Still Built To Work: A Brief History of Dickies
Still Built To Work: A Brief History of Dickies
- Words Brenden Gallagher
- Date September 18, 2017
For almost a century, the Dickies brand has been synonymous with American working class style. The brand’s famous poly/cotton 874 work pant and their Eisenhower jacket are as quintessentially American as a John Deere tractor or a Ford truck. Though Dickies have continued to enjoy their blue collar credentials, the brand has also emerged in as a mainstay of U.S. street style in recent decades. Just as Dickies started as a signifier of a working class attitude, Dickies has come to signify a gritty, authentic take on street style. Whether it’s on the runway or the factory floor, Dickies have long been a durable, dynamic fashion statement. As Dickies prepares to celebrate their centennial next year, let’s look back at how the brand grew to become an American icon.
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Dickies (formally Williamson-Dickie Mfg. Co.) started life as a small bib overall company. C.N. Williamson and E.E. "Colonel" Dickie tried several other business ventures (including a “vehicle and harness” concern) before they landed on the precursor to Dickies, the U.S. Overall Company, in 1918. The duo began the Texas-based business with a handful of friends, but a few years later, they bought out the entirety of the company with a third family member and renamed it Williamson-Dickie.
The first decades of the company’s growth were steady; Williamson-Dickie even continued to thrive through the Great Depression. This growth skyrocketed following World War II. During the war, the company produced millions of uniforms, putting them in a prime position in terms of infrastructure. Dickies’ ramped up production facilities were converted back to civilian production after the war allowing for unprecedented growth and expansion. In short order, Williamson-Dickie was America’s predominant workwear company. By the 1950s, Dickies not only has market saturation in the United States, but had made inroads in Europe and the Middle East.
In the 1960s, Dickies produced two major breakthroughs that would set the tone for their iconic clothes for the rest of the century. The company perfected their signature fabric--a seamless integration of durability and comfort. They arrived at a blend of sixty-five percent polyester and thirty-five percent cotton that would set the standard for their legendarily “indestructible” clothing. This, and the addition of the zipper rather than trational button-fly, propelled the brand’s iconic work pants towards the form we now know. Williamson-Dickie also partnered with RIT dye, encouraging customers to dye their work pants any color they like. This move led to Dickies’ famously broad color palette that still attracts professional and retail customers. The 874 work pant, as we know it today, [just celebrated]its 50th anniversary, a testament to their continued relevance.
The opening of standalone retails shops in the 1970s throughout the southern United States helped Dickies transition from its position as a workwear giant to a mass market retail brand. The aim was to offer a showroom and reliable one-stop uniform shop for their traditional customer base. Uniformed workers like postmen and police officers could stop in for replacement clothing and accessories. Not only could you purchase specialized items like holsters and underwear, but you could replace your uniform quickly and efficiently. The unforeseen benefit of these retail spaces was introducing the Dickies brand to customers what wouldn’t otherwise come in contact with their clothes.
The 1970s was period of growth for the company on several fronts beyond brick-and-mortar. The brand opened industrial laundry shops, a move that solidifed their relationships with companies that wore their uniforms. Dickies also purchased a significant stake in the General Diaper Company (which quickly took on the new name “Blessings”), which the company expanded and transformed into a health care products provider. By the 1980s, the company’s offerings were extensive, from dental supplies to literature for expecting mothers.
Dickies’ genesis as a symbol of underground cool began in the 80s. Latinx men and women in Southern California began incorporating Dickies into their style in the late 70s, and by the 80s, Dickies had become a staple of regional streetstyle. Men would wear Dickies with with clean oversized button-up work shirts or fitted white t-shirts. Women wore them as a part of the reemerging pin-up look of the period. This look came to be known as the “Cholo” style. This trend grew out of Latinx neighborhoods and took hold throughout Southern California. Members of N.W.A. were also often seen wearing Dickies, and you could see skateboarders wearing them from Venice to Silverlake.
Along with other workwear brands like Carhartt, Dickies started to draw the interest of broader youth culture in the 1990s. Dickies’ connection with Los Angeles fashion helped associate the brand with skate culture and pop punk: two major turn of the century SoCal exports the went mainstream in suburban America. Drew Barrymore, Avril Lavigne, Justin Timberlake, and TLC are just a handful of the celebrities who were seen sporting Dickies in the 90s and early 2000s. Gwen Stefani was Dickies’ greatest pop culture ambassador of the era, wearing Dickies 874s on No Doubt’s Just A Girl album cover and in the “Hollaback Girl” video. Stefani readily admits to being deeply influenced by chola style, which has led to accusations of cultural appropriation. This newfound cultural cache let the company to open a number of retail outlet stores in the 90s and 2000s.
The widespread impact of the work pant has had a significant impact on fashion proper. As an American staple, naturally they found a fan in Keizo Shimizu, founder of Nepenthes, who now offers a restructured pair as a part of Needles Rebuild. Dickies have even made appearances on the runway. When Junya Watanabe set out to highlight eight iconic American brands in his 2006 Spring-Summer show, Dickies made the cut, along with other enduring brands like Levis and Converse.
As Dickies has nurtured their pop culture saturation, the company has remained devoted to their core values of creating quality workwear. In recent years, they have expanded to add work boots (a move aided by the recent acquisition of footwear brands Terra and Kodiak) and flame retardant clothing (made possible by the company’s purchase of Workrite Uniform Co.) to their arsenal. Today, the brand offers dozens of products aimed at serving working people across the spectrum of employment, and still maintain a strong commercial retail presence. In 2008, Dickies was purchased by international retail conglomerate VF, and now the brand is available in over 100 countries.
Familiar to both high fashion and the dirtiest of jobs, Dickies have remained a staple of American style and American life for decades. As the brand celebrates a century of providing workwear for America’s toughest jobs, Dickies remains an iconic brand, as durable and dynamic as the workers they serve.