musicians and inventors and chancers set up shop. In 1993 Manchester City Council officially commissioned a regeneration study into the Northern Quarter, and they roped in local developers to get the ball rolling. The plan was an unmitigated success – turning a once forgotten corner of the city centre into the bustling place it is today. But even if there’s no denying that the Northern Quarter has changed for the better, that success – as it always does – has also come at a price. Rents – both residential and business – have skyrocketed, pricing out locals. Sound familiar?

I leave Afflecks and head to an arts and crafts shop next door. It’s a cornucopia of cloths and fabrics, brushes and paints, spread over three floors. As I walk the many aisles, I wonder whether this building used to be a clothes factory, or whether its current usage is entirely divorced from its presumably industrial past. In that moment I’m struck, fleetingly, by the distance nowadays between the clothes we wear and the process by which they’re made. I could barely sew a button, I think, let alone fashion a pair of dungarees.

I leave the arts and crafts shop, walk down the road, and turn the corner onto another row of shops. Across the street, the Carhartt logo catches my eye. It’s a brand I’ve always associated with friends or, more often, people who I’ve seen walking down the street, who I deem to be cool. These thoughts are confirmed when I step inside. All the shop assistants are wearing some apparently effortlessly put together assemblage of baggy trousers and loose-fitting shirts from which you can just about see the edge of some allusive-looking tattoos.

“Do you need any help at all?” one of the shop assistants says in a sort of cool, affected drawl.

“No I’m good thanks man,” I reply, adding the word “man” to indicate that I am also, in fact, cool.

There’s a sale on. I cross the shop and thumb a rack of items marked as being half-price. A jacket catches my eye – black corduroy – but it’s a large so it doesn’t quite fit in the way I’d like. Oh well, I think.

That’s when I see a pair of dungarees.

Beige with light brown leather straps.

Nice.

I check the price tag. £195!

For a pair of dungarees.

Jeez.

Thankfully they’re half-price.

But still. It’s a lot of money for an item of clothing originally designed to be worn by labourers and mechanics. It got me wondering: how did this transformation from function to fashion come about?

Many people assume that dungarees came from the United States, but they actually originated in 17th century India. Upon arriving in India, the English took a coarse local cloth called dungri, exported it and used it to make workwear trousers which they called dungarees. The rest, as they say, is history.

It wasn’t until the mid-1800s though that Levi’s took these workwear trousers and added a bib and shoulder straps to create the dungarees we know and love today. They were still a long way away from becoming fashionable though. Considered strictly workwear for many decades, durability and comfort were the main considerations when it came to dungarees, meaning they were originally made from heavy denim or canvas, or out of waterresistant fabrics so they could be used for fishing. Their durability meant they soon became popular among the working class, as the fabric was tough enough to provide a protective layer while carrying out manual labour, and the bib was perfect for holding tools while up a ladder or on a roof. At this point, dungarees were also colourcoded depending on your profession: striped for railroad workers, white for painters, and blue for everyone else.

The next big development in the history of dungarees was during both world wars, when many women volunteered to fill the shoes of their male counterparts, taking jobs in engineering, mechanics and factory work to help keep the economy running. Once women entered the workforce, a flurry of patents came about to create the workwear that women needed – and a more feminineyet-durable style of dungarees soon arose.

Aside from durability and practicality, dungarees also became a way of visually delineating race and class. After the American civil war ended and the Emancipation Proclamation made chattel slavery illegal in the Confederate States, sharecropping became the new norm – a system that relied on Black labourers to essentially work for free in exchange for somewhere to live. Because denim dungarees were regularly worn by sharecroppers, the two became synonymous for all the wrong reasons. And so it was that, with this sharecropping history in mind, civil rights protestors in the 1960s wore denim dungarees – which were still heavily associated with sharecropping – to show how little had changed since reconstruction. In other words, to wear denim dungarees was to directly protest white supremacy. Denim dungarees didn’t just stand in as a symbolic expression though; by donning denim dungarees middleclass activists were also better able to connect with working-class Black communities and help register them to vote.

Dungarees started to transcend the realms of manual labour and protest in the 70s and 80s when they were worn by Hollywood royalty – John Wayne, Clint Eastwood and even Judy Garland – turning them into a desirable garment. More fashionable dungarees soon began to emerge, and they were slowly co-opted by the mainstream. Their design was adjusted to include lower necklines, smaller waists and daintier pockets – details more suited to fashion over function. This trend has continued to this day. You can still buy functional dungarees, of course, but you’re more likely to find fashionable dungarees in fabrics ranging from colourful linens to lightweight denim, like the pair I’d found in Carhartt.

Back in Manchester, I take the dungarees off the sales rack and try them on in a curtained dressing room. They fit well enough, but seeing this pair of overpriced dungarees in this former warehouse in this formerly industrial part of Manchester makes me realise how so much of today’s culture seems to be engaged with the fetishisation of the working class. Take cottagecore, for example, the lifestyle and aesthetic movement that’s evolved in recent years – particularly during lockdown – inspired by a romanticised interpretation of western agricultural life. Centred on ideas of simple living, harmony with nature and self-sufficiency, cottagecore also consciously seeks to evoke a sense of nostalgia for a largely bygone era.

There’s something about movements like this that make me uncomfortable. Maybe it’s the fact that cosy cottagecore activities such as DIY, baking bread and sewing rose in popularity during lockdown, while essential workers and people with precarious incomes

risked their lives. I also think nostalgic lifestyle movements often end up underestimating the hard labour involved in lifestyles such as farming. It is, after all, a privilege to be able to pick and choose elements from that kind of lifestyle, rather than being forced into it. In the same way it’s a privilege to choose to wear dungarees for fashion rather than function.

In a way the latter is less harmful, but also potentially more vacuous. It also only ever seems to happen one way round. You’re unlikely to see someone on a low income choosing to wear red chinos and Oxford shirts while sporting a pair of boat shoes are you? This performance of class brings to mind the performance of gender in certain LGBTQ+ communities – crossdressing, drag, or indeed “macho” or “butch” masculinities – all of which seem, at least partly, to be an attempt to experience a reality outside of the necessarily narrow confines of their own lived experience. Maybe this is part of the appeal of dungarees too? Maybe wearing dungarees is an attempt on the part of middle-class university graduates like me to play the role of being working class, to access an experience outside of their own?

Then again, maybe not. Maybe not everyone thinks as deeply about the clothes they choose to wear. Maybe they just think they look cool.

I take the dungarees to the till.

“Oh they’re nice,” says the guy with the affected drawl as I place them on the counter.

“Yeah, they’re cool aren’t they?”

“Very cool,” he says. “Very cool.”

“Many people assume that dungarees came from the United States, but they actually originated in 17th century India”