130 Years of Carhartt: How Hip Hop, Unions, and the American Dream Made Carhartt Clothing a Staple

Photo Courtesy: [Rolling Stone/Youtube, Edward Berthelot/Getty Images, Yulia Images/Getty Images, and Public Domain/Wikimedia Commons]

In 2015, a sitting U.S. president appeared on the cover of one of the most popular magazines in the world. This alone is not earth-shattering, but the photograph says more than a thousand words, namely because of the Carhartt jacket worn by then-President Barack Obama.

Carhartt clothing has been an American staple for over 130 years. As a brand and as a company, Carhartt has been able to forge a connection with its customers for many generations. Like Nike, king of the shoe game, Carhartt clothing and workwear can be found in dressers and closets no matter a person’s age, gender, or race.

Like most success stories, Carhartt’s consistent and ubiquitous presence was not an accident. There are a few reasons why Carhartt work boots, for instance, are worn by construction workers and runway models alike. For Carhartt, it’s been a century and a half of innovation paired with tradition. For example, the first Carhartt jackets appeared in ads that date back to 1917, and that same chore coat is still made today.

The family-owned business has been a part of American history through thick and thin. It hasn’t been all Paris runways and presidential endorsements for the company, so we’re breaking down Carhartt’s success, starting from the beginning.

The First Carhartt Jackets: Detroit Beginnings and Family Values

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Carhartt was founded in the year 1889 by Hamilton Carhartt in Detroit, Michigan. That’s only 90 years after the death of George Washington. And just twenty-three years after the first Juneteenth — the day enslaved people in Texas finally learned they were to be freed — Carhartt Clothing & Workwear was formed in an America on the verge of exponential change.

Industry, as a whole, was revolutionizing, and factory work was one of the most common occupations of that time. Whether the American Dream is a myth or a blueprint, Carhartt’s journey as a brand follows that narrative. Cars were just becoming a thing at the time. Cities and railroads were being built. Farmworkers, firefighters, and other blue-collar professionals needed something to wear while they built the country’s foundations and infrastructure. Enter two sewing machines in Detroit, Michigan, Carhartt’s hometown.

Hamilton started the Carhartt brand with just five employees. Early ads were stamped with a heart that said “union made,” as featured in the photo at the top of the page. That ad is from a 1904 edition of the Tacoma Times. In 1904, we didn’t even have a set “weekend” yet in terms of days off, so the support is pretty groundbreaking for Dickensian times. Could Carhartt’s early support of unions be a part of its enduring success?  

In 1898, a pair of Carhartt overalls went for $3. This might not seem like much by today’s standards, but an inflation calculator suggests that this would come out to about $90 or $100 today. This isn’t far off from what a pair of Carhartt overalls will cost you now. Consistency has been key in Carhartt’s longevity as a company and has helped make it a reliable brand. Obama’s Carhartt winter jacket that goes for $119, for example.

Then and now, a pair of Carhartt boots or any of their workwear remains worth the investment. When the first Carhartt jackets were sewn, clothes weren’t made like the “fast fashion” of today. What you wore was an investment and needed to count, especially for those with working-class careers. Fast fashion isn’t good for the planet, so maybe we can see a return to this mindset from newer companies that want to be around 130 years from now.  

Carhartt the Riveter: A Century of Workwear

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As Carhartt expanded to the point of having factories all over the United States, World Wars and the Great Depression hit. The Depression was a hard time for the company, but that did not stop it from serving a country whose entrepreneurial spirit, in turn, allowed it to grow.

Carhartt opened the doors to its factories to outfit troops during both World Wars. Not only that, but they also outfitted the women who worked the factory and farm jobs that the servicemen were leaving behind. Perhaps if Rosie the Riveter was around today, she would be wearing a Carhartt jacket. Sales of Carhartt would continue long after the war, but it’s safe to say that a lot of the brand’s visibility came through its military services.

When Hamilton Carhartt passed away in 1937, his son Wylie took over the company, and Carhartt remains a family business to this day. Wylie expanded the brand’s line to include more outdoor wear, like the Carhartt winter jacket that you’ll see anywhere and everywhere there’s a winter season.

In the 1950s, Carhartt started entering department stores like Sears and JCPenney. Who would have thought at the time that Carhartt would continue to grow as stores like that downsized and disappeared altogether? Keeping it in the family, ensuring a sustainable product model, and investing in their workers are all pillars that not only make Carhartt stand out, but also maintain its gold standard of workwear status.

Jump Up, Jump Down, Jump Around in Your Carhartts

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The 1980s and ’90s saw a new, more inclusive layer to the brand. People who grew up wearing Carhartt because of their parents were now entering pop culture limelights. In 1989, House of Pain wore Carhartt in their music video for “Jump Around.” Rap and hip hop, newer to the popular space, had blue-collar roots.

The roots of Carhartt workwear in hip hop spaces has a backstory that you might not expect. According to Steven J. Rapiel, the New York City salesman for Carhartt, many early hip-hop artists saw men in their communities wearing Carhartt winter jackets, favoring function over fashion. Of course, it became about fashion too: people saw these men as community figureheads and emulated their style, bringing them onstage, to red carpets and music videos.

Record label, Tommy Boy Music, saw the value of having the Carhartt name be a part of their brand. The company bought a couple hundred Carhartt jackets and gave them to the makers and shakers in their industry. Because the brand was already standing the test of time, this became less of a fad and more of a staple in fashion. Now moguls like Kanye West are seen wearing Carhartt winter coats while out and about.

In a time where people weren’t really talking about diversity, Carhartt found a way to make their brand welcoming and useful for people of different backgrounds. Carhartt workwear was, in a way, like sports jerseys. But the clothing didn’t start appearing on MTV, in Barney’s stores and on runways because of its looks. The function of Carhartt clothing and the tradition embroidered into the brand were a part of the mystique.

From Hip Hop to Hipsters: Are Carhartt Hoodies For Everyone?

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In the 21st century, Carhartt clothing has grown even more ubiquitous since it started WIP (Work in Progress), Carhartt’s streetwear label. WIP does collaborations with other brands, and “collabing” shows that the brand is more current than what you might expect from a company that’s older than telephones. But, even if Carhatt’s clothing hadn’t innovated itself with WIP, Carhartt’s cultural roots would still be up there as a top American brand.

The brand has come under fire for opening factories outside of the states. While there are still Carhartt production facilities across the U.S., most Carhartt clothing today is made in Mexico. There are also Carhartt production facilities in Jordan and Cambodia. Garment workers at some of Carhartt’s manufacturing facilities have gone on strike, and Carhartt has expressed commitment to do better in the future.

As Carhartt approaches a semi-centennial, it spent much of 2020 doing what former President Trump could not: making PPE for frontline workers. This is reminiscent of Carhartt’s assistance to America’s troops throughout the 20th and 21st centuries.

Perhaps this return to form may implore Carhartt to change the game when it comes to supporting their workers and enacting more environmentally sustainable production practices. While a lot of brands across many industries have taken serious hits, Carhartt may have a foundation that’s strong enough to carry on post-pandemic.

Some debates have been had as to whether or not wearing Carhartt while off the job or with no intention of doing blue-collar work is a form of cultural appropriation. Yet, Carhartt clothing and workwear have persisted throughout two centuries for the apparel’s function. Someone might purchase some Carhartt gear specifically for the irony of it all, but that person still benefits from its well-crafted workwear.

Carhartt jeans, jackets and work boots hang in both closets and thrift store racks, and it’s clear that people will continue to wear the gear for years and years to come. Carhartt’s quality is just that good.