Imagine this: you’re busy at work on the site, shovelling sand into the cement mixer, when Doc Brown screeches to a halt in his DeLorean time machine and says “Great Scott! We need to go into the past to see how builders dressed back then. Jump in, Marty!”
As you wonder who Marty is, perhaps also crossing your mind is what kind of weird and wonderful fashions you’ll see on your journey through the ages. Did the Ancient Egyptians wear hard hats? Why would you wear a waistcoat on site if it wasn’t high-vis? And just how comfortable would a pair of cords be in summer?
In the name of curiosity, we take a look back at workwear throughout the years and see how fashions and necessities have changed.
Protective headgear did not come into common use until shipbuilders and dockworkers created helmets by covering their hats in a shell of dried tar. Later, companies began to make leather protective hats for miners, which in the early 20th century became steel hats similar to military helmets worn in WW1. The 1940s saw the arrival of fibreglass and aluminium helmets, followed in the 1950s by plastic hard hats, not unlike those worn in construction today.
Thanks to Directive 89/686/EEC, which came into force in 1992, safety helmets are now required on almost all construction sites, and have saved countless lives. But you don’t have to go too far back to find mind-boggling photographs of girder-straddling construction workers wearing flat caps or going bareheaded.
An early example of safety goggles can be found in P. Johnson’s patented ‘eye-protector’ of 1880 – two layers of semi-transparent cloth which offered some shielding from bright light, but very little protection from impact. Around the turn of the last century, a French scientist used a liquid-plastic-coated glass to create safety glass, which led to the creation of the first industrial safety goggles. But it wasn’t until the late 1970s that protective eyewear became practical and more commonly used.
Today’s protective eye wear is lightweight, comfortable, and even fashionable, meaning that workers have no excuse not to comply with safety regulations.
Gloves go back a long way – at least as far as 1370BC and Tutankhamun’s tomb, and were also used by the ancient Greeks and Romans. With tanning one of the earliest industries, gloves were made to provide protection against cold, heat and injury, as well as dirt and disease.
Now safety gloves are required for a range of manual work, and modern varieties offer flexibility and comfort as well as protection.
Thanks to paintings discovered on the walls of their tombs, we know the Ancient Egyptians wore precious little when they were building the pyramids. These images show slave labourers dressed in what look like skirts, which were probably made from linen. While this would have helped them stay cool in the sun, it would have offered next to no protection while they worked.
Fast forward to the mid-19th century, and manual labourers were positively overdressed. Navvies commonly wore flat caps, heavy boots, corduroy trousers, and even waistcoats while they toiled. Trousers were loose and worn to the stomach, Simon Cowell-style, and had to be held up with suspenders.
Nowadays, construction workers benefit from man-made materials that enable workwear to be lightweight and breathable while still offering a degree of protection. Clothing can be fire-retardant and durable, as well as reflective to increase awareness on sites.
Navvies used to wear heavy boots edged with iron and with soles of an inch or thicker. While these sound restrictive, they would have at least offered some protection while working, which could not be said for the footwear of earlier workers.
In the 1980s, workboots such as those made by Dr. Martens became part of high street fashion, and this in turn has fed back into the design of current protective footwear. Safety boots now come in a variety of fashionable styles, and include breathable and water-resistant materials to improve comfort, as well as essential features such as steel toe caps and shock absorbing soles.
So there you have it, a whistlestop tour of history’s workwear. Now, even when the sun’s beating down and you wish you could take off your high-vis vest, you might think yourself lucky that you’re not sweating your bits off in head-to-toe wool.
At Fixings and Powertool Center, we stock a wide range of workwear both functional and fashionable, as well as all of the necessary Personal Protective Equipment. Don’t get caught out on site – make sure you’re properly equipped for the job. Contact us here for more information.