The Workwear Challenge
March 15, 2017

The Workwear Challenge

Mondays pose a familiar challenge: the art of getting out of bed. The staggered progression of a Monday morning in our lives includes feet dragging to the bathroom with a rag doll in tow and a promise to self to relish a five-second snooze while brushing our teeth. Finally feeling illuminated, our descend to reality includes bolting across the floor at a speed Usain Bolt could envy. Deciding what to wear to work on such days is a Chekhovian task and a classic white shirt or a beloved favourite usually come to the rescue. While casual dressing leaves room for interpretation and personal perspective, flexibility in workwear standards is a continuously evolving and tenacious process.

The rise of workwear clothing became prominent with the Industrial Revolution in the western hemisphere (1760-1840) and the emergence of a formal labour force. Sartorial choices that suited both farming and artisan work were replaced by the need for clothing more suited to heavy labour and presence around machines for men. Levi’s, for instance, became popular amongst gold miners for the durability of their patented metal rivet pockets. Over time the manufacturing economy saw a shift to service and tertiary industry including knowledge and IT hubs which influenced developments in clothing choices in new ways. In specific, the button up shirt, suit and khaki style trousers replaced denim and dungarees.

Workwear didn’t just evolve with changing nature of jobs but also with its resulting cultures. Kayleigh Ziolo, a writer at The Attic London, describes this evolution. The 1920s-40s witnessed conservative suit styles in neutral tones as preferred choice in an era familiar with war and scarcity. This was followed by economic expansion and the build up towards rebellion in the 1940s-1960s with design labels emerging and asserting importance. The 1960s-80s representing this materialism saw a relapse in conformity with the expansion of media, communication and globalisation. Contemporary choices for workwear made by those born in the 1980s-2000s tend to be more rebellious and expressive, defying the norm as conformity takes second seat to personal development. 

This general evolution belies the nuances of female workwear trends that changed and adopted cultural narratives on women’s choice. Professor Frances Corner examines the impact that choice had on evolving workwear in women’s fashion. The 1960s-80s with the second wave women’s movement saw rising hemlines at the workplace while the 1980s-2000s saw the emergence of the power suit and shoulder pads as women adopted ‘masculine’ features to merge into male bastions. An important point she addresses is that choice can be both oppressive and liberating. The sheer choice of self-determination can be overwhelming when the onus is on the individual to decide what is appropriate as Emma McClendon, assistant curator at the Museum FIT describes, “When we talk about work-wear, we’re really talking about looking appropriate at a given cultural moment," adding that "..appropriateness is hard to pin down; it’s constantly changing in response to what’s going on in the world."

Choices are liberating for they follow from self-determination and self-awareness. In the Indian context, a history of western workwear clothing does little for a public awareness of indigenous work clothing and only illuminates the effects of globalisation on Indian choice. With this in mind, we decided to compile a preliminary photo narrative of Indian work wear through the ages. While essentially featuring draped garments, the diversity in terms of hemlines, silhouettes and styling is refreshing. The cotton drape was a chosen favourite for work across decades for its suitability to Indian climate. The purpose of this narrative is only to bring an Indian history of work clothing, particularly the diversity of drape, to awareness and choice. We also explore how this Indian aesthetic reflects on the Khara Kapas style.

(On top) Punjab, 1840s-1870s. Image source: Vintage Indian Clothing. Seen in this illustration is the angarkha style top worn over a salwar style trouser with a cloak. While it is uncertain if the figure in question is ‘at work’ she certainly appears outdoors. The angarkha continues to be worn with a skirt in western India. (On bottom) The Sharpener Shavings angarkha style top with the Tiffin Box pants / Khara Kapas Spring-Summer 2017.


(On top) A fan and basket seller in Patna in the early 1800s featuring a midi hemline drape. Image source: (In middle) This higher hemline recurs in the 1920s with foreign travel on missionary pursuits and worn especially with Mary Johns. Image source: Vintage Indian Clothing. (At bottom) The Grown Ups gather and flare midi dress/ Khara Kapas Spring- Summer 2017.


(On top) An illustrated piece published in “Costumes of Western India”, London News, 1876. Image source: Illustrated here are differing drape styles featuring an assortment of silhouettes including an asymmetrical style (see bottom right) seen in western India. Also mentioned is the associated profession of the wearer.(On bottom) The Mango Byte asymmetrical dress/ Khara Kapas Spring-Summer 2017. Also see, Jungle Book and Midnight Snack.


(On top) The early 1900s, shorter hemlines at work, featuring classic milkwoman style. Image source: (On bottom) The Graph Dress / Khara Kapas Spring- Summer 2017.  Also see, Chalkboard

(On top) Women at a Home Science Class, 1957 featuring a nine-yard drape with gathers on the side. Image source: Vintage Indian Clothing. (On bottom) The Essay asymmetrical dress with gathers on side / Khara Kapas Spring- Summer 2017. Also see, Cotton Candy and Stole Mama's Lipstick.

(On top) The Khada dupatta style featuring a two-sided drape and trousers beneath. It is uncertain if this style was worn to work. Image source: Vintage Indian Clothing. (On bottom) The Cream Biscuit Jhabla featuring two-sided pintucks/ Khara Kapas Spring-Summer 2017. Also see, Wishing on a Cloud

And finally, for a splash of androgyny, kurta style worn by an ayah circa 1920, image source:


(On bottom) Papa's Kurta Dress and Papa's Culottes / Khara Kapas Spring-Summer 2017.

For a more in-depth look into the history of Indian clothing, we recommend Vintage Indian Clothing



  1. Dave’s New York, pub. April 2013, last accessed March, 2017
  2. Ziolo Kayleigh,“A Potted History of Workwear”, Chartered Management Institute, pub. Sept, 2011, last accessed March, 2017,
  3. Corner Frances, “The History of Women’s Workwear”, Harpers Bazaar UK, pub. Aug, 2015, last accessed March, 2017,
  4. Ives Alison, “What the history of workwear says about women”, MSN Lifestyle, pub. Sept, 2016, last accessed March, 2017,
  5. Vintage Indian Clothing,
  6. South Asia Study resources, Columbia University,