Distinctively functional in its look, utility workwear is usually associated with boiler suits, cargo pants and prominent pockets.
Since the origin of utility fashion is rooted in the need for austere, durable clothes, the materials used tend to be comfortable, low maintenance and resistant to dirt.
More recent workwear fashion has also begun to make use of natural and eco-friendly materials like TENCEL™ Lyocell and organic cotton.
Utility clothing or workwear has always been a mainstay in men’s fashion, routinely trending every few seasons or so. Think quilted nylon, robust canvas, classic denim, crisp poplin and other lightweight clothing materials.Penelope Armstrong (boohooMAN Senior Menswear Designer)
- A short history of utility wear
- How to wear the utility fashion trend?
- Utility fashion must-haves for guys and how to style them
- Utility outfits for men
- Take-home message
A Short History of Utility Wear
But have you ever wondered about how utility wear came into being? Like most things we take for granted today, cargo clothing and other utility garments were products borne out of necessity.
Origins of utility wear
During World War II, the United Kingdom introduced the so-called Utility Clothing Scheme, which was essentially a project for rationing clothing materials and labour. The scheme was conceptualised as a response to the need for ‘wartime austerity’ as raw materials and human resources were dedicated to support the country’s active role and efforts in the war.
The UK government, through the Board of Trade, set guidelines that defined utility clothing and marked it with the CC41 label, with CC standing for ‘controlled commodity’.
The approved designs for utility clothing were made by leading fashion designers commissioned by the government. Prominent designers Norman Hartnell, Hardy Amies and the rest of the Incorporated Society of London Fashion Designers all participated in the project.
In spite of the heavy regulation, austere designs and the focus on the economy of production, the garment industry was able to produce utility clothing that was decent, durable and fashionable in its own way. Manufacturers and retailers were initially unhappy as utility clothing was first sold at substantially lower prices than ‘mainstream clothes’.
Even the public developed a dislike for it at the start, but this began to change as they realised that the quality of utility clothing was good and that it had varied styles and colours. The government’s utility scheme officially ended in 1952, a few years after the end of WWII.
Utility fashion in pop culture
Pop culture is replete with male and female style icons and celebrities who’ve been the biggest fans of utility fashion.
1990s fashion icon Jennifer Aniston has been rocking cargo pants ever since ‘The Rachel’ hairstyle took over. Dua Lipa, Rita Ora and Rihanna have all experimented with the tougher, edgy aesthetic of utilitarian-inspired clothing. And who can forget Angelina Jolie’s Lara Croft styling and Zoe Saldana in ‘Colombiana’?
Tom Cruise has been living in utility vests since he took on the role of Ethan Hunt in ‘Mission Impossible’. There’s also Leonardo DiCaprio’s ongoing love affair with cargo shorts. Then there’s Chris Martin, James McAvoy, Michael Fassbender, Hugh Jackman, Liam Hemsworth, Robert Pattinson, Zac Efron and Zayn Malik, who have all sported their versions of workwear fashion – whether for a role or as part of their everyday ensemble.
How to Wear the Utility Fashion Trend?
- Start simple with a utility vest
- Choose utility pieces in earthy tones for a softer approach
- Go for darker tones or camo prints for an edgier look
- Go for utility pieces in oversized fit
- Make any outfit ‘utilitarian’ with the right accessories
- Complement your outfit with boots or chunky trainers
- Don’t overdo it
Now that utility fashion has made a comeback on the runways, you might be thinking of experimenting with workwear if you’ve never tried them before.
Whether you’re a utilitarian-inspired clothing neophyte or a certified workwear fanatic, here’s some advice on how you can rock the cargo trend today.
Start simple with a utility vest
The utility vest is a workwear styling staple, and it’s super versatile. The classic utility vest in black or navy is always a safe bet. Usually made with a canvas-style fabric and featuring a front zip detail and several functional pockets, a utility vest is a great way to add a touch of edginess to your outfit.
Choose utility pieces in earthy tones for a softer approach
The workwear trend usually goes with a plant-inspired, natural or earthy palette. Think dense verdant forests, grassy savannah or autumnal colours, which is why mossy greens, sandy beiges and warm browns tend to dominate conventional utilitarian-inspired clothing.
For a softer look, go for lighter, earthy tones. There’s the humble chino to work with, for example, and we’re not just talking about cargo pants here. There are now chino utility vests and they go famously well with – you guessed it – chinos.
Go for darker tones or camo prints for an edgier look
If you’re going for an edgier or darker look and are a fan of the warcore trend, you can opt for darker hues like brown, black and navy blue, or camo prints straight out of the military closet.
