The Daily Yonder's coverage of rural economic issues, including workforce development and the future of work in rural America, is supported in part by Microsoft.
For men working in trades or agriculture, dressing for work each day is simple. Throw on a pair of sturdy jeans, a long-sleeved shirt, maybe some steel-toed boots, check to be sure the hard hat and gloves and eye-protection are stowed in the truck if needed. Good to go.
But women in these occupations have a harder time finding a pair of pants that are sturdy but cut for wider hips and thighs. Women’s work boots or jackets are often just smaller versions of those designed for men, and the proportions are not quite right for many. Shirt tails are too short to stay tucked in, exposing bare skin when a woman bends or stretches. And if a woman doesn’t care for the color pink or for flowery prints, the pickings for work gloves can be slim.
That’s why Stacey Gose of Corvallis, Oregon, has launched a line of women’s work clothing that addresses what she calls the problem in women’s workwear. Her company is called TougHER, and she’s funding the manufacturing through a crowdsourcing campaign, one product offering at a time.
Gose says about 30 percent of trade and agriculture jobs are filled by women, but that the amount of women’s workwear on the sales floor doesn’t come close to matching that proportion. “Women work across trade groups, including agriculture, construction, utilities, mining, farming, ranching and other blue-collar work,” she said. Many people in these occupations are required to wear “uniform compliant” apparel, and it is up to them to find it.
Gose explains that “women work hard to earn a wage but still have to be set up for gear.” That might include flame resistance or protection around heavy machinery. Women have enough barriers to entering the trades, ranging from a shortage of role models to availability of training opportunities. “Finding the right gear shouldn’t be another barrier,” she said.
Gose sees access to appropriate work clothes as not only a matter of comfort and safety, but as a social justice issue. If a woman can’t find or afford the proper clothing for a job, she might settle for something less with lower pay.
“I am dumbfounded about why it taken so long to realize women have been working hard since time immemorial,” Gose said. She describes her own experience trying to do landscaping or carpentry work and walking into a store searching for the right clothes but coming out empty handed. By contrast, she said, “the amount of floor space devoted to men’s apparel is like Disneyland, there are so many choices.”
Part of Gose’s inspiration comes from her early years on a northcentral Iowa farm. Although her parents left the area for opportunities in California when she was a small child, they continued to visit the family farm each year. “I was able to go back each summer growing up, to do things like spray beans and help with show cows. I still love being outdoors and the smell of soil,” Gose said.
She also had strong women as examples and watched how capable her grandmother was in all facets of farm life. “Grandma was a young widow who raised four kids on the farm. I learned about grit from women in the family, and farmers especially. That means from sun up to sun down and beyond, working hard with a goal in mind. Weather doesn’t matter when there is job to do, and a lot of it isn’t glamorous, but you are trying for something.”
Gose has small backyard farm raising chickens and vegetables at her home in Oregon because she says, “it feels like home when I’m doing those things.” But she launched ToughHER in January, after researching its feasibility during her MBA studies at the University of Oregon. Now, she says, “I’m on this full time, more than full time. I’m grinding it out, working with pattern makers, designers, making things that look good and function well. It is a labor of love but doesn’t feel like work.”
My experience with women’s work clothes confirms Gose’s analysis that there’s little to choose from that’s both comfortable and durable. To get a broader perspective, I asked a couple of friends with firsthand knowledge on the subject to weigh in.
Jeny Meyer, of Otter Creek, Iowa, has experienced all the hurdles with workwear Gose is talking about. She works as a naturalist and is outdoors in all weather, doing education and recreation. She describes another barrier to finding good work clothing that many young women face: pregnancy. “The summer I was pregnant with my second child, I was running a summer work program for older students that had me demonstrating how to do trail maintenance, pruning trees, removing fence, loading kayaks, shoveling dirt and mulch—all physically demanding jobs that require sturdy clothing that would breath in the summer heat. It is hard enough to find clothes to try on in rural Iowa that are sturdy, uniform compliant and flattering, let alone to accommodate my very ginormous pregnant self.”
