The appeal of Carhartt jackets from cowboys to celebrities
The first time I wore Carhartt was six years ago. I was making an early December trip to the “Frozen Tundra” of Lambeau Field to see the Green Bay Packers play and didn’t own a coat heavy enough to contend with the harsh elements.
My mother dug into her closet and fished out a faded green, blanket-lined Carhartt work jacket that belonged to my late father, an electrician (and football official). It had two white paint splatters on the back and a chest pocket still stocked with what I called his blue-collar pocket square: a handful of plastic zip ties peeking from the top.
It was also massive on my 5-foot frame. But I was in a pinch, and it was Green Bay, not cocktails at Donatella Versace’s house.
On game day, sitting on the ice-cold bleacher seats during that high holy pigskin pilgrimage, I felt both the physical and unexpected emotional warmth of my father’s jacket. I grew attached and continued to wear it when I returned to the Big Apple, despite looking like a little girl playing dress-up.
And boy, it got weird. Dudes who looked like they worshiped at the altar of Supreme were stopping me on the street to compliment my coat. A few even offered, in vain, to buy it off my back because it had the hallmarks of hard work. That’s when I really started to understand that the allure of the Carhartt coat goes beyond it being a utilitarian workhorse.
A few months later, a stylist friend surprised me with a brand-new jacket in the brand’s signature “Carhartt Brown” that was left over from a shoot. It fit. So I passed my dad’s on to my teenage nephew, who was excited to inherit it. And just like that, I officially and accidentally became a Carhartt girl.
But lately, the classic American workwear staple had subtly revealed itself as something more than a nostalgic tie to my father or a fetish among streetwear enthusiasts. It has become the most unifying, universal garment — especially in these most strange, politically divisive times.
It’s a piece that crosses socioeconomic, geographical and political lines and age demographics. Celebrities such as Kanye West and Cindy Crawford’s teenage model daughter Kaia Gerber are frequently photographed in the same jackets as the dusty construction worker on the subway. The very same style worn by moneyed Manhattanites, hypebeasts and cool kids in Europe is the uniform for farmers and ranchers in rural America. And nowadays, you can’t walk a block in the city without seeing its logo on a coat, overalls or hat: Even babies in Brooklyn are rocking the brand’s beanies.
“Carhartt is the only brand that can transcend from the farmer’s back to the kid walking down Broadway; in a way that I don’t even think Nike can,” Jeff Carvalho, the co-founder of Highsnobiety, a site dedicated to fashion and streetwear tells The Post.
Though the clothing, which is made from stiff cotton canvas, comes in mostly muddy earth tones, it is both red and blue.
“It’s something I can wear in my town upstate [in Sullivan County], which is very red. I can relate to the person on the other side, or the farmer there. We all look the same in it. It’s fairly affordable and built to last,” he adds.
Founded in 1889 in Detroit by Hamilton Carhartt, the company first began making overalls. Their famous stiff duck canvas fabric was then made into military workwear during the first and second World Wars and would become synonymous with the working class. In the 80s, it emerged in the hip hop scene, and in late ’90s, the brand launched its edgier Work in Progress (WIP) offshoot out of Europe, which catered to the discerning fashionista crowd in a way that didn’t alienate its blue-collar devotees, but made the logo more visible in style circles.
“It was wild to see fashion fellas in Carhartt who were normally afraid to get dirty,” says Mordechai Rubinstein, a costume consultant for “Uncut Gems” and street fashion photographer who has been covering the convergence of workwear and menswear since 2008.
This idea crystalized in November when I met 76-year-old Texan Tom Perini. The charming second-generation rancher, who turned his family home just outside of Abilene, Texas, into the world-renowned Perini Ranch Steakhouse, was in New York to promote a cookbook. We met for breakfast, and I wore my Carhartt over a navy turtleneck and jeans. He took one look at me and said in disbelief, “You’re wearing a Carhartt? And if you are, why did I buy a new blazer for my visit here? Why didn’t I just wear my Carhartt?”
To him, the coat was shorthand for hardy cowboys, so he was shocked to see a city slicker in one. I explained its popularity and influence in streetwear and joked that he was unknowingly a fashion icon.
“Wearing a worn Carhartt is a badge of honor. It’s a wonderful garment and I don’t use that word very often,” Perini says. “It’s tough and durable, and I think the people who wear it know what they are doing.”
It’s even good enough for presidents – of both parties. In 2015, Barack Obama wore one during a trip to Alaska. And Perini, who has cooked for former President George W. Bush at both the White House and at his Crawford, Texas, ranch, said 43 is also a fan. But Perini had a little advice for Bush when he saw him wearing a crisp new Carhartt jacket during the end of his tenure as governor of Texas: Wash it.
“I suggested casually that he wash it. I think I got a smile from him but when you tell someone to wash their coat, it doesn’t sound so nice. I later explained that it will make it much softer.”
Carvalho agrees. Last spring, he was at a yard sale near his home in Sullivan County and stumbled upon the motherload: 20 pieces of Carhartt jackets and overalls worn by a rancher who drove cattle from upstate NY to Ontario, Canada, for four decades.
The clothing had the “look of vintage that every fashion brand is trying to replicate now,” he says. The rancher would only sell him the complete collection, which Carvalho bought. He kept a few items but had no problem selling some jackets and overalls for $60 to $120 apiece. After all, plug “Carhartt vintage” into Instagram and up pops thousands of “perfectly distressed” items for sale.
“Carhartt is part of the fabric of what built America,” adds Carvalho. “It’s something that can be worn by anyone and understood for what it is.”
Unlike many brands today, Carhartt hasn’t waded into politics or social movements. Their durable products speak for them. And while I don’t think a simple jacket can heal us, it’s worth noting that when people log on to social media to pick a fight, many of us are wearing the same uniform.
How to care for your Carhartt
Perini, who still owns a 25-year-old jacket faded white with age, says the best Carhartt is one that’s well-worn. You want to avoid a stiff, “Tin Man” look, he says. “If a Carhartt is old and tattered, you know they’ve had it for a long time and it’s for a good reason.”
The way he softens the initially stiff garment is simple: “I don’t take it to the river and beat it with stones,” he says with a laugh.
Rather, he washes the new jacket in the machine without detergent at least three times before machine drying. After its been broken down and softened, he’ll wash it with detergent just twice a year.