history of workwear and uniforms

A brief history of workwear and uniforms


Workwear has come a long way since back to the Middle Ages and has seen many evolutions throughout history. However, did you know when, and where was invented?


The wearing of work clothes started early, specifically at the time when servants at European courts had to don uniform garments. Then, called occupational uniforms, were worn during special occasions and work periods. They were usually provided by the employer and often came in specific colors and badges to signify a worker’s rank and function.


Court liveries were the first uniforms in Europe. Liveries come from the French word livrer, which meant “to deliver.” Liveries were worn by servants in a household and became a trend and the norm back then: the more elaborate and decorated a livery was, the more distinguished the master was expected to be.

The Uniforms had a dual purpose then: to set the servants apart from the general public and to show the financial capacity of their masters.

After the acceptance of uniforms in courts, the military decided to utilize them. Very popular in many countries throughout Europe, military commanders would require soldiers to wear work uniforms while on the job. These were commonly referred to in the day as liveries. The varying array of uniforms served an important function of distinguishing between the different ranks of the soldiers.

The first wide-scale use of compulsory uniforms for a profession is accredited to King Frederick II who reigned in Germany in 1785. He decreed that all postal staff should wear a uniform consisting of blue coats with orange collars and cuffs featuring badges and other accessories such as epaulets to distinguish between roles.


In the nineteenth century, occupational uniforms had been introduced for state employees across much of Europe. Many were implemented as a response to the French Revolution and Napoleonic wars and as the church and the aristocracy were falling out of favor, government uniforms were used to provide people with a sense of authority and to symbolize the start of a new era.

It was shortly after this that uniforms were adopted across all government bodies such as the police, firefighters, government departments, forestry, and even the mining and metalwork industries.

In Britain, from the mid-19th century, manual workers (known as navies) routinely wore a standardized kind of workwear comprising flat caps, corduroy pants, heavy boots, and hard-wearing jackets along with a colored neck kerchief to soak up the sweat. Often the jacket featured leather shoulder patches to prevent wear from shouldering a shovel or pick and variations of this basic “uniform” appeared in factories, with secured pant cuffs and collarless shirts to prevent being caught in moving machinery.


The rapid industrial and manufacturing expansion through the first half of the 20th century brought with it a growth in worker representation, with the health and safety of factory and manual workers becoming a foremost consideration. Along with this came a focus on providing workers with appropriate workplace clothing that was safe, fit for purpose, and, most importantly, comfortable. This was coincidental with the emerging concepts of brand and a desire to outfit employees with a “corporate” uniform.

From the workers’ end, certain types of clothing began to reflect specific occupations, borne out of pragmatic reasons. For instance, the rise of the Industrial Revolution marked a colossal shift in occupational choices and sparked a mass exodus from the farms of the countryside to industrial workplaces. This period marked the prominence of the use of denim as industrial workwear – designed to withstand harsh environments and provide multi-functional uses – for miners and other manual laborers.


With the emergence of stricter workplace health and safety laws from the 1990s in particular, workwear has evolved more rapidly and with an increasing focus on safety, comfort, and task suitability. This has included the coining of the term “Personal Protective Equipment”, which includes clothing, eyewear, protective headwear, footwear, and a range of other accessories designed to minimize the likelihood of manual workers and trades getting injured, while also being comfortable.


Work uniforms have come a long way over the centuries. From getting their start as a showcase of a European master’s wealth to becoming a way to distinguish different professions, they’ve developed into an essential need in the workforce. 

Modern-day workwear has also been developed in line with new technologies, with style and personal safety being key to the design process.

Technological advances, as well as the incorporation of customer perception into the design, have both brought more variety when it comes to work uniforms. 

Business owners, employees, and customers alike can all agree that a well-made work uniform is the mark of true attention to detail, craftsmanship, and meticulousness that can only come from companies that care about their brand.

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