Upon meeting, people often resort to work talk, with “what do you do?” being a social formality second only, perhaps, to “how do you do?” And, while our jobs don’t define us, they’re still one of the easiest ways to give people an idea of who we are. What we wear, consequently, is another shortcut down that road, and it follows that what’s on us while we’re on the job provides clues as to who we are and what we do.
“Millions and millions of people wear either uniforms or what we call imagewear as a condition of employment every single day,” reports Richard J. Lerman of the North-American Association of Uniform Manufacturers & Distributors (NAUMD), defining imagewear how you might expect, both as apparel being used to identify the image a corporation wants to project to the public and to identify the individual wearers and their job functions.
“On construction sites these days, uniforms are used to identify the carpenters from the pipefitters or the general contractor’s people from the HVAC people so everybody knows who belongs there and who doesn’t,” Lerman explains.
He names another venue in which uniforms provide an even more important sense of belonging: hospitals, where medical apparel now comes in specific colors and designs. “These days, hospitals are moving away from the off-the-shelf kind of scrubs because anybody can go to Wal-Mart, buy those, walk into the hospital and nobody knows who they are,” he remarks. “They could be pulling your plug!”
Regarding identification of a different kind, brand identity has always been paramount in the work-apparel sector, with uniforms becoming identity standards within businesses today, according to Edwards Garment’s Taraynn Lloyd. “Companies use uniforms as an extension of their brand,” she explains, adding that today’s corporations are looking for retail-inspired styles, colors and fabrics providing comfort for workers and brand identity for employers.
Lloyd also reports a change in terminology, with the stigma-loaded uniforms being exchanged for a more suitable euphemism: “Corporations are defining their brand image as a lifestyle rather than a uniform. For example, a formal restaurant requires that their lifestyle attire reflect the type of cuisine they serve.”
Similarly, she says, service industry positions at hotels or personal-care establishments want their attire to represent the type of service patrons will receive. “Color also plays a significant role in the selection of garments,” Lloyd comments. “A cruise ship will use color and style to reflect the vacation atmosphere and differentiate the various staff members, such as pool associate from cruise director.”
Some programs may even alter a garment’s functionality to uphold an image and influence wearers’ actions, and Lloyd has seen this illustrated in requests for pockets sewn shut on shirts, pants and shorts. “The reason why they want this is two-fold: To maintain a crisp, clean appearance; if there are items in the staffer’s pocket it may not provide the [appearance] the company wants,” she explains. “The other reason, especially in an amusement park or casino application, is that they do not want their associates to walk around with hands in pockets,” protecting both associate and establishment from theft.
Spreading brand awareness through embellished employee-wear can serve an internal function, too, as Abel & Acadia’s Don Gabor points out: “Oftentimes the corporate name is put on this merchandise, not strictly for advertising purposes, but also for pilferage purposes. The employer is basically saying ‘that’s my jacket, it’s not your jacket; those are my gloves, not your gloves.’ In this regard, branded workwear also facilitates uniform collection where day laborers get dirty and must return items for washing on a daily basis."
Dressed for the job...
As the saying goes, “Dress for the job you want.” But certain professions require its members to dress for the job at hand because, along with image-projection purposes, workwear styles are put on with major relevance to workers’ performance and safety.
“We do what’s called a five-point breakaway vest,” Gabor offers. “It tears away at the shoulders, sides and stomach area with hook-and-loop.”
A vest like this is important on jobsites where large pieces of machinery are moving and able to snag workers nearby. Garments of this kind are also typically made without pockets for the same reason: avoiding another catch point.
“There’s another standard out there for police, fire and EMTs,” Gabor adds. “Police, fire personnel and EMTs don’t like to use traffic-safety vests because they’re too long, getting in the way of their holster and utility belt.”
Accordingly, the American National Standards Institute (ANSI) basically exempted these service workers, allowing them to don fewer retro-reflective square inches than what’s required otherwise to be in compliance with legislation—essentially, a shorter vest. “So policeman would be perfectly fine in a class-two environment and would be compliant, but a traffic-safety worker wearing that vest would not be.”
DRI DUCK Traders’ Tiffany Anderson also mentions some features built into jacket styles to improve safety conditions, naming a three-piece hood to fit over a hard hat, bi-swing back and articulated elbows for ease of movement, flat-knit rib cuffs to keep extra fabric away from moving parts, Teflon coating to resist oil-based stains, along with UPF sun protection for work shirts. “These small properties can play a large role in keeping the jobsite safe,” she comments.
