Ever since I moved to Tokyo, I’ve come across new construction sites almost every single day. Seeing the workers at the middle of the night – especially in this cold season of the year – I say “thanks a lot for working so hard,” in my mind.
Working at construction sites means having to deal with severe work and weather conditions whilst maintaining physical and mental strength. Because of the harsh working environment workers need comfortable, protective, and functional outfits – especially designed to suit their needs. Besides that, I recently noticed some other interesting fact about construction workers’ clothes: they have become fashionable.
Written by Kyoko
First of all, I should make myself a bit clearer when saying “construction workers”. Their roles are varied and hence their work clothes are different, too. Demolition workers wear jumpsuits to avoid powder and dust getting into their other clothes, electricians’ clothes contain special threads which moderate electricity, some wear soft shoes when flexibility is required and others need safety shoes with a steel toe caps.
Variations seemed endless – so I decided to take a closer look at specific designs and trends. Lets take a look at one of the most distinctive styles of construction worker uniform, the Tobi.
Security guard at road construction. Wearing very flashy coat with reflective fabric, because they have to stand middle of the road.
Paving work. In order to walk on heated asphalt, they are wearing thick leather boots.
Painter’s work. They get paint and concrete on their clothes easily, therefore, they need cheap disposable outfits. Also they often have to squat down, so they wear shallow shoes.
Sewerage workers wearing rubber boots and plastic tops.
Tobi means something like “scaffolding man/woman” in English. The name comes from a certain kind of device – a Japanese style pike pole – which was used during the Edo period in Japan. The shape of the device reminded people of the hooked beak of the bird Tobi and soon Tobi became a generic term used for those working at high places. The work of a Tobi involves a great deal of danger, therefore, Tobis are admired as “star performers” on the construction site. As I found out, many of them have been chic and fashionable since the old days.
Tobi workers often need to work at high places
© KASEYAMA CO.
The pike pole. looks like the beak of a bird
Now let’s get to the special parts of Tobis’ clothes. On their wrists they wear a broad and firm wristband called Tekou. This is used not only to wipe off sweat, but also to protect your wrist’s vulnerable arteries when cutting things and to prevent the sleeves from getting into your way when moving around. On their feet they wear Tabi, the Japanese “toe-shoes”. There are all kind of different Tabi-shoes! Unlike the ones you wear with Kimonos, these Tabi-shoes have a rubber sole. Wearing Tabi makes it easy to sense the ground condition for construction workers. In addition to this, they dry easily and are very light. These days, there are even safety Tabi-shoes: with steel toe caps!
Shukou. The back side is very colorful. It is chic to have these kinds of details even when most of the time they are not visible.
Safety Tabi shoes. The toe parts contains iron sheet
AQUA TABI, rubber Tabi boots
Now let’s get to the Tobi trousers: this shape is just amazing! (In fact many Japanese people identify Tobi workers by these special trousers.)
There are various theories why the lower part under the knee is pumped up like a balloon. The main reason, however, seems to be a simple one: the baggy pants make it easy to move, easy to bend, stretch and stride.
Tobi trousers. Below the knee the trousers are puffed up like a balloon
There are many shapes of trousers. From KASEYAMA’s catalogue vol.18 © KASEYAMA CO.
Other explanations can be, that when working on very narrow scaffoldings high up in the air, it is good to have some kind of sensor: the balloon part of your trousers touches obstacles before your legs do, which acts as kind of a warning system without necessarily having to look down. Besides, they can measure the intensity of the wind and the bagginess prevents the fabric from clinging to your leg even when you are sweating. It also works as a cushion when you drop spiky tools onto your body.
Right below the pumped up part, the trousers become narrow again in order to tighten up your calves. Why? Pressing the calves encourages blood circulation and helps you to work longer and to stand for hours without your feet swelling up.
Over the last twenty years, the balloon part has become wider and longer.
“Workers clothes should guard worker’s body. That is their main purpose. Once they get too wide, it is more likely for them to get caught somewhere and rip! This trend can’t continue forever, but I guess younger workers really seem to like them…”, was what the spokesman from the Japan Tobi Association told us.
The Tobi trousers – as we know them today – developed
In any case the shape is aimed mostly at flexibility and safety.
Nowadays, work clothes have wide-ranging designs and colors. Even their catalogues are so glamorous and slick, that they could easily be mistaken for fashion magazines.
As an example, have a look at the catalogue from Tobi clothes maker Kaseyama featuring actual Tobi workers as models. Gheee – these workers look so cool!
Models are real Tobi workers. From KASEYAMA’s catalogue vol.18 © KASEYAMA CO.
