Whether you see them on a construction site, farm, or even at your local café, overalls are a versatile fashion choice for a few reasons, and they have an eclectic history that dates back to over a century ago. Depending on the needs of the wearer, people have changed the purpose of overalls throughout its history. Originally, business owners gave their workers overalls as a more practical uniform for laborious jobs such as fishing and farming.
Since then, they have gone on to become an iconic outfit staple in American fashion and pop culture. In this guide, you will learn about the history of overalls: from formal to work clothing. With this in mind, let’s dive into how designers first conceived the idea for overalls.
The Inception of Overalls
“Overalls” used to refer to a few different types of clothes, such as outerwear and undergarments. The name for this particular clothing item comes from a utilitarian standpoint: you wear overalls over all your other clothes. For workers who often couldn’t afford to replace their clothes, overalls helped to protect their shirts and pants while they worked.
Later on, bib overalls became the main point of reference for the term. Also known as dungarees, this is the item that most likely pops into your head when you hear the word “overalls.” Two components make up bib overalls: the bib, which covers a person’s torso, and the trouser section, which is typically loose so that people can wear clothing underneath it.
Bib overalls have undergone many changes throughout their history. While there isn’t a specific date or inventor that first created overalls, they can be traced all the way back to the 1700s.
When manufacturers first started making them, they designed the bib section to be a continuous extension of the trouser section. This style of overalls is known as a “continuous bib,” and it was a popular garment for workers from the mid-1880s to the early 1900s. Somewhere in the later 1800s, a clothing designer separated the bib and the trousers, which created a style of overalls known as “separate bib.”
During this 30-year period, both styles were popular. However, continuous bibs started to lose popularity around 1916, and the separate bib has remained the preferred style since then. The only demographic that still wears continuous bib overalls are children.
How Overalls Changed From Work Wear to Fashion
Manufacturers created overalls from materials such as heavy canvas or denim because those materials provided the necessary durability for working. They also made overalls from waterproof or water-resistant fabric so that fishermen could wear them. Comfort and longevity were the main considerations for overalls manufacturers because people only wore this style of clothing for work purposes.
Before the first World War, only men and children wore overalls. Men would wear them to work, while children would wear overalls as playsuits. However, when the war broke out, women needed to start working to support the war.
During this time, numerous patents came out for women’s workwear. By the end of the Second World War, there were many more options for women’s overalls. Some changes that clothing designers made for women’s overalls included adding dainty pockets, sweetheart necklines, flared leggings, and other stylistic considerations that made overalls more fashionable.
As overalls became more oriented towards fashion, manufacturers used cotton fabrics that weighed less than canvas or denim. This is where things started to shift for overalls as consumers made an important distinction: denim and canvas overalls for working, and cotton ones for fashion.
This distinction continues today, although some manufacturers are blurring the lines between workwear and fashion. As designers continue to make progress on the appearance and functionality of overalls, you can find a wide variety of selections available today. You can even find high-quality fire-resistant overalls for industrial workers.
The Debate Over the First Patent
Both Levi Strauss and Lee Jeans claim to have the first patent for overalls. In 1873, Levi Strauss and Company patented overalls with rivets, which later became known as Levi’s 501 Blue Jean.
This patent was one of the first for an overall that could be mass-produced, but they were not like the overalls we know today. Levi’s overall patent only covered the waist down, so they were much different from bib overalls. Levi’s 501 jeans were known as overalls until baby boomers started distinguishing between overalls, waist overalls, and jeans sometime during the 1960s.
Lee Jeans created the first patent for a bib overall that could be mass-produced, but they didn’t make their patent until 1921. It’s important to note that Lee Jeans didn’t invent the bib overall, but they were the first to create a patent for that style. Companies like Carhartt were producing bib overalls much earlier than 1921, so by then, this style was already well-known to the public.
Overall Trends Over the Last Half Century
Like any fashion accessory, the popularity of overalls as a trend has had its ups and downs over the years. During the 1960s, many hippies wore them because they were relatively inexpensive, durable, and helped cultivate a countercultural image.
Overalls experienced a significant boost in popularity during the 1990s when rappers and actors started wearing them on television. During this decade, the way you wore your overalls was with one strap fastened and the other strap hanging.
As overalls continued to evolve, they inspired fashion designers to create other types of garments such as coveralls and shorteralls. Over the last few years, there has even been a resurgence of 1930s-inspired overalls.
In short, from formal to work clothing, the history of overalls is a story of ingenuity, progress, and culture. There is much more to their history than meets the eye, and overalls serve as a fashionable reminder of the entrepreneurial spirit that is ingrained in America’s national character.
After reading about the history of overalls, why not purchase a pair for yourself right now? Not only will you have the perfect outfit for working hard, but you can also use it for style points on a day-to-day basis.