Introduction, or: Getting in Johnny Knoxville’s Pants
Jerry Seinfeld has a joke about how most men dress the way they did in the last good year of their lives. It’s as though they froze the moment in fashion history when last they experienced happiness and then they just ride it out until the end. Hence the time capsule effect of all the weird dad outfits out in the world.
I reckon you can go back even further than that. For my money, it’s really all about the things you loved wearing as a child. I’ve found that it’s often the clothes you’re first drawn to in your formative years that, for better or worse, you keep returning to throughout the rest of your life.
People who care about clothing tend to have a lot of nostalgia for the things they wore in their youth. I suspect everyone has a tally of old clothes they desperately wished they hadn’t gotten rid of or wished that they could find again. It’s an impulse that has spurred countless questionable eBay bids and fueled many a recursive fashion trend.
It also goes a long way toward explaining the widespread popularity of cartoon characters like Mickey Mouse, Snoopy, and Barbar in the adult lines of major fashion brands. Ditto the habit even really swanky dressers have of wearing candy-coloured Swatches, Casios, and even the odd Timex Ironman all throughout their lives.
It needn’t be quite as blatant as a Mickey Mouse watch or a dad fit that’s all but cast in amber, though. This kind of nostalgia can manifest in more subtle ways, usually in the form of one or two pieces of clothing that endure in your wardrobe even as the style of the rest of it changes. Maybe you’re a former skater who never stops wearing Vans, a rocker who keeps a supply of band shirts, or an old streetwear guy that still loves sneakers even though you mostly wears suits now.
It’s true of my own wardrobe in a bunch of ways. My early media tastes have, for example, meant that I’m still never far from a bunch of flannel shirts, printed Ts, or high top All Stars (more about which presently). I similarly still own and occasionally wear some of the many (that’s right, many) calculator watches I became inexplicably obsessed with as a teenager.
Among the least likely of all my early sources of style inspiration was the American TV and film series Jackass, in which a bunch of rowdy stunt performers basically set about hurting themselves deliberately. I know, right? But their outlandish antics and gross-out gags were basically everything a teenage boy could ask for.
The crew’s frontman, Johnny Knoxville was a handsome, charismatic performer who sported what my nostalgia-clouded brain still can’t help but think of as a great look. In any event, Knoxville’s style of dress was certainly worth imitating far more so than his ill-advised Evel Knievel act was. He usually wore some combination of Wayfarer sunglasses, Chuck Taylors, printed T-shirts, flannel overshirts and — the real point of all this preamble — Dickies work pants.
I was obsessed with getting a pair of those pants the minute I laid eyes on them. Honestly, they might well be the whole reason I got into workwear to begin with. The problem was, though, that for all of my adulation I didn’t have a clue who made them or how to get my hands of a pair for ages (In case you’re a young person reading this, there was once a time before this kind of information was accessible within seconds and, while it’s true that the internet was around by this point, I was living in the middle of nowhere in a house that to this day somehow doesn’t have a broadband connection).
All of this meant that by the time I finally clocked that my teen hero was wearing Dickies, I had long since moved on. I was no longer obsessively rewatching Jackass movies and pulling dumb tricks with my friends. Plus, there were a bunch of new role models I now looked to as far as fashion advice was concerned. In fact, it wasn’t until the announcement of the most recent instalment in the Jackass franchise that I really started thinking about those Dickies again. It was a glossy spread on Knoxville in GQ that reminded me of how much I loved his idiosyncratic uniform and — in true nostalgic form — I finally pulled the trigger on buying the pants I had wanted to own for nearly two decades.
Dickies Work Trousers: A Subjective Endorsement
Before going any further, there are a couple of things to address about Dickies trousers, the most important being that they are definitely not for everyone.
There are a bunch of things about these pants that make them kind of an odd proposition. They’re made of a blended 65/35 poly/cotton twill fabric, which means they have a pretty synthetic feel and aren’t especially breathable. The material can also look kind of cheap, plus there are these thick ‘tunnel’ belt loops up top, a pretty conspicuous Dickies badge stamped right on the seat, and, in the case of the classic, wide-legged 874 model in particular, they can look a touch shapeless and unflattering at times.
