100 Years of Dickies Workwear

Dickies flannel shirt
Image credit: Caio Coelho on Unsplash

2022 marks Dickies’ centenary year. Reaching the hundred-year mark is a remarkable achievement, but when you think about the unique case study that is Dickies, it somehow doesn’t feel all that surprising. The thing that’s so striking about the brand is not so much its longevity — though that’s certainly nothing to sniff at — but rather its remarkable ability to be all things to so many different kinds of people. It is at once an earnest, dyed-in-the-wool workwear brand that’s purpose-built for the job site or the factory floor, all while being the darling of a cross-section of clothing enthusiasts who otherwise wouldn’t agree on much else. In this sense, Dickies has managed the rare balancing act of staying true to its founding philosophy all while deftly adapting to new times and changing demands. There seems little doubt that this resilience and indefinable appeal is central to what has allowed a brand that grew out of Prohibition and predates the Great Depression to survive and thrive in the present day.

Dickies proper was founded in the small town of Bryan, Texas in 1922, although the roots of the business can be traced back a few years earlier to when its founder, C. N. Williamson and E. E. ‘Colonel’ Dickie, first partnered up. They started out in the ‘vehicle and harness’ business, but in 1918 — in a move that would set the tone for a century worth of deft pivots in response to market demands — switched gears to form the U.S. Overall Company, which would become Williamson-Dickie Manufacturing Company four years later.

The business grew steadily in its first few decades, including during the Depression. Things kicked up a notch in the Second World War, though, during which they produced somewhere in the order of nine million military uniforms. The ramped-up infrastructure heralded by their wartime efforts meant the company was primed for success upon re-entering civilian production. They had also made an impression on a generation’s worth of soldiers who took a certain pride in the brand that had seen them through the war. It meant that Dickies soon entered a period of unprecedented growth that entailed them saturating the domestic market in the U.S., all while beginning expansion into Europe and the Middle East.

It was in the 1960s that many of Dickies’ enduring hallmarks first arrived. Among these was their signature blended textile made up of 65% polyester and 35% cotton. It’s a fabric that has long been marketed as being all but indestructible and its enduring success suggests Dickies long ago struck just the right balance between toughness and comfort. Their unique polycotton blend came about in pursuit of another Dickies staple in the form of the permanent crease. In the hopes of saving time and money spent on pressing their garments, the company approached Harris Laboratories which had previously managed to pioneer a permanent wave for hair. After a long process of trial and error, they finally arrived at a workable lasting crease, which would come to rank among Dickies’ most identifiable product traits, especially for its association with perhaps their best-known offering. Going by the name 874, their famous work pants (which I have praised at length elsewhere) arrived on the scene in 1967 and have been a hit for fifty-plus years since.

The 874 came alongside a bunch of other innovations too, including a zipper and slide waist closure instead of a more traditional button-fly. Dickies also partnered with Rit Dye to create a pair of work trousers in just about any colour you could want. This wide-ranging palette has done wonders for Dickies’ appeal over the years since it means that any kind of customer can find whatever shade they might need, whether it be a work shirt intended to match an organisation’s colour scheme, a pair of pants in just the right shade to satisfy school uniform requirements, or an eye-catching set of overalls intended for business or pleasure.

Dickies store front
Image credit: Ryosuke Kinoshita on Unsplash

The brand’s growing crossover appeal went hand in hand with them opening a range of standalone retail shops across America in the 1970s. This allowed them to transition from serving as a more specialised workwear supplier to being a robust retail brand with mass appeal. It wasn’t just down to brick-and-mortar stores, either. Throughout the ’70s the company expanded into a host of new and adjacent industries, including industrial laundering, disposable diaper manufacture, and even healthcare.

Clothing remained their core business, however, and new groups of people were beginning to take notice. Starting as early as the 1970s and ’80s, Dickies made their way into a range of subcultures in which they have remained staples ever since. It probably all began with Latinx communities in the American Southwest who would pair fitted white T-shirts or tank tops with khaki 874s and oversized Dickies work shirts. A similar aesthetic made its way into hip-hop circles from the late ’80s onward, with artists like N.W.A., Tupac, and Snoop Dogg often sporting full Dickies sets. Skaters in the region began to take notice too, no doubt being drawn in by the price, durability, and loose fit of 874 pants, which you still see paired with T-shirts and Vans across Southern California and beyond.

By the 1990s, Dickies, along with other workwear stalwarts like Carhartt, had made the jump from relatively niche to mainstream. The growing list of famous faces seen wearing the brand certainly didn’t hurt. In addition to the countless hip hop stars decked out in Dickies, a new generation of youth-oriented celebs including Avril Lavigne, Justin Timberlake, Gwen Stefani, and, my personal favourite, Johnny Knoxville entered the fold.

Superstars in Dickies remain a common sight to this day, including as wide an assortment of figures as Cardi B, Brooklyn Beckham, A$AP Rocky, Emily Ratajkowski, Jaden Smith, Justin Bieber, and various members of the Kardashian/Jenner clan. Perennially popular items among regular and VIP buyers alike include their famous Horseshoe tees, Eisenhower jackets, flannel shirts, bib overalls, 874s (no surprises there), as well as pretty much anything else from their extended line of trouser offerings.

Snoop Dogg wearing a full Dickies set
Snoop Dogg all decked out in Dickies
Image credit: Eli Watson / CC BY 2.0

Much of the enduring appeal of these working clothes lies in some notion of authenticity. As one of America’s original workwear manufacturers, Dickies has it in spades, not least because making hardy gear for working people remains part of their business to this day. Add to that another helping of bona fides served up by their longstanding status as a streetwear staple worn by some of the coolest-looking people around. Then consider the affordability, durability, and easy accessibility and you begin to see why Dickies is as long-lived and beloved as it continues to be. While in another hundred years things will once again look a whole lot different, with all of this in mind, it isn’t hard to imagine Dickies still being at it yet another century on.

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