Upending What Guys Wear To Work Forever: The Dockers Story

“1986 was no ordinary year. A gallon of gas was 89¢, Halley’s Comet buzzed the earth, and a company called Dockers was about to upend what guys wear to work forever.“ So goes the ad copy for the Dockers brand, created in 1986 as a subsidiary of Levi’s, so as to differentiate the brand images. “Taking its cue from British longshoremen, as well as the khaki pants worn by miners in the 1920s,” though their inspiration may not be Ivy itself, their initial look certainly tended towards it.

Dockers sold khakis. Plain and simple: quality craftsmanship, good cotton twill, traditional, pleated cuts (though regrettably often uncuffed) with an appealing nautical flap pocket, and a charming logo. In the peak preppy atmosphere of the mid-’80s, it seems they caught on. Unfortunately, they strayed far—with all their might.

In 1992, Dockers widely circulated a “Guide to Casual Business Wear.” The outfits therein depict only a stereotypical ‘90s look which, since it was avant-garde at the time, meant that by the time we got out of the ‘90s, it lent the previously youthful khakis unfortunate infamy, and made them odious at large. And it’s only gotten worse. This year Dockers published “The New Casual Book,” which proudly boasts, “It was us: Dockers initiated Casual Friday by sending an eight-page Guide to Casual Business Wear manifesto to 25,000 HR managers across America, suggesting them and their employees to swap their suit for a chino, on Fridays as a first step. And it worked!” (bolding original).

The wording certainly sounds ill-intentioned. If Dockers can’t be held responsible for being major players in the decline of “dressing up” (as they very well might), they can at least be held responsible for trying. I’ll spare you the details of what the booklet peddles except its thesis of sorts, which it states explicitly: “One thing is clear: To change the world you don’t need a suit.” (To which I say, “to be a musician you don’t need ears.”)

Take a look around a college campus now, and it’s apparent khakis have ditched the “dad pants” connotation and are once again accepted (if they ever weren’t; I was, honestly, too young to remember the early aughts. But they certainly seem to be spreading), albeit in their slim, uncreased variety. But we can thank their inherent quality and versatility as garments for bringing them back into the limelight, and brands like Duck Head and Hertling for their continuing quality production of them. As for Dockers, they were onto something, had their chance, and blew it. Now they’re relegated to the cheapest of Walmart shelves (and have dropped all their all-cotton models and original “British Khaki” color, too).

To leave you on a high note, here are more of the original hangtags. They exude a certain ’30s Apparel Arts look, but the flat caps and what look to be canvas Top-Siders (among other things) make them at home with Ivy (although the train-goer in chore jacket might more resemble the “workwear” trend of recently). The “inspired by the comfortable well worn [sic] clothes of the working man” mantra parallels Ivy style logic, insofar as it prides functionality, durability, and a degree of comfort above shininess and finesse. And note that this phrase does not automatically mean “jeans” (particularly since the company was incorporated separate from Levi’s so as to delineate it from denim).

I do especially love the first one, though. Though it may portray the suit and the longshoreman’s clothes as contrary, I instead think it shows the great spectrum of formality that a traditional wardrobe lends a man. — LUCAS GONDREAU

16 Comments on "Upending What Guys Wear To Work Forever: The Dockers Story"

  1. elder prep | March 4, 2020 at 8:26 pm |

    Love the art-deco labels and tags. Thanks for sharing. I recall the first casual Friday’s as I was a manager in high tech at the dawn of the ’80s and it was a revolutionary moment in corporate dress. Our HR department even specified the shirts that may be worn with the chinos, “3 button golf-style shirts of conservative colors, or any similar shirt with the corporate logo.”

  2. The first Dockers were not bad, and made for a great Seinfeld bit, but their campaign was the first foot in the proverbial handbasket.


  3. MacMcConnell | March 4, 2020 at 10:56 pm |

    Dockers were basically a copy of RL’s wash pants that came out in the early 80s. What are “wash pants”? They are pants without a slit waist and simple construction like jeans, meant to be washed like jeans.

