Essay by Rob Brinkley / Photographs by Mei-Chun Jau
It’s a rags-to-riches story — where the rags are played by denim. We open in Fort Worth, 1922, where two men have just shaken hands on their new company. Their big idea? Bib overalls, made of tough cotton denim, the fanciest ones striped in fine lines of blue and white. With one of the men’s son, the three grow it into a mighty fine business. But some plot twists are necessary: The Great Depression will be a doozy, followed by World War II, wherein the company will be sequestered by the United States Armed Forces to make millions and millions of uniforms. Most of the civilian production will grind to a halt, all in the name of duty.
Ah, but everyone loves a good comeback — and come back they will. With the troops back home, their unique wartime look — shirts and pants in the same exact color — will touch off a civilian trend for the same, in everyday workwear. Williamson-Dickie will switch back to consumer production and the son will set his sights on expansion. First the U.S., then Europe, then the world!
Cut to 2018. That all happened, starring C.N Williamson, his son, C. Don, and E.E. Dickie. Today, the Wiliamson-Dickie Manufacturing Company is mostly known as just “Dickies,” and it is the No. 1 maker of workwear on the planet. Its brands include tough-sounding spinoffs such as Workrite, Kodiak and Terra, and the company is 5,000 people strong, spread across every continent imaginable. The goods are made in Uvalde, Texas, in Mexico and around the southern hemisphere.
But it is back in Fort Worth, on a campus that includes the original 1922 headquarters, where the soul of the thing will always be. There, prototypes are designed and refined, based on gut-honest feedback from field workers in various industries around the country. Over here, sewing machines are whirring, electric riveters are popping and shapes are being snipped out of denim more carefully than Matisse cut his shapes out of paper. Over there, fashion trends are being tracked, mood boards are going up and fabrics are being sourced and developed. Even a little mad-scientist tinkering is going on. One example? Temp-iQ technology, now woven into the company’s $17 Performance Cooling T-Shirt, which somehow traps cool air inside the yarn and holds it next to the skin. (Think of it as a shirt-shaped air conditioner.) For a worker — or a weekender — in the blazing sun, that is cool.
Elsewhere, the company archivist is amassing a Louvre-like trove of overalls, shirts, letters and lore. Its oldest pant on file is a tough denim jodhpur, since, FYI, in the 1920s, a lot of work was still being done atop something called a horse. Dickies even employs a professional denim hunter, who traipses into old salvage yards and ghost towns, looking for left-behind Williamson-Dickie clothes. He brings back old pieces, labels and patterns that they have never even seen back in Fort Worth. It’s epic.
Yes, it’s quite a story, this Dickies thing. Humble beginnings. Huge future. And a hometown that will cheer it on, no matter how big it gets. They should build a shiny new stadium there and name it Dickies Arena. (Wait. They already are.) Rags, riches, drama, romance: It’s got it all. It’s the American dream, all done up in denim, twill, snaps and stitching.
Cut! Sew. That’s a wrap.