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The Construction Site

Written by Immy Stead

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Practicality, durability, and functionality: these are all words synonymous with men’s workwear. Whether it’s the likes of carpenter trousers, utility vests, or even full military uniforms, these qualities have defined such attire. But, these wouldn’t be the first words that come to mind if we were to take a look at men’s workwear within contemporary pop culture. The age-old tradition of the sexy fireman calendar or, more recently, thirst traps of tradies in Carhartt trousers, or (maybe too niche) TikTok videos of the internet’s favourite lumberjack chopping wood. What do all these things have in common? They display workwear as no longer merely functional, instead, it has been transformed into an icon of male sexuality.  

 

 

Indeed, male workwear isn’t just a casual trend in men’s fashion, it has become something hypersexualised, with caricatured versions in everyday media. Consider Love Island’s ‘heartbeat challenge’ where the male contestants dress in sexy policeman or builder ‘costumes’. Similarly, the characters in Magic Mike frequently take on the personas of uniformed professionals such as mechanics, contributing to the eroticization of traditionally masculine jobs. We could even analyse the way older male celebrities are photographed for magazine shoots, usually emphasising the rugged, blue-collar aesthetic. Considering most celebrities are part of a line of work far from manual labour, and with a substantial difference in income, using workwear to present a persona that is both relatable and desirable often exploits hard labour jobs as merely an aesthetic. One could go as far as to say that this fascination with men’s workwear is a manifestation of male beauty and gender ideals, leading to the sexualisation of men in the workplace.

This sexualisation introduces a fascinating reversal in the world of fashion. Throughout history, women have often worn attire influenced by the prevailing beauty standards of their era. Whether it was the Victorian era corset, aimed at achieving the smallest waistline possible, or the emergence of the mini skirt in the 1960s, embodying the ‘twiggy girl’ aesthetic, women’s fashion has long been shaped by these standards. And, it doesn’t need to be spelt out that these standards were often defined by patriarchy, appealing to the male gaze. Yet, considering the world’s obsession with men’s workwear, it’s hard to ignore that, more so than ever, these clothes are catering to female (heteronormative) attraction. As the wearers of these practical uniforms are now the objects of desire, is this a reversal of the traditional paradigm where the male gaze has historically defined women’s fashion? 

Perhaps we could view this as a rebellion against fashion’s patriarchal standards, where here the so-called ‘female gaze’ has a part in shaping men’s clothing for once. There is a glistening irony in this apparent reversal; the environments in which workwear is actually required (especially construction sites) traditionally have an association with catcalling, crude comments, and the objectification of women by men. One may understand this reversal as a challenging of power dynamics within the industry, a satirical response to the fear and anxieties that women may associate with harassment in these spaces. But, is it at all empowering for fashion to be defined by beauty standards, regardless of gender? Where do these beauty standards come from? And, is it really female attraction driving these trends?

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In these images of men in uniform, the subjects are not depicted as vulnerable, submissive beings in the way that the women of Playboy are, but rather as hyper-masculine, strong, and heroic, reinforcing traditional ideals of male virility. Their power is enhanced rather than depleted. Despite how the fetishisation of men in uniform may distract from women’s fashion enduring the larger part of sexual scrutiny, undeniably, there is an overriding sense of toxic masculinity that foregrounds the obsession with workwear. It’s questionable if we can view trends linking to the construction site as subversive when historically there’s always been an attraction to ‘men in uniform,’ conforming to traditional gender stereotypes. The attraction to these uniforms is driven by societal values, values which support the idea that men should be physically strong, rather than emotionally vulnerable or expressive. So, whilst one might think of “men in uniform” as simply a matter of personal attraction, deep down this hyper-sexualisation is rooted in capitalism’s glamorisation of the “working man,” as well as the patriarchy’s reinforcement of outdated gender ideals.

 

  

Carhartt, carpenter pants and dungarees, first worn solely as workwear, have now become popular style staples (the former being an integral part of the “Bristol Boy” look). What first appears to be a niche fascination with the working man aesthetic has had an enduring impact on style as a whole, carrying with it a host of implications.

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