What the heck is “Heritage Menswear” Anyway?

For most people who are into Amekaji-heritage clothing (raw denim, boots, leather jackets, flannels, etc) the quality of the clothing is a major factor in why they get into and stick with this hobby. Wanting something that is made well and made ethically matters to most of us. If we aren’t buying things that are made well and made to last, then, how can they be worthy of being passed down and therefore, how can they even be called ‘heritage?’ 

Obviously, this scene of clothing nerds is more complex and diverse than it would look from the outside. That’s why there isn’t even a single term for whatever this type of clothing is in the first place. After all, a guy wearing moc toe boots, sanforized slim tapered selvedge jeans, and an untucked flannel is probably not wearing any of the same brands as the guy wearing engineer boots, full cut chinos from Japan, their shirt tucked in, and a Freewheelers leather jacket. 

However, there is a sense of commonality between these people. In fact, those two people I described are my friend @lucaszfitz and myself. I shouldn’t have to tell you which is which if you know me, but if you somehow stumbled in here through the random power of the internet, I will tell you that I’m the guy in the engineers and some of my friends are the guys in the flannels and slim tapered jeans. We have a lot of differences in terms of how we dress that you can see below, but we agree on quite a few things as well.

Image via @lucaszfitz
Image via @lucaszfitz
Image via @volvo_sufu
Image via @selvedge_suede_wool
Image via @illcutz
Image via @newenglandmenswear
These pictures give some examples of how wide the variety of styles are within this clothing hobby- hence why it is difficult to classify under one banner

At the very least, nearly everyone who wears this type of clothing agrees with at least one or both of the following points. 1. Wearing clothing that is made well and made ethically. 2. Wearing clothing that is either made the way it was 50 or more years ago or at least looks like clothing that was made 50 or more years ago. Not everyone actually agrees on both of these points, but for the most part, people can agree on at least one of them. However, both of these criteria that I just laid out have to do with one single term: “heritage.” 

I put that word in quotes because it has become a buzzword on the internet. This is most often thrown around on Instagram to describe this semi-connected scene of people who wear raw denim, boots, flannels, tube knit t shirts, and sometimes leather jackets. The thing is, I’m also on forums dedicated to this type of clothing and you see the word much less often there. Yet, there is some crossover between people who participate in forums and participate on Instagram and even if the word is not used as often on forums, it still does matter even if not as explicitly present on that type of platform.

Outside of the more hardcore forums like Superfuture, “heritage menswear” is now the buzzword term for describing us urban lumberjacks and early 20th century cosplayers. Unfortunately, there is a problem with this term and that is that it doesn’t actually accurately describe this “scene” if you use the traditional definition of the word. Mirriam Webster defines “heritage” as property that descends to an heir and as: something transmitted by or acquired from a predecessor. 

That doesn’t really fit, does it? Let’s be honest, most of us are not actually wearing clothing that was passed down to us from our ancestors or even our parents. If we are, it certainly is not most of our wardrobe. In that sense, this type of clothing isn’t “heritage” at all because we all bought ourselves and most of us have no idea yet if we will actually pass any of it down to someone who comes after us. Even if we plan on passing our stuff down, that is not a guarantee until it actually happens.

I would love to pass these White Kloud boots on to one of my kids some day, but I first have to have kids and then hope they wear the same size boots as me… and hope they actually want them.

We could extend this to the brands and makers of clothing that we wear, but the definition falls apart pretty quickly in that case as well. Sure, some brands like Alden, Red Wing, Filson, Lee, Levis, Wesco, Viberg, Schott, Trickers, and more have a strong heritage themselves as brands. However, some of them are not what they once were. For example, Red Wing outsources the production of most of their boots and only their heritage line is made in the USA. Also, allow me to remind everyone that it was actually the Japanese who are responsible for the Red Wing Heritage line of boots, not the Americans. Filson keeps raising prices while outsourcing most the their production of goods, Lee is a shell of its former self and Levi’s relies on others to even inform them of their own history, not to mention that they helped cause the final death of Cone Mills and are back to outsourcing all of their production of clothing even on their LVC line. 

Viberg and Wesco are two of the few companies that have strong heritage and have mostly stuck to their roots to this day

I am sure that I am missing a few brands, but that really does not leave us with many left that actually have remaining, unblemished heritage. There are far more brands that we wear that do not actually have any heritage at all by the definition that I gave earlier. A lot of the brands we wear are relatively new. White Kloud, Freewheelers, Mister Freedom, Brass Tokyo, Roy Denim, Flame Panda, Onderhoud, Himel Bros, Field Leathers, TCB, Conners Sewing Factory, John Lofgren, 3Sixteen, Railcar Fine Goods, and so many countless other brands that we know and love are still under their first owner(s). Nothing has been passed down directly from one generation to the next in terms of the company or brand. Yoshiaki from Conners Sewing Factory is self taught from what I understand (I am not sure, however). Himel Bros. was started by a guy who had a ridiculously large collection of leather jackets, and both Show Goto of White Kloud and Brian Truong of Role Club had teachers who passed down their skills to them, but both started their own brands with identities all their own. 

