REMEMBER when jeans adverts started using 'real people' - fantastically good-looking men with grease on their hands and blue-collar jobs, who looked as though they'd come out of a Springsteen song or a Jim Jarmusch movie? It was about the same time that the Gap began its systematic invasion of the British high street. That was the time when workwear started to insinuate itself into the male consciousness.

Just as women managed to make high fashion out of economic expediency with a pair of black leggings and a white shirt, so the fashionable male population seemed to have decided that, take a pair of jeans and a T-shirt, an old suede jacket and a pair of Blundstone boots and, hey, you looked like a real man again.

Fashion sociologists, who believe that trends in clothes reflect the economic and political climate we live in, would definitely say that the current craze for workwear is a sign of hard times ahead: when the going gets tough, the clothes get

tougher. But with any luck, men might have had more of a say in it than that. As a look, workwear - thick sweaters and donkey jackets and jeans and boots with thick socks - has a whole lot more going for it than the expensive peacock designer suits with which men were dragged into the high-fashion market in the early Eighties: it's cheap, it's comfortable, it makes you look sexy and rumpled and a bit chunky even if you aren't; and with this kind of clothing you needn't worry about being instantly branded by your peers as a walking fashion victim.

It's a look that's lot easier to manufacture, too. Marks & Spencer, whose sophisticated mens-wear departments today would be almost unrecognisable to the man who bought his corduroys and cardies there 10 years ago, couldn't quite manage a cheap Gaultier-look suit (though the rip-off merchants who did thought a loop on the back was all you needed), but they can do wonderful workwear basics - right down to those long-johns and button-front vests that cowboys call underwear.

The Gap, of course, still leads the way with medium-priced, good-quality jeans, jackets, sweaters and T-shirts. But this winter, the more up-market designers have moved in with their own versions, and names such as Paul Smith, Nicole Farhi and Margaret Howell - all of whom love to use natural fabrics - have produced outstanding ranges.

Paul Smith has always been a brilliant separates man and this winter he's done great knitwear, work jackets and trousers. Nicole Farhi's menswear is easily as successful as her women's clothing - the high-button, Italian-peasant-style waistcoats for men that she brought out last season are playing a major role over sweaters and under thick, loose-fitting jackets in this. Companies such as Margaret Howell and Artwork have just been waiting for these simple classic shapes and natural textures to come round again.

On the less expensive side, second-hand shops have always been a good source of those thick checked workshirts (from genuine blue-collar Americans), and as for a donkey jacket: well, you could always ask a dustman. He'll be thrilled to know he's part of the Zeitgeist.

Charcoal wool workwear jacket, pounds 295, by Margaret Howell, 29 Beauchamp Place, SW3, and 24 Brook Street, W1; blue/black fine wool lumberjack shirt, pounds 80, by Paul Smith, 43-44 Floral Street, WC2; grey cotton classic T-shirt, pounds 8.95, from Muji, 39 Shelton Street, WC2; black suede waistcoat with jersey back, pounds 209, and charcoal jersey jeans, pounds 109, both from Nicole Farhi, 11 Floral Street, WC2; blue/black thick wool socks to order from Artwork, at Geo Trowark, 10 St Christopher's Place, W1; dark brown leather lace-up boots, pounds 70 approx by Blundstone, available from PIL, 61 Neal Street, WC2 and Office Shoes nationwide; blue wool beanie hat, pounds 10, from Sisley at selected branches of Benetton, for stockists 071-731 4564

Red/black wool lumberjack jacket, pounds 95; dark green cotton canvas shirt, pounds 72, and black/olive/brown patterned knit waistcoat, pounds 89, all from Paul Smith, 43 Floral Street, WC2; grey cotton classic T-shirt, pounds 8.95, from Muji, as before; rust cotton jeans, pounds 45 approx, by Carhartt, from PIL as before; brown leather beaten-up work boots, pounds 9, from Carlo Manzi Rentals, 33 Liddell Road, NW6

Navy wool donkey jacket, pounds 295, from Emporio Armani, 191 Brompton Road, SW3, 57 Long Acre, London WC2 and 84 King Street, Manchester; wool hand- knit patchwork jumper, pounds 299, from Nicole Farhi, 11 Floral Street, WC2; grey/green cotton brushed trousers, pounds 45, from Blazer, 33a Kings Road, SW3; nationwide stockists 081-749 1251

(Photographs omitted)