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Workwear: A Different Kind of Fashion Exhibition at the Nieuwe Instituut

From 26 March 2023, Rotterdam’s Nieuwe Instituut pays tribute to functional fashion with the Workwear exhibition. Originally designed as protection and support for labourers while they performed heavy tasks, workwear became a potent working-class symbol, and today its presence on the street and catwalk cannot be ignored.

31 January 2023

Seated Thayaht wearing overalls Photographer P. Salvini, Florence, 1920 Photographic archive of the PratoTextile Museum

Some clothes need no description: a number like M-65, G1 or 501 is enough to summon images of, respectively, a field jacket, flight jacket or denim classic. Migrating from the army base, airfield or factory, such garments became widely worn fashion items. Designers like Massimo Osti and Helmut Lang transformed them into staples of boutiques worldwide; fashion pioneers like Elsa Schiaparelli and Yohji Yamamoto turned them into luxury couture.

With the Workwear exhibition, the Nieuwe Instituut delves into the world of functional fashion for the first time. London-based curator Eldina Begic became fascinated by work clothing and fashion’s social role during her PhD research. While most fashion reinforces notions of individuality or social status, work clothing does precisely the opposite: it radiates equality and solidarity. According to Begic, workwear therefore represents a utopian ideal. The Workwear exhibition, then, is a different kind of fashion exhibition. It celebrates the history, functionality and impact of clothing originally designed for working people but that is now worn by everyone and inspires countless fashion designers worldwide.

Says curator Eldina Begic: “I think this is an important exhibition, because the utopian qualities of workwear offer a blueprint for a different kind of fashion – clothing that stands for durability and solidarity. Above all, the exhibition celebrates the inspiring and empowering quality of these clothes, which is often overlooked. And the show is full of surprises in the way it connects workwear to radical ideas in art, design and politics.”

Says Aric Chen, General and Artistic Director of Nieuwe Instituut: “We’re pleased to present this exhibition that shows how functional design has helped shape the social and cultural dimensions of fashion and, in following, our societies and cultures themselves. Workwear brings up questions around class, labour, solidarity and equality—while also revealing the beauty, ingenuity and creativity to be found in the utilitarian.”

The exhibition

Begic has selected dozens of vintage classics, current looks and futuristic experiments for Workwear. Among the items on display are tabi boots (popularised by fashion house Maison Martin Margiela), Lygia Clark’s participatory ’therapy’ jumpsuits and masks, the ‘Flexicap’ by Maria Blaisse, items from Helmut Lang’s Stellar Collection, overalls by Yohji Yamamoto, the 11-person Red Coat rain suit by Nicola L, a jumpsuit by London vintage collectors Vintage Showroom, and the ‘space suit’ with zip-off legs worn by members of the Dutch Provo movement. There are also jumpsuits by the Italian futurist Thayaht and by designer Aleksandr Rodchenko, theatre costumes by avant-garde designers Stepanova and Popova, X-rays of Neil Armstrong’s moon landing suit and a Bonne Suit by Amsterdam designer Bonne Reijn.

The pieces are displayed on wooden mannequins within an exhibition design by Rotterdam-based studio Cookies, Collin Keys and Edward Zammit. The wooden panels with the cut-outs from the mannequin parts are being reused as panels for the accompanying texts. The exhibition’s graphic design is by Isabelle Vaverka.

In addition, especially for the exhibition, two Rotterdammers have created new works exploring the future of workwear. Designer Sam Cruden of custom jeans brand C.Cruden presents an installation focusing on the life cycle of indigo jeans. Spoken word artist Elten Kiene has written a workwear manifesto in the context of the exhibition. Families with children can explore Workwear by taking part in a free Family Expedition.


The festive opening of the Workwear exhibition takes place on Saturday 25 March. From 8.30 pm there are various speeches and performances, followed by drinks and a DJ. Everyone is welcome at the opening; the dress code is – of course – ‘workwear’. After the opening, the exhibition can be seen until 10 September 2023 in Gallery 2 of the Nieuwe Instituut in Rotterdam.

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About Nieuwe Instituut

Nieuwe Instituut is the Netherlands’ national museum and institute for architecture, design and digital culture. Based in Rotterdam, a global centre for design innovation, the institute’s mission is to embrace the power and potential of new thinking, exploring past, present and future ideas in order to imagine, test and enact a better tomorrow. Encouraging visitors of all ages to question, rethink and contribute, the institute’s exhibitions, public programmes, research, and wide-reaching national and international initiatives provide a testing ground for collaboration with leading designers, thinkers and diverse audiences, critically addressing the urgent questions of our times. 

In addition to housing the National Collection for Dutch Architecture and Urban Planning, the institute manages the 1933 Sonneveld House, a leading example of Dutch Functionalist architecture, as part of its campus in Rotterdam’s Museumpark. 

In 2022, the Nieuwe Instituut became the world’s first Zoöp, a ground-breaking model through which all areas of the museum’s operations and programming are informed by its impact and benefit to other forms of life. The institute also serves as commissioner of the Dutch pavilion at the biannual Venice Architecture Biennale and, in 2023, will act as the Artistic Director of the London Design Biennale. In 2022 the Nieuwe Instituut curated the official Dutch entry to the Triennale di Milano, winning the exhibition’s Golden Bee Award.