Dan Neil’s op-ed “My Carhartt Detroit Jacket” was published in The Wall Street Journal March 5, 2011.
His baseball cap was about as used-up as could be and still claim the dignity of being called headwear. It was torn up and brown with dried sweat, a workingman’s crown of thorns. Above the brim it said “Carhartt.”
“I started buying Carhartt clothes when I moved to Montana and took up trail work,” said Dustin Gaines, 35, of Livingston, sitting in a coffee shop in Raleigh, N.C., with his wife, Shannon O’Malley. “I think their clothes are really well built.” Mr. Gaines, now a carpenter, was wearing scuffed-up canvas Carhartt “logger” pants, the kind with a double layer of fabric riveted to the leg fronts. “He got married in these,” Ms. O’Malley noted.
In my perfect and naïve universe, where brands have meaning and meanings matter, only people like these should be allowed to buy Carhartt, from the Dearborn, Mich.-based manufacturer of sturdy work clothes. As one blue-collar brand after another—Levi’s, Wrangler, Dr. Martens—has descended into galling hipsterism, co-opted by soft-handed college students who wear their irony like John Deere baseball caps, Carhartt has managed to stand apart, the secret handshake of the American yeomantry.
My own Carhartt jacket, a tan hooded “Detroit” model, was forever my sartorial entrée to the working class. Whenever I needed to pass among them on some journalistic assignment or other—sprint car racing in Knoxville, Iowa, sand dragsters in Oklahoma—I’d shoulder on the Carhartt and begin speaking in the hard, flat drawl of my youth. For me, Carhartt was camouflage, but not the deer-hunting kind.
That jacket, pale with age, is gone now, I know not where. And as I considered replacing it recently I had to recalibrate the meaning, the code of the brand, which has changed drastically in my lifetime, and not to my taste.
Carhartt is in the midst of a streetwear breakout. The Carhartt catalog is filled with slim-fit women’s jeans, logo-wear hoodies and the company’s own collection of cool-kid casual wear, the 1889 Collection (named after the year the company was founded). In Europe Carhartt has gone full “Gap,” in collaboration with the German clothier Work in Progress. The European Carhartt clothing line is, if anything, anti-work, a slagheap of thrift-shop dishevelment—letterman cardigans and puffy thermal vests—designed for inked-up millennials. The company has collaborated with shoemakers Vans and Burton, and maintains affinity-marketing programs targeting skaters and BMX riders. I say the following in my best grumpy-old-man voice: Bah.
The Carhartt-wearers of my youth—the hunters and horsemen of eastern North Carolina—would have escorted these lanky Euro-goofs to the edge of town and roughly deposited them from the beds of pickups.
Most troubling of all, Carhartt is going prêt-à-porter: In May, the company will roll out the Adam Kimmel collection—he’s a well-groomed New York menswear designer—to be retailed through that well-known farm-and-feed outlet, Barney’s. Offerings will include a cashmere knit beanie and a quilted blazer in moleskin.
I don’t begrudge any company growing its business and I have reason to be sympathetic to Carhartt, a family-owned business that maintains its headquarters and studios in Michigan, which is nowhere near Seventh Avenue. Carhartt also manufactures about 10% of its merchandise in the USA, which is roughly 10% more than Nike.
Nor is this Carhartt’s first brush with clothing-as-costume. In the 1990s, hip-hop artists started sporting Carhartt clothes and Timberland boots in a way that, deconstructed, spoke of the hard times of urban life.
Still, it seems to me, something has been lost, the silent signification of the Carhartt as something real and invested, productive and capable, grounded and consequential—exactly like the people who wore it.
North Face suffered a similar fate. The company that became famous for hard-core mountaineering gear has become utterly trivialized by its popularity. Now any kid with 100 bucks can step out in 700-fill technical clothing. The mall has replaced the Matterhorn.
I bought a deep violet Carhartt Detroit jacket last week—my local tack store was out of the tan. And I have to say, I was reassured. Still the same cotton duck fabric, still the distinctive triple-stitched seams at the shoulders and gussets. No sign as yet the company was extracting profit by using a cheaper stitching process. The big-gauge, brass-like zipper was right where I left it, with a pull tab big enough to be worked with heavy gloves. The elastic gathers at the waist and wrists shut out the cold. The quilted poly-fill batting inside the jacket was thin but surprisingly warm.
Flattering it’s not. With the oversized hood up, the jacket makes me look a little like the Unibomber. But it is tough and diesel and warm and venerable. It feels like it could ward off bullets. I got it on sale for about $50. I can’t remember the last time so much satisfaction came at anywhere near that price.
I’m sorry that Carhartt is no longer the Navajo code talk of working men and women. But as long as the company keeps building the Detroit jacket, I’ll keep coming back.