Explore all our research themes:

What can work clothes tell us about the value of different kinds of work & workers?

This theme explores the politics of unequal/unrecognised labour.

Being a citizen provides the right to work and comes with rights, entitlements, protection and status. However, not all work is recognised equally and not all workers are equally able to carve out spaces in the workplace. This theme explores how inventors re-configure work clothes and with them different ways to participate in and re-imagine normative and exclusive institutions and systems.

This theme highlights the many inventive ways a broader range of people have been recognised and equipped to work.

The most conventional understanding of work is directly linked to citizenship status. Being a citizen provides the right to work. A non-citizen is prevented from performing recognised work. Work renders visible and legitimizes an individual’s participation and contribution to society. It is a formal recognition of exchange – labour for payment – and comes with rights, responsibilities, entitlements, protection and status.

However, as argued by feminist technoscientists (and many others), there are many kinds of work that goes unseen and undervalued (Schwartz 1983; Wajcman 2004). Caring and domestic labour are critically valuable forms of work, even if they are unrecognized and unpaid (Hochschild 1997). They are ‘the workers that make all other work possible’ (Putill 2013). The clothing patent allows us to explore how different ideas around work are rendered visible, important and materialised.

We explore below the surface of normative work wear and uniforms to better understand how inventors have re-configured work clothes and with them different ways to participate in and re-imagine normative and exclusive institutions and systems. Mapping work clothing over time reveals insights into who gets equipped to work and who gets equipped to work-around.

• What can work clothes tell us about the value of different kinds of work/ers?

• What forms of exclusion are revealed and resisted in clothing inventions?

• Can these acts of space making, taking and claiming be seen as resistance?

The clothing patent archive reveals lesser known and alternate forms of work and labour and different ways to participate in and re-imagine normative and exclusive institutions and systems.

The archive holds a plethora of work clothing for well-prepared and dressed workers -particularly for a wide range of labouring male bodies. Men are typically well equipped for singular and specific tasks. Being equipped and specifically dressed signals ability and gives permission for the wearer to take up space and claim an expert positionality. It can makes the wearer more easily recognised as skilled and capable – as well as appropriately equip them to undertake work efficiently and safely.

For example, equipping the women workers of the British Land Army during World War I with an official uniform was key in having the women’s contribution to the war effort and skill recognised by the public (de la Haye 2021, 165). Providing women with formal workwear such as overalls for agricultural work or lunch receptacles makes them visible as workers but also exposed them to significant social stigma.

Overall, however, there is far less evidence of conventional, formal or specific work wear for women to be found in the archive. As Elizabeth Wayland Barber argues:“Women’s work consisted largely of making perishables – especially food and clothing” alongside invisible childcare work and has thus often also remained literally invisible from scholarly analysis because of a lack of evidence (1994, 286).

Instead, the patent archive reveals more interesting things – how women’s workwear is often hidden, rendered convertible or combined  in multiple garments. These inventions equip wearers to do more than one type of work or activity.. They also effectively helped to conceal the wearer’s intention, enabling them to do more than might have been accepted or possible at the time, but they also conceal their skills and expertise from public view.

Exploring lesser-known or alternate forms of workwear draws attention to the value and strength of multiplicity, ambiguity and diversity; of being  adaptable, responsive, and multi-skilled. In this context we might then see men’s highly specialist workwear as restrictive because it is lacking in multiplicity (an ability to adapt and respond to changing conditions).

Examples of WORKING citizens

The most obvious set of work wear in the archive is for men’s specialist labour – including a broad variety of items from aprons for icemen and butchers to breath guards for dentists and lamp holders for miner as well as large range of smart business suits. Women’s conventional workwear is largely missing – except around specific points such as world wars. Here we see  significant number of overalls for working women have been patented, thus reflecting and making visible the number of women that joined the workforce during these times and took on men’s jobs in factories and agriculture. We are also able to excavate inventions for less visible types of work, including childcare and nursing. This broader range of diverse and informal kinds of work makes different types of workers (their concerns and bodies) relevant and visible.


Barber, Elizabeth Wayland. 1994. Women’s Work: The First 20,000 Years. Women, Cloth, and Society in Early Times. New York and London: W.W. Norton & Company.

Haye, Amy de la. 2021.’Breeched, booted, and cropped” A dress historical analysis of the uniform worn by members of Britain’s Women’s Land Army, 1917-19’. In Bass-Krueger, Maude, Hayley Edwards-Dujardin, and Sophie Kurkdjian, eds. 2021. Fashion, Society and the First World War: International Perspectives. London et al: Bloomsbury.

Hochschild, Arlie Russel. 1997. Time Bind. When Work Becomes Home and Home Becomes Work. New York: Metropolitan Books.

Netz, Sabine, Sarah Lempp, Kristine Krause, and Katharina Schramm. 2019. “Claiming Citizenship Rights through the Body Multiple.” Citizenship Studies: Claiming Citizenship Rights through the Body Multiple 23 (7): 637–51.

Purtill, Maureen Gaddis. 2013. Transforming the Borders of Citizenship: Domestic worker organising from the ground up. Thesis. Available at:

Schwartz-Cowan, Ruth. 1983. More Work for Mother: the Ironies of Household Technology from the Open Hearth to the Microwave. New York: Basic Books.

Wajcman, Judy. 2004. Technofeminism, Polity Press.