Models are real Tobi workers. They are husband and wife. from KASEYAMA’s catalogue vol.18 © KASEYAMA CO.
Believe it or not, but workers’ clothes were even featured at the Paris fashion week in 2005. Inspired by these Japanese construction workers, German designer Bernhard Willhelm used Tobi-like characteristic in his Spring/Summer collection.
Some people complained that it became straight fashion with the functionality part left out. That may be true. However, for people like us who stepped into a workers’ clothes shop for the first time, it was pure fun to look at the vivid variety they offered. A whole new world revealed itself for us. No wonder we spent hours – literally – to shop. Pink, yellow and purple outfits, golden Tabi shoes, stylish protection goggles and even children’s outfits.
They are not regular shoes. They are safety sneakers with iron sheets.
Many kinds of worker clothes.
Children’s Tobi outfits. from KASEYAMA’s catalogue vol.18 © KASEYAMA CO.
I would like to conclude this article with the result of my on-the-street interviews!!!
Since they are hard workers in manly world – they were either too shy or reluctant to waste their time on chit-chat… in brief: it was quite hard to get hold of them! However – I gathered some pieces about what they thought about their outfits. Enjoy!
Do you get to chose your own outfits or does your company provide them?
Civil engineer: “My company provides them. Usually we look at catalogues and suggest a few choices. Then we have to decide which one to go for.”
Carpenter: “I buy them all. I don’t go to the store, though. Instead, I prefer to choose them straight from catalogue.”
Demolition worker: “Depends on the case. Half and half I would say.”
What is the most important factor when you buy outfits?
Civil engineer: “The number of pockets they have. I usually pick the one with enough space for pens and my cell phone in the jacket.”
Others answered “I care for color and visual effect”, some mentioned “mobility is important” and others simply responded “I don’t care”.
Civil engineer with 15 years of experience. “I always use many color pens. I need some pockets on my chest.”
Gardener at Kawasaki. A bandanna under the helmet is very fashionable. He said, “Tabi shoes are the best for gardeners.
What is your favorite maker if you have one?
Carpenter: “I’ve been wearing POPEYE for long time.”
“TORAICHI” is quite popular (Uleshka noticed that “Those are the ones, who have the nice, vivid colors!”).
Is there anything you shouldn’t wear, or you shouldn’t do in terms of styling?
Demolition worker: “I don’t think so. As long as you are comfortable working, and it doesn’t trouble others, anything is fine.”
Civil engineer: “You can’t wear anything that’s sticking out, like decorative buttons or big pockets or so. It can get caught by something and might cause a big accident, you know? When you are working some place high for instance, you really have to be careful with what you wear, even when you don’t get hurt yourself, you could harm somebody else by getting stuck, shaking the scaffold or dropping something.”
Painter. It is cool that he dares to wear white clothes in spite of the fact that because he’s a painter his clothes get stained easily.
Carpenter with 10 years of experience. “I love to wear things I like. Color is an important factor when I buy clothes.”
Do you do anything special for hot or cold weather?”
Civil engineer: “Not really. We are given thick coats in winter, and summer clothes for summer, that’s all.”
Tobi worker: “I wear thermal pants underneath my clothes in cold weather.”
I thought there might be some kind of traditional way of dressing to embrace good luck, but to my surprise all the workers I asked weren’t using any kind of amulet or others for protection. Since Tobi is such a dangerous job, in the old days quite a few Tobi workers got a tattoo as a sign of a “brave man risking his life”. The motifs were various, however flowers were strictly avoided (because the death of a flower symbolizes falling).
During the interview, one carpenter said “since I wear workers clothes 300 days out of 365, I like to be stylish and feel good about it.” I think many people can relate to his feeling! I hope that worker’s clothes – not only with functionality but also with fashionability – will support them to work in harsh environments day and night, everyday.
…and once again, “Thank you very much for your hard work!”
Pingmag Fun Corner!
We would like to share the fun we had at the worker clothes shop. Enjoy our worker fashion photos in Ping style!
There are many more photos of our two construction worker uniform models in our flickr gallery as always!
NOTE: Golden tabi shoes are available at “Komiya” in Kawasaki. (sorry they don’t have a web site.) This store is about 10 minutes walk from JR Kawasaki Station. Here is the map. Address is 2-1-2, Kaizuka, Kawasaki-ku, Kawasaki-shi, Kanagawa. They have silver tabi, too! They are about 3000 yen. Enjoy!! (And check out tobi clothes maker, TORAICHI and KASEYAMA website.)