The Historical Development of Corporate Clothing

Corporate clothing or work wear, the clothing worn by a great part of the population, is seldom written about. However, the history of it does deserve some attention, as it is inextricably bound up with social issues of the day.

Diana de Marley, produced an interesting review of corporate wear and staff uniforms for the artisans and professionals during the twentieth century. She stated that “after the First World War most professional work wear was in black, as so many people were in mourning, however during the 1920’s grey suits became more common.The battle was on between frock coats and top hats versus lounge suits and bowlers hats, as people selected their corporate clothing.

The short jacket gradually replaced the frock coat, and at the same time the lounge suit became more popular among the working class. They wanted to wear suits, even if they were shoddy. The short jacket and trousers were the modern version of the hip length jacket and knee breeches that they had been wearing since the seventeenth century. The lounge suit had none of the inconvenience of long frock coats, so the workers adopted it in great numbers to such an extent that black lounge suits were accepted as Socialist suits, worn by some into the 1950’s.

When Gordon Selfridge opened his London store in 1909, the male staff had to wear black suits and the women black dresses with high necks. After the War in the Twenties the girls were allowed white blouses, black cardigans and black skirts. The men still had black suits. This was typical of all corporate uniforms for large retailers of merchandise at the time.

A great many uniforms followed fashion. The girls working for Heinz wore long striped blue dresses with gigot sleeves, white aprons, and large white caps to cover their hair. During the Twenties staff uniforms in food factories changed to shorter skirts and lower waists, and in the Thirties the waists went up and the hems went down as part of the return to a more feminine look. It put companies to a lot of expense, but workers did not like to look dated when the cinema made them more conscious of changes in fashion.

A large part of the working population worked on the land during the early part of the twentieth century. Even by the late 1950’s one man in twenty still worked in agriculture, however by the 1980’s this had fallen to one in a hundred. The old labourers who had stuck to their traditional clothing wore heavy corduroy trousers, boots, and leather leggings called buskins in Suffolk and corduroy waistcoats with a cloth back. The old sleeved waistcoats in corduroy were so thick a jacket was not necessary for work wear.

The Great Western Railway prided itself upon its smartness and looks, which characterized just how many companies, expected their workers to represent the corporate image. The GWR rule book of 19333 stated:”when on duty be neat in appearance, and where supplied, wear uniform, number and badge.”

In the mill towns “the first sound in the morning was the clumping of the mill girls clogs down the cobbled street” wrote Orwell in 1937.Clogs continued into the war, along with the tartan shawl , calf length skirt and dark stockings. In the cotton factory their now traditional pinafores continued as the principal form of protection for work wear.”

With the beginning of the Industrial Revolution, and the shift of labour towards the towns, the gradual development of occupational dress suited to the job in hand occurred.

In recent times, we now see more emphasis in corporate clothing and work wear related to the service sector, where the corporate image and brand awareness plays a more important role, and the perception of the business to its customers is ever more important, reinforcing the need for classic corporate wear.

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