The Heart of Workwear: A History of Carhartt

Close-up of Carhartt label
Image is my own / All rights reserved

As far as workwear is concerned, you would be hard-pressed to find a more prevalent brand than Carhartt. Its only rival might be the likes of Dickies, or Timberland and Dr. Martens if you add shoes into the equation. Moreover, despite its widespread streetwear adoption several decades ago, Carhartt continues to be a byword for quality. Their instantly recognisable label is still as likely to appear on the clothing of someone taking a fit pic for the Gram as it is on the gear of a guy pouring concrete just out of frame. 

The brand has been producing hardy working clothes for well over a century. It was founded in 1889 as the Hamilton Carhartt & Company by an eponymous gent who also went by ‘Ham’. According to the company’s site, the operation started off in a Detroit loft, armed with just two sewing machines and a half-horsepower electric motor. Some early failures led Ham to consult with actual railway workers to find out what exactly they needed from their clothing. The famous Carhartt bib overall followed, marketed under the slogan: ‘Honest value for an honest dollar’. People bought it, in every sense of the phrase, and the company was off to the races. 

A decade into the twentieth century, they had expanded operations across the United States and soon after added international locations in Liverpool, Paris, and several Canadian cities. Many of these sites would become bases for creating U.S. military uniforms during the First World War. They similarly supplied work clothes for soldiers, support personnel, and women laboring on the homefront during WWII. 

The decades that followed saw further expansion as the brand continued to cement its reputation as a workwear go-to, prized for signature construction techniques like triple-stitched seams and durable duck cloth. These blue-collar credentials meant that when workwear began being adopted as streetwear in the late 1980s, Carhart proved a perfect fit and the brand, as it turns out, was runway-ready.

Man in a Carhartt Detroit jacket
Image credit: Jonathon Burton from Pexels

They launched their first national marketing campaign in the 80s, started selling clothes in the Japanese lifestyle market in 1987, and in 1991 began displaying worker’s jackets at New York fashion shows. By the early ‘90s, Tupac and other hip hop luminaries were being photographed in Carhartt, all while glossy spreads featuring the same appeared in such fashionable publications as Vogue and Harper’s Bazaar. 

Carhartt clothing on a shelf
Image credit: Mangan02 / CC BY-SA 4.0

This successful venture into uncharted territory would birth Work In Progress, or WIP for short. It was initially floated as Carthartt’s European distribution network, intended simply to introduce a new market to some of their most iconic designs. But the brand’s newfound media attention and pop-cultural appeal, alongside a burgeoning interest in American-made heritage brands, made for instant success and soon WIP became an entity in itself. By 1997, they had begun releasing their own product range inspired by Carheart’s hardy lunch pail roots, but geared toward an urban lifestyle as far as design and comfort were concerned. With the help of WIP, Carhartt became as globally dominant a force on the street as it had on the job site.

Carhartt Work In Progress WIP label
Image credit: Sebastian Huxley on Unsplash

Carhartt clothes remain a firm favourite of famous folks like Kanye West, Daniel Day-Lewis, Jonah Hill, Robert Pattinson, Chris Pine, and David and Brooklyn Beckham. Among big- and regular-sized cheeses alike, the brand’s double-front work pants, acrylic watch caps, chore coats, Active Jacs and Detroit jackets are particularly popular. The latter-named appeared as a savvy bit of costuming for Matthew McConaughey’ in 2014’s Interstellar, managing to suggest a no-nonsense, hard-working character without sacrificing anything in the looks department. 

Matthew McConaughey wearing Carhartt in Interstellar
Image credit: deepskyobject / CC BY-SA 2.0

I always wear a pair of Carhartt pants when I go hiking and, lacking the swagger of Messrs West, Pine, or McConaughey, I took an undignified but mercifully short tumble down a muddy hillside recently. Thanks to the durable build of my double-fronts, not only did I escape unscathed but said trousers later emerged from the wash with barely a scuff on them. ‘Honest value’ indeed.

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