Not exactly a must-have then. The thing is, though, I love them and I’m not alone in that. As I’ve mentioned before regarding Dickies, these pants have been beloved across a bunch of different subcultures, including in West Coast and Chicano style, as well as among fans of rap, punk, and skateboarding. Strikingly, there is even a small contingent within the menswear establishment that champions them, including Put This On’s Pete Anderson, who also wrote a whole piece about them, and Black Ivy author Jason Jules, who is regularly photographed wearing one of his trusty khaki-coloured pairs.
For all of those aforementioned shortcomings, Dickies pants also have a whole lot going for them. First and foremost, they’re cheap. Even in our current age of supply chain disruptions and fluctuating price tags, you can generally snap up some on Amazon somewhere in the neighbourhood of £30 or less. Then, once you’ve bought a pair, you can be sure that you’re probably going to want to buy another well before you’ve actually worn through your first since they’re built to last for the long haul.
These are, after all, trousers made with heavy work in mind, which means that even casual fans benefit from their sturdy, hard-wearing features. I especially like the stain-resistant quality of the fabric and its ability to retain its dyed colour much better than straight cotton ever does. I also happen to like those chunky belt loops, as well as the high rise and the permanent crease down the front (not least since I’ve lost untold hours of my life at the ironing board fruitlessly pressing imperfect creases into pleated trousers).
Also, a pro tip: If you live in a wet climate, these pants are a great way to get through the rainy season. I discovered as much by accident when I happened to have them on while trekking through some icy Scottish rain recently, only to discover that for once my legs weren’t completely soaked by the time I got home. I was so pleased, I immediately added a few more pairs to my shopping list.
And far as their looking ‘cheap’ goes, I’ll add this: A few weeks ago I had dinner reservation at a swanky restaurant with a dress code. It’s the type of place that would usually call for a suit or sport coat. On this particular night, though, there was a crazy storm which would have meant even the short walk from the door to the Uber would have left any set of smart trousers stained and soaked through. So, in a flash of (arguably ill-advised) inspiration I reached for my trusty water-resistant Dickies and dressed them up with some rubber-soled loafers and a sport coat and, as it turns out, no one was the wiser. I kept waiting for a fellow diner or a posh waiter to give me the side-eye, but instead my Dickies managed to outsmart even a fancy dress code.
For all of their merits, though, the charm of these pants ultimately feels somewhat indefinable. When trying to describe their appeal one inevitably reaches for amorphous terms like ‘vibe’ or ‘cool’, sentiments that are hard to pin down but that have nevertheless come to define these pants for several decades. Part of it is that they pull off the delicate balancing act of being immensely popular while also flying largely under the radar. There’s also something of an anti-fashion, anti-establishment, don’t-give-a-damn quality to them that somehow hasn’t been eroded over decades of wear. They really do last forever, it seems, in more ways than one.
Conclusion, or: 874 Going on 50
When it finally came time for me to get my pair of bargain basement grail pants, I went with some 874s, the classic fifty-odd-year-old style endorsed by my erstwhile fifty-odd-year-old hero, Johnny Knoxville himself. And while I haven’t shot them out of a canon or anything, they haven’t let me down yet. Far from it.
In case you were wondering whether a rekindling of my love for Dickies pants has reawakened my former love of Jackass, the answer is: not exactly. I’m in my thirties now so the prospect of going to a theatre to see that kind of movie doesn’t hold quite the same appeal it did when I was in my teens, even though the film has gotten some surprisingly positive reviews from some surprisingly good sources. That said, you can bet your bottom dollar that as soon as that thing comes to VOD I’ll be dropping everything to watch it. And this time around, I’ll finally be able to enjoy it without spending the whole time trying to figure out where the hell Knoxville got those pants.
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