Meyer said she had to settle for maternity style jeans that were not uniform compliant. “They fell down all the time so I wore suspenders, ordered big T- shirts and I wore holes in the abdomen in them within weeks.”
Meyer had asked friends about clothing companies for outdoor working women and heard suggestions for outdoor lifestyle websites that had “cute stuff for the bump” but were not durable enough to withstand her job. “Uniform compliant pants were a joke,” she said. “Sure, you can have khaki with cargo pockets and a stretch belly panel but they will fall apart at the mere glance of a rose thorn.”
After all the effort Meyer went through to be prepared for work, she noticed barriers that went beyond workwear. “The other side I got from other people was rather negative, suggesting that my work wasn’t appropriate in my condition, I was putting myself and my child in harm.” She powered through that, however, and continues to do the work she wants to do.
“Even now, rocking my hourglass shape, buying clothes online that are meant for a ‘rough working woman’ is a total crap shoot, my large muscular thighs are a different size from my butt and yet another size is necessary for my waist. I’ve resorted to buying pants for cheap at thrift shops, wearing belts or just being uncomfortable for 9 hours a day. The time and expense in finding flattering work clothes is a freaking nightmare.”
Karen Cusack of Portland, Oregon, can relate to Meyer’s findings that women’s work clothes are less sturdy than men’s. Much of her work is do-it-yourself projects and heavy gardening around the home. “Since I have over 30 rose bushes in my garden, and since much of it is ‘mulched’ with lava rock, I need pants that are thorn proof and heavy-duty for gardening. Right now I’m using an old pair of my husband’s jeans. But the rise is too short and they keep falling down as I work. My solution is to cinch them really tight with a belt but that’s uncomfortable, and I find myself cutting my gardening time short to get out of the clothes! I wish there were rugged pants cut with a high rise, built for who I am and what I do!”
Gose found similar findings when she conducted her research about women’s work apparel for her MBA project. She identified various trade organizations such as farming, construction and law enforcement with a significant number of female members. She surveyed or interviewed 400 of these women. She asked about demands in their line of work, whether they used specially designed work clothes, whether they wore men’s or women’s styles for work, and what they would make for a better and more comfortable fit if they were to design them themselves.
Gose found that 98 percent of the women she surveyed bought at least some men’s wear because there were either no options for women or those options were of lower quality.
She also asked women about their salary as a way to understand price point that would work best for them. “There are other small workwear companies but apparel is priced fairly high. If a woman is earning $48,000-$50,000 a year, she wants a pant that is well made and a lasts long time. If it is too niche, it tends to be really expensive,” Gose said. She isn’t interested in making clothes the women who need them can’t afford. “That is not my dream. My dream is to outfit women head to toe across the trades.”
Gose hopes her approach will help her overcome the reality that the apparel business is one of the most capital-intensive ventures to start. Usually, materials are needed in advance of taking orders, so that stores or warehouses can be stocked and items available for purchase. Instead, Gose is gearing up for a monthlong Kickstarter campaign for her work pant in December. At the end of that period she will have the capital to fill orders for those campaign purchasers. She’ll also have a bit of market research about what sizes and other features women seek.
Gose knows there are a few other companies that offer apparel for women in the trade or do-it-yourself market. She says she is not thinking about her competitors, but is just focused on making the best product for women she can. “I don’t need to be a carbon copy of other brands or beat them in the market. I’ll be successful if I am truly passionate and doing this for the right reason: how can I make better pant, shirt or glove for women who work hard. The rest is just noise.”
“This isn’t just an apparel company,” she adds. “The idea is to equalize options for women, to elevate them so they feel welcomed in their creativity or in their occupation. This brand is not about myself, but about women who work hard. What they do matters.”
Julianne Couch is the author of The Small-Town Midwest: Resilience and Hope in the Twenty-first Century and the novel Along the Sylvan Trail. She lives and gardens in Bellevue, Iowa.