The first time I saw a construction worker in Japan it was in the early morning at the train station and I thought he’d had a rough night coming back from the club, not that he was wearing a work uniform. The picture to the left says it all. On his feet he wore split-toed cloth boots; in other words, ninja shoes. Who was this guy and why did he look so awesome? He was a tobi, a construction worker.
We have been entranced by this style ever since we saw it. To the Western eye, having excessively baggy pants and cloth, flat-soled shoes with no ankle support seems like a dangerous sacrifice of safety over style. However, there is, like everything in Japan, history and reason behind the madness. Tobi, refers to both the workers’ pants and themselves. The word originally stems from an Edo-era hook-shaped tool, but evolved into a word that describes people who worked on scaffolding. PingMag, a Tokyo design magazine, reports on the rationale behind the style:
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.
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. The Tobi trousers – as we know them today – developed out of a westernization of traditional Japanese clothing. After the Meiji Restoration, workers adjusted their trousers in order to move more easily, taped their calves with a band and wore Tabi on top of them. Another source indicates, that the balloon shape was also influenced by Ninja outfits.
When you put it that way, it all makes sense. Recently, tobi style has migrated from the work site to the street, with people wearing the iconic pants and tabi boots for comfort and fashion. An online store, Tobi (Japanese), sells construction-worker fashion to the lay-person—they even have clothes for children.