Showcasing Conners Sewing Factory and Onderhoud Handmade here- neither brand has actual heritage
Wearing TCB and Clinch – again, no actual heritage
Freewheelers leather jacket and hat from Art Fawcett- still no true heritage

By the definition of heritage, these brands don’t fit. Yet, are they really less valuable than those brands that I listed that do have heritage? Personally, I would say absolutely not. In fact, I would say that most of these brands are making better products than the brands with heritage. White Kloud, Brass/Clinch, Flame Panda, Role Club, and Onderhoud all make much better boots than any of the brands with technical heritage in my experience. Conners Sewing Factory makes a better reproduction of 1940s Levi’s than Levi’s has managed to make since… well since Levi’s made the originals in the 1940s. This is despite the fact that Levi’s tries to remake those same jeans themselves. In terms of leather jackets, there aren’t even that many original makers left and makers like Freewheelers, The Real McCoys, Field Leathers, Rainbow Country, and Himel Bros. do a better job anyway. 

I don’t think anyone makes boots as well as White Kloud. The lack of heritage is irrelevant to me
Conners Sewing Factory makes a much more accurate accurate Levis repro than Levi’s despite Levis advantage of actually being Levis

Actual brand heritage does not have that much to do with what a lot of us buy. What most of us want are products that have vintage inspiration in terms of styling and design and high quality materials and construction. There is also a tendency to like products that not only last a long time, but age beautifully over time. Anything rope dyed, dyed with indigo, or made from leather is appealing for most in this hobby. Even jeans, none of which would last forever if worn every day, are prized for how beautifully they wear in and fall apart. 

Overall, I think calling this clothing “heritage menswear” is incorrect. Firstly, it’s not just menswear that can have heritage. Plus, it’s not just men wearing this clothing. There are some women wearing this clothing with a lot of style and it’s important to acknowledge that. Women deserve something besides high fashion and fast fashion too. I also think calling this clothing “rugged” or “work wear” is off base as well. I think both of these terms fall into that faux machismo thing that is horribly omnipresent in the Instagram part of this clothing scene. Let’s be honest, most of us do not actually live truly rugged lives. We do not need these clothes that we are wearing. We’re all cosplaying to a degree and that’s just fine, but let’s not pretend we’re all macho because that’s not something the world needs more of right now anyway. 

I don’t wear these clothes because I need them. I don’t live a “rugged” life. I wear them because I like them

More specifically, this clothing is not actually “workwear” either. Sure, a lot of it is inspired by clothing that was originally meant for manual or blue collar labor. However, much of it has moved into the mainstream or at least was in the mainstream for a period of time. A lot of military designs have become mainstream clothing items, jeans are just casual clothing now, and it’s probably been at least 60 years or more since anyone actually used engineer boots as their footwear when shoveling coal into a steam locomotive. 

It’s been quite some time since engineer boots were used as serious workwear.

Moreover, much of what we wear was not even originally meant as “workwear.” Loopwheel sweatshirts and high top sneakers were originally sportswear. T shirts and henleys were originally underclothes. Many of us wear leather shoes in addition to boots and trousers that were not designed as workwear. I personally wear a lot of hats and those were basic pieces of clothing for men back in the day. In fact, my fedoras would be more likely worn by white collar men than blue collar men while caps. Leather jackets are also mostly not work wear. Some of them were made for flying and motorcycle riding while almost all of my leather jackets were inspired by 1930s and 1940s sports jacket models. These were simply casual clothing for men, not work wear. 

Sweatshirts originated as sportswear, not workwear. Also, this leather jacket was originally designed as an aviator jacket, not a blue collar work jacket. Jeans simply have become casual clothing

We also have to address the fact that much of what we wear is inspired by military clothing as well. I would imagine that some people would classify this as “workwear” as well, but in my mind and in the minds of many, it is its own category. Most importantly, the fact of the matter is that almost none of this clothing is used to do actual blue collar work in the modern world. Therefore, it is no longer actually workwear. Even the items that were originally workwear items have simply become casual garments as I mentioned before. Actual workwear does exist today, but this is not it.

This leather jacket was derived from a 1930s sports jacket… not a piece of workwear, just a casual jacket

Alright, so if this clothing isn’t “heritage” or “workwear” then what is it? Well, I personally have been calling it amekaji or amekaji-heritage for almost a year now. I was inspired by my podcast co-host @rocktransformed who uses the term “amekaji” to describe this type of clothing. In my opinion, this is much more accurate than the other terms that people use. “amekaji” is a Japanese word that means American casual. If you really want to know more about this, you should read the incredible book ‘Ametora’ by W. David Marx. The short version is that this is the Japanese interpretation of American casual clothing from the early to mid 20th century, spurred on by their revival of this type of clothing mostly in the 1980s and 1990s (again, read ‘Ametora’ for a much more accurate account of this.) 

