Archive News April 2019

This month, Deputy Archivist, Charlotte Gallant, muses on the history of workwear in the motor industry.

I've never really thought about the history of work uniform for the car industry. It's something that we usually just take for granted, focusing instead on the products being made. Yet looking through Archive pictures of automotive production lines over the various decades you tend to see distinct changes in what people wear to work.

During the early 20th century, for example, clothing for men and women in factories was very similar to clothes they would wear on an ordinary day. You often see photographs of men wearing shirts, ties, jackets, waistcoats or even knitted jumpers while fitting parts to engines, often accompanied with a traditional flat peaked cap. For ladies it was long, impractical dresses. Sometimes employees would protect their clothing with the use of an apron or overalls, but it is unknown if these were worn out of the preference of the individual or issued by the company because of the type of work they were doing that day.

Here in the 1929 Abingdon wiring department we see men in knitted jumpers, shirts, waistcoats and overalls.

As production moved out of the post War era and into the 50s, the appearance of branded clothing which was provided by the workplace increased in popularity. There were a number of different styles including the full lab coat, the simple work shirt and trousers or overalls (however quite often you can sometimes still see personal shirts, ties or flared jeans under the lab coats!) These were provided to give a sense of team work and unity, not just in the factories, but on race tracks and press events.

The trend continued, branding and a sense of uniformity becoming a key theme in the increasingly corporate world of the motoring industry. With a multitude of car companies and mergers that occurred even before the advent of British Leyland, keeping up with what was current was not always straightforward.

The idea of standard workwear, however, was introduced during the period of collaboration between British Leyland/Rover Group and Honda during the 1980s. The idea was that there would be a single uniform for the whole workforce, from the production line to the Chief Executive, thus fostering a sense that everyone in the company had equal value. It was, however, a common joke that when a senior manager appeared in their uniform it was always neatly pressed and in pristine condition, unlike the rather more 'lived-in' look of those working on the assembly lines and in the workshops. Nevertheless, it was a concept which persisted and can still be seen in today's UK car factories.

Before Honda opened its own factory in Swindon it made cars for UK sale at Longbridge. The Honda Concerto was the last to be made there in 1993, its place was taken by the Rover 400. Honda and Rover Group workers are each dressed in their own 'corporate' workwear, a Japanese concept intended to overcome status barriers in the workplace.

We have a large collection of work wear in our archive which was salvaged from Longbridge after the collapse of MG Rover. A large number of uniforms were left behind in the laundry - the majority of these were work jackets, often with employees' names on the left side and the company on the right. Technology had progressed so that work shirts, jackets and overalls were issued to employees with special barcodes on the labels. These ensured that anything lost or sent to the Longbridge laundry rooms would be sent back to the rightful owner.

Examples of workwear from the Longbridge Collection. These include Austin Rover (1982), Rover Group (1986), BMW Group (1994) Land Rover/Rover (1996) and MG Rover (2000).

This branding didn't just apply to the overalls and shirts of the engineers but the office and customer service clothing. The Archive contains a large collection of corporate manuals and brochures for appropriate attire for their sales men and women. These range from the typical tie to branded coats, dresses, t-shirts and even cufflinks. Often the 'Rover' logo was woven into the lining of men and women's jackets. 

These particularly striking examples are from the 1990 corporate clothing brochure for press and sales staff. The dress was 100% polyester, the maroon jacket and skirt a wool and polyester mix and would be paired with a 'fashionable' maroon cloche hat.

According to a letter to the Rover dealers in 1990, there was such a 'high level of demand' for the Rover corporate wardrobe that certain sizes in the men's wool trousers and jackets were in short supply, with back orders building faster than new stock coming in. In the present day, workwear typically comprises t-shirts or polo shirts which are easy to clean or replace. Who knows what the future of workplace wear will hold?

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