Go for utility pieces in oversized fit
The best utility pieces are comfy and easy to slide into, so consider getting oversized everything – shirts, cargo pants and utility jackets. For example, you can achieve a relaxed look that’s reminiscent of military clothing by wearing baggy or straight-legged baggy style camo pants.
Make any outfit ‘utilitarian’ with the right accessories
When it comes to accessorising workwear fashion, think hiking and fishing gear!
You can jazz up your utility fashion getup with a highly functional trail backpack, sling bag, harness bag, belt bag or cross-body bag. Top it off with fashionable eyewear (you can’t go wrong with aviators), your favourite cap, bucket or bush hat.
Complement your outfit with boots or chunky trainers
Utility fashion is best finished with heavy-duty chunky sneakers (find out what to wear with chunky trainers) or workwear-slash-hiking boots, especially if you’re going for a darker, edgy look.
Camo and cargo pants also look great when styled casually with day-to-day footwear, high-tops and low-tops like Vans, Chuck Taylors and other trusty street-style brands.
Don’t overdo it
Opting for camouflage? Avoid going overboard with the camo prints by pairing a camo vest with a solid-coloured top and pants. Camo pants pair well with solid pieces, like a plain white tee underneath a dark-coloured bomber jacket. If you go for a loose top, like a slouchy utility vest over a relaxed white tee, opt for a straight-cut bottom or non-cargo trousers.
Utility Fashion Must-Haves for Guys and How to Style Them
The utility fashion trend is known for being both loose and structured – whether it’s cargo pants, overshirts, utility or bomber jackets, utility pants or sweatshirts. Practical details that are part and parcel of workwear fashion include pockets – lots of them – visible hardware (e.g. metal zips and snaps) and adjustable straps.
Here, we’re sticking to utilitarian-inspired fashion staples and telling you how you can style them to look your workwear best.
How to wear men’s utility jackets?
When it comes to utility jackets, you’re practically spoilt for choice. Aside from bomber jackets, you can wear truckers, chore jackets, windbreakers and field jackets to give you an outdoorsy edge or military look.
Get in on the utility fashion trend without going over the top by pairing a utility-style jacket (not designed for army use) with loose or oversized cargo trousers and a camo bucket hat. Or wear a camo print shirt underneath a field jacket and match these with comfy cargo trousers and chunky-soled trainers.
How to wear men’s cargo pants?
Cargo pants are among the easiest utility fashion pieces you can work with. You can try matching relaxed cargo pants with a leather bike or bomber jacket over a simple shirt.
Loose-fitting or straight-cut cargo pants work great with loose, casual long-sleeved shirts, plain or graphic tees, sweaters and hoodies.
When the weather’s warmer, you can opt for short camo cargo pants and a loose T-shirt or a long-sleeve plaid shirt over a plain tee.
How to wear men’s utility vests?
Ideal for layering, you can wear a utility vest over a simple white tee or long-sleeved T-shirt during warmer weather or festival season. Wear it atop a hoodie or a lightweight jacket for when it’s cooler. For winter fashion, you can wear your utility vest or gilet under a coat. You can also work in a harness-style vest into your getup the same way.
How to wear men’s utility shirts?
The utility shirt is a casual button-up shirt with utility details, like two front pockets, a tab collar or tab sleeves, or pockets along the sleeves. It’s usually made of heavier cotton material (or synthetic blends) and can add a touch of ruggedness to your style.
Due to the heavier material used for making utility shirts, you can wear them during cooler weather like fall. They look great untucked when paired with dark denim trousers and work boots. You can wear them alone or on top of your favourite casual tee. For the colder winter months, wear them for layering over a shirt and under a loose jacket.
How to wear men’s utility joggers?
It’s easy to combine style, function and comfort with utility joggers like cargo or camo jogger pants.
Skinnier than your usual loose cargo or camo pants, utility joggers are cold-weather appropriate attire, as they fit somewhat closer to your form. Wear them with your favourite loose T-shirt and jacket duo, slouchy hoodie or sweatshirt, or your muscle shirt at the gym.
How to wear men’s utility hoodies?
You can layer up fashionably with utility hoodies that usually feature several big, cargo or kangaroo pockets, a draw-cord hood and the occasional camouflage graphic (on sleeves and/or hood).
Utility hoodies can be form-fitting, comfortable or loose and are great for wearing with cargo pants, jeans or utility jogger pants. Wear them with heavy or chunky sneakers, work boots or safety shoes.
Utility Outfits for Men
For those who’ve never tried it, the utility fashion trend can come off as tricky or intimidating. Trust us, it’s not. In fact, it’s one of the most comfortable and wearable styles ever.
And with these styling tips, you can easily and confidently channel your workwear aesthetic starting today.