Getting schooled: A brief history of jumpsuits and boiler suits
The Handbook / Style / The history of jumpsuits: The one-piece with many names — and origins

The history of jumpsuits: The one-piece with many names — and origins

Getting schooled: A brief history of jumpsuits and boiler suits

Words— Philip Mak

As the 2010s draw to a close, we can look back at the trends that defined the decade like streetwear, simplicity and sustainability. Sure, sneakers will likely be remembered by fashion historians as the de facto footwear of the era, but clothing is more difficult to say something definite about — torn between drop-and-cop hype culture, Scandinavian minimalism and the casual comforts of the creative class. Yet one classic has managed to make it into the ‘grams of both label lovers and less-is-more lookers alike, and that is the jumpsuit. 

 

The jumpsuit —or the artist sometimes known as the boiler suit, coveralls, flight suit or onesie— has strutted down both men’s and women’s runways for high-fashion brands like Prada, Fendi and Comme des Garçons, among many others. The generally genderless style is best defined as a loose-fitting garment covering the entire body except for the head, hands and feet — though short-sleeved, shorts and sleeveless versions are also popular. A true woman’s jumpsuit combines the flexibility of pants with the fun movement of a dress; anything too tight goes from the catwalk to catsuit pretty quickly. 

 

 

 

 

Feel like you want to pull the chute when you think about wearing a boiler suit? While jumpsuits may require a leap of faith from those of us more accustomed to separates, their simplicity and effortless stylishness will have you leaping for joy in no time. Plus, they have a rich history, stretching from workers’ uniforms to Winston Churchill to women’s liberation.

 

Keep scrolling to see how the jumpsuit became a style staple and why you should drop one into your closet ASAP.

 

 

From factories to fascists to fashion

 

Similar to other popular fashion pieces like the bomber jacket, Germany Army Trainers and hoodies, the jumpsuit’s origins lie somewhere around the military and the working class. The word ''jumpsuit'' reportedly didn’t join the American vernacular until the 1940s, in reference to WWII pilot flight suits and those worn by skydivers — though those were two pieces. Bizarre, right?

 

The boiler suit name is a good fit, as the loose garments originally covered the entire body with thick fabric that could protect factory and manual labourers from burns and hazards in 19th Century, Industrial Revolution working conditions. Covering both the skin and everyday clothes, they also had deep, wide pockets — perfect for holding railroad workers’ and mechanics’ tools, though today they function equally well for the ever-growing screen sizes of smartphones.

 

 

 

 

While nobody has ever claimed to invent the first jumpsuit, many designers created early iterations at the beginning of the 20th Century. Australian airman Sydney Cotton developed a flight suit for British pilots in 1917. This coverall garment, colloquially known as the “SidCot suit”, was an early ancestor to the jumpsuit. 

 

Earlier in the decade, French designer Poiret had illustrated women doing everyday tasks like tennis and gardening in the clothing of tomorrow — an androgynous one-piece. In 1919, Italian artist Thayat (real name: Ernesto Michahelles) continued this forward-facing theme with the TuTa, which he described as ''the most innovative, futuristic garment ever produced in the history of Italian fashion'' and had it published in the La Nazione newspaper. Though he intended it as a revolutionary piece of clothing that would simplify the lives of working-class people, it was instead adopted by the Florence’s high society.

 

This proletariat — and eventually populist— vision for jumpsuits would be woven into the fabric of their early history in the 1920s and 1930s, making them the garment of choice amongst leftist groups like the Bauhaus Movement, anti-fascists in the Spanish Civil War and actual pro-fascists in Italy alike. 

 

 

 

Leading into WWII, designer Elsa Schiaparelli created the first high-fashion boiler suits, which were inspired by the coming conflict. Though these had to be abandoned in the austere times, women would adopt coveralls as they stepped into traditionally male-occupied roles while the men were fighting abroad. Winston Churchill was also frequently spotted in a onesie during wartimes referred to as a siren suit or romper suit, which was meant to be thrown on over clothes at an alarm’s notice — perfect for transitioning from the bar to the bomb shelter. The former British prime minister famously wore one variation made of green velvet, though others included design elements like pinstripes.

 

In the Post-War period, boiler suits would become a popular choice on runways and event racetracks. Mechanics and drivers adopted thin coveralls during races that would both prevent oil and grime getting on their regular clothes, protect against flames and impact, and served as natural billboards for logos and sponsorships. This association continues on racetracks today as well as in garages and on crash test dummies. 

 

Jumpsuits transitioned from flying high and high fashion to the mainstream in the 1960s and 1970s, landing in the collections of Yves Saint Laurent, Norma Kamali and Irene Galitzine — with the latter designer’s wares worn by the likes of Elizabeth Taylor, Jackie Onassis and Audrey Hepburn. Additionally, they also became the favourite ‘fit of disco stars and singers including Elvis Presley in his famous white onesie as well as David Bowie (as Ziggy Stardust) and Mick Jagger, often spotted on the smokey dancefloors of Studio 54. Picture: open zippers, bare chests, and wide lapels and legs. 

 

 

 

 

Around this time, the women’s liberation movement was also gaining momentum, with loose-cut, flare-legged jumpsuits offered the silhouette and flow of a dress with the freedom of pants. The trend would persist, with bolder, brighter and bigger shouldered variations in the 1980s. With the 90s came bibbed overalls from brands like Guess and Tommy Hilfiger. 

 

 

Love at first suit

 

Coming into the 2000s and present hype cycle, jumpsuits and boiler suits have never been a hotter choice among those who want to look cool. While men originally commandeered the working class look, it is women who are having a renaissance with the lewk — wearing it as a weekend #OOTD, to the office or even on occasions like weddings. Yes, more and more brides-to-be are saying “I do!” to jumpsuits including singer Solange and The Big Bang Theory actress Kaley Cuoco.

 

High fashion designers like Issey Miyake and Stella McCartney have also continued to innovate jumpsuits for a new generation, though fashion labels at all levels are also offering more accessible options. This want for a onesie is doubtlessly perpetuated by celebrities, with stars from model-of-the-moment Gigi Hadid to singer and designer Rihanna to reality star Kim Kardashian to her husband, rapper Kanye West, having been snapped in their ‘suits. 

 

Even politicians-by-proxy like Ivanka Trump have been spotted in jumpsuits, with the presidential progeny having wore a bottle green onesie to the 2017 G20 summit meeting in Hamburg, Germany. Her stepmother, Melania Trump, has also opted for black variations at formal occasions. 

 

Fashion is also seeing a resurgence in androgyny — and it is no coincidence that jumpsuits and boilers have never been literally more in Vogue. While dividing clothing into two genders is becoming less common, it seems wearing a one-piece may finally have its moment uniting us all. 


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