In truth, what we are all wearing is the Japanese interpretation of American casual clothing from the early to mid 20th century. Yes, even if you are only wearing American made brands. It is highly probable that this clothing scene would not exist at all if it were not for the Japanese, at least not in the way it actually exists today. I am sure there would still be some vintage enthusiasts, but this clothing scene would not exist in the way it does without the Japanese. Even if we were to say that American denim and boot brands would exist without the Japanese revival of the clothing style a few decades ago, what we wear in this clothing scene is still an interpretation or a reimagining of what American casual, work wear, and military clothing was back in the day. Even if you wear actual vintage pieces, you’re still wearing them in the modern day so at the very least, this clothing hobby we are a part of is some sort of recontextualization of (mostly) American clothing from the early to mid 20th century. That’s sort of what Amekaji is. It’s the Japanese interpretation of American casual clothing. I simply add ‘heritage’ on the end because Amekaji can technically also refer to other subcultures of clothing such as decora and gyaru. 

Still, the term heritage can have meaning. I think the reason so many people like to use this word is because it refers to the build quality and durability of the goods that we buy. Although many of us have become collectors of sorts, we still are attracted to the idea that much of our clothing will outlive us. Sure, we end up selling much of it and often don’t end up wearing a lot of it, but like an SUV or 95% of the pickup trucks in California, it is the knowledge that our clothing could be called upon to be durable if we wanted that we care about. 

Has this Freewheelers jacket been passed down? No, but do I think it is worthy of being passed down? Absolutely

Therefore, I feel that the term “heritage,” at least in relation to these clothes that we wear, should refer to clothing that is worthy of being passed down to our descendants and worthy of actually having heritage. Makers cannot coast on the glories of their past. They must continue to make clothing that is worth holding onto for life and passing down after that life ends. It must be made well and made ethically by people who have a passion for it. That’s what makes an item worthy of having heritage, even if the maker is born in the 21st century. 

That presents us with another issue, then. While there are many new brands that would absolutely fit into this modified definition of heritage, there are a number of other brands who have tried to sneak their way into that definition that do not belong there in my view. These are brands that care more about making money and looking like heritage clothing while outsourcing their production to save on production costs. These brands are not worthy of having heritage, but some people are fooled and to me, it’s a problem. 

The issue is that there are brands that look like they fit into this new expanded definition of heritage, but actually do not. Some are new and some are actually old enough to have had real heritage, but have proverbially spit in the face of their own heritage. I take issue with these brands because I see them as dishonest and taking advantage of people who are new to this type of clothing and/or do not know any better. Some could call this gatekeeping, but that is not my intention. I am not even going to name any new names here. Everyone should be free to make their own purchasing decisions. It is simply my opinion that makers and brands that truly care about making high quality products and are passionate about the craft and product first more than money should be the ones supported rather than those that see this clothing hobby as a ‘market opportunity.’ 

I really doubt that Show Goto of White Kloud and Peng of Flame Panda started making boots because they expected to make a lot of money out of the endeavor

To be clear, high quality clothing can be made anywhere in the world. I have already written an article about that. The point is not to say that only certain countries make good clothing, but rather that not all clothing labelled as “heritage” is actually made well and/or ethically. This also does not mean that everything that is technically outsourced is of bad quality or exploitative. For example, Grant Stone makes their boots in China and the owner spent many years in the specific factory they use. The boots are made in one specific factory in Xiamen, China and Grant Stone would possibly not even exist without that one factory. The company is also very open and honest about the production of their boots. This is a good sign. 

The Rite Stuff also technically outsources production. The owner is an American who lives in Taiwan and his products are made in Japan. However, this is not in order to save money, but rather to make the best product possible and the company is quite open about the production. In these cases, I would say both of these brands are likely worthy of being passed down and therefore worthy of having heritage. When a brand tries to hide the production location or is labelled as ‘imported’ or ‘ethically imported’ is when the red flags start flashing in my head. Of course, this is up to you to decide yourself, but I think it is worth at least thinking about. 

This production of this Rite Stuff shirt is technically outsourced, but its in the pursuit of quality, not profit

My point with this article is to point out that something is not ‘heritage’ simply because it looks like amekaji clothing and/or is labelled as ‘heritage menswear’ or even if it comes from a brand that has heritage while also pointing out misconceptions about the words many of us use to describe this clothing that we wear. That is also why I don’t think it is a correct label for the clothing scene either and as I mentioned before, neither is ‘work wear.’ Of course, I am not expecting everyone to go and start using my preferred terms of ‘amekaji’ or ‘amekai-heritage,’ but I do think they are more accurate. Heck, ‘amekaji cosplay’ would be more accurate than ‘heritage workwear.’ At least it’s less pretentious and more honest.

If you completely disagree with my opinions or my thoughts on all of these terms, that is fine with me. I’m not expecting everyone to agree with me. Instead, I hope this article has at least given you something to think about. These topics are ones that I have wanted to cover for a long time because I think they are not covered as much as they should be. At the very least, I think we should give a little bit more thought to the labels we use and why we use them.

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