It’s everybody’s job
Up for its five-year review this year, ANSI will update its traffic-safety standard from 107-2004 to 107-2009, but Gabor doesn’t anticipate any major alterations in terms of traffic-safety regulation.
What is changing, however, is that municipalities which operate under the Manual on Uniform Traffic Control Devices (MUTCD) will be required to follow federal regulations which, states Gabor, are “very adamant now about workers in roadways having ANSI-compliant merchandise. The federal guidelines changed in November of last year and essentially said anybody working on a federal highway project has to wear ANSI-compliant clothing or be subject to being shut down and fined.”
As part of the requirements to meet that standard, a garment must be a certain size with a specific amount of shirt showing after embellishment, pass a square-inch test for retro-reflective striping and shine brighter than the average T. “A T-shirt in yellow will not meet the standard, neither will the fabric,” Gabor states. “When we make a high-visibility T-shirt, we have to literally cook that fabric so that it will stay that bright for thirty days of continuous sunlight.”
Another aspect of visibility is being unsoiled, so garment cleanliness is also part of the standard. Therefore, anyone working in and wearing a certain amount of dirt while building a roadway is no longer compliant. “A dirty vest won’t meet the standard,” Gabor remarks. “A clean vest will, and that’s why almost all of our goods tell you how many washes you can get out of it. When you wash them, you take away that baking process, so then it won’t pass. This is not clothing you can wear indefinitely because, at some point, it’ll fade, and a faded T-shirt, vest or jacket won’t pass muster.”
With ANSI setting the spotlessness standard and the federal guidelines mandating its compliance, the Occupational City Hazard Administration (OCHA) took on the role of “Mom,” checking up to ensure all the kids have on clean clothing.
“What happened during the oh-eight change with the federal regs is OCHA is now able to police those sites. That was never the case before, and people were literally being shut down,” Gabor reports. “So now, just like OCHA can walk into a warehouse or a factory and do a test, they can do the same thing on federal roadways. The federal government says that you have to wear five-gauge gloves on a certain type of job. Well, who’s actually going to check that?” he asks. “The group empowered to check that is OCHA, and the same goes for roadway high visibility.”
Editor’s note: Read more about the specific legislative requirements that cover the embellishment of safety apparel in “Embellishing Safety Apparel.”
Cohesive in any colored collar
While the economic downturn has a smaller percentage of Americans making their way to jobs than in days past, the resilient workforce left standing is demanding no less of its clothing: durability. “What we’re seeing is a slowdown in the turns,” reports NAUMD’s Lerman. “If a particular client would refresh its uniform program every six-to-eight months, now maybe they’re doing it annually.”
While especially important now, durability is sought after in any economic state; a recessed workforce, after all, is a no-gentler one. “General apparel that you buy at Bloomingdales you might wear, I’ll be generous, ten times a year,” Lerman explains. “But a similar item as part of an imagewear program has to be worn at least every third day when you’re working, and under far different conditions.” A factory setting, for example, may present stains and stresses under which a garment of normal weight and structure would quickly fold."
“When it comes to workwear, technical fabrics are quickly gaining popularity,” reports DRI DUCK’s Anderson. “The worker wants to be comfortable yet protected from the outdoor elements.” The good news is that durability and comfort aren’t mutually exclusive anymore, and even style has made its way into the market. “As younger workers come into the workforce, they have different interests and desires. You don’t want to have a program that is not something positive for workers,” says Lerman.
Accordingly, imagewear is veering away from neckties and toward polos and casually-designed items. “Because we want people to want to wear the uniform and feel comfortable and proud of it,” Lerman remarks.
To that end, Lloyd offers some advice for selling uniform programs: “Buyers want to be certain the garments they select will have a positive impact on employees and may solicit their input during the evaluation process. Once it’s time to measure staff for the order, arrange to have a fit line of garments created to accurately measure and outfit the wearer,” she goes on. “Taking time to do this will enhance the professional services offered and build a strong business relationship with the customer.”
While it’s true that you’re not defined by what you do, it is this industry’s hope that, when sporting the latest lifestyle attire, employees will at least get a look with which they can identify.