  4. I know it is legit and old but I don’t like uncreased chinos with jackets, or really even creased, unless it is like cotton drill with stiffness to it rather than anything that can bag at the knee. Just looks off. Fine with a sport shirt or something more casual but even all the old prep photos look wrong to me. In complete and utter contradiction, perhaps, I love jackets and faded denim together.

  5. I recall Dockers introduced in 1986, retailing for $29.95, expensive at the time. The aging baby boomers had to abandon the tight $29.95 Jordasche designer jeans, so Dockers were the perfect replacement. However, basic khakis could be bought for much less, as little as $5 on clearance racks.

    I bought a pair a couple months ago, you guessed it, $29.95. Like “As seen on TV junk” $29.95 must be the limit on what people will spend without thinking.

  6. Old School Tie | March 5, 2020 at 10:18 am |

    The uniform of medical students and young doctors from London medicals schools, in my day, was chinos, OCBD with medical school/old school/ sports team tie. Footwear was a mix moccasin-style or Dr Martens. Dockers were popular as were Gap’s offerings. Many of us preferred them to jeans on days off aswell, just pop on a striped t-shirt and some plimsolls and you are good to go. I have a pair on as we speak…

  7. “…and brands like Duck Head and Hertling for their continuing quality production of them.”

    I don’t think Duck Head and Hertling belong in the same league, much less, the same sentence. Perhaps, because Bill Thomas, founder of Bill’s Khakis, is now at Duck Head there is that nod, but if anything, Thomas’s former company did more to make khakis relevant than Docker or Duck Head ever will.

  8. Dutch Uncle | March 5, 2020 at 11:01 am |

    Might I suggest that most of us wore and still continue to buy our khakis from Lands’ End and L.L. Bean?

  9. @ Old School

    My GP, retired now, always dressed in CRISP khakis, OCBD’s, and repp or school ties up until the mid 2000’s. Then, scrub type doctor attire. I bore a slight resemblance to the guy, and dressed much the same, albeit being just an accountant.

    I think professional men should look like professional men, not the regular guy. The blazer, OCBD, khakis and tie gave a nice dressy look. Replace the blazer with a white doctor’s coat for medical men, and doctors are good to go.

    Today, everyone dresses as shabbily as they can.


  10. I love the slimy semiotics of the hangtags:

    * Art Deco-ish, golden-age-of-grand-travel graphics to disguise a slide towards less formality and elegance as somehow rooted in… timeless elegance.

    * The attractive woman in 1930s clothes is enraptured by the casual but cool (or, casual *therefore* cool) young fellow, while ingoring the seemingly harassed (stooping, in the first tag) man in a suit and hat who is actually *helping* her.
    IOW: guys, if you want the girls, dump the suit (and courtesy) and slap on some chinos (and insouciance).

  11. @ JJ Katz

    Women are attracted to the bad boys, the miscreants. Just the way it is. I found this out many years ago. The ape like Brando, and James Dean types attract all but the most conservative women.

    Women want men that excite them.

  12. My own view is that if there must be Jeff Bezoses of the world they should at least do something useful like build a goddamned ocean liner or something.

  13. MacMcConnell | March 5, 2020 at 8:22 pm |

    Brando and James Dean? You mean actors who act by wrinkling their foreheads. 😉

  14. MacMcConnell | March 5, 2020 at 8:28 pm |

    If you want really stiff drills dip them in cream of starch, insert trouser frames and hang to dry. Then remove the frames, sprinkle with water and press with very hot iron. It’s how military wives once did it.

  15. Jonathan Sanders | March 6, 2020 at 9:26 am |

    I just discovered the Uniqlo Vintage Regular Fit Chinos. For a more casual chino, for $40 you can’t beat it. Happily, it wasn’t a low waist cut. I guess those are my “Dockers”.

  16. Dexter Tea | March 8, 2020 at 9:25 pm |

    There was a Dockers model from about seven years that was excellent. The ‘Field Khaki’ – flat front, great rise, lovely cloth and good colours. They also did it in a lightweight cloth. The cut was military inspired but without the volume and billow that true military can sometimes have (if its not heavily starched). The ‘Field Khaki’ still occasionally comes up on the bay. Jump on them if you see them – I’ll happily live with the Dockers logo in this case.

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