Style / March 2017

The Overall Effect and the Call of the Siren Suit

Josh Sims takes a peek inside the overall – that most ‘outer’ of outerwear – and finds a fascinating history underneath.

Tony Beckley and Michael Caine in The Italian Job, 1969. Photo by Moviestore/REX/Shutterstock.

If you’re aiming at a new vision of society, you need a new vision of what to wear in it. Revolution begets sartorialism, so to speak. At least that seemed to be idea of radicals in the early decades of the 20th century, from Ernesto Michahelles (aka Thayaht) - darling of Italian futurism - to the likes of Alexander Rodchencko - doyen of Russian constructivism. What is unexpected, however - given the dissimilarities between the two period-defining movements - is the kind of garment they each settled on as embodying this planned wholesale reorganisation of modern life: a pair of overalls.

Of course, to dress the rise of the workers, such a workmanlike garment - worn by share-croppers, stockers, mechanics and sometimes artists - might be considered the obvious choice. And perhaps the choice of this rather minimalistic, rational and above all practical garment - no need to match top with bottom, plenty of pockets - also hinted at the proposed future world’s preference for suppressing individuality in favour of the collective. Overalls were also anti-fashion - they represented a move against over consumption, of class and wealth display, of change for change’s sake, in favour of function, form and clothing’s first principles. If you are what you wear, then what better way to begin towards a new society than with the overalls’ blank slate?

This may not have been an entirely new notion - as Dr. Flavia Loscialpo of Southampton Solent University’s School of Art, Design and Fashion notes, even Thomas More’s ‘Utopia’ of 1516 described its people as wearing practical, trans-seasonal clothes that “allow free movement of the limbs” and which left them “happy with a single piece of clothing every two years”. That latter benefit may not have come to pass, even if, in 1919, Thayaht originally designed what he called his ‘tuta’ as some kind of protest against the high post-war clothing prices that left most Italians sweltering through the summer in their thick, cumbersome winter clothing. Here was a T-shaped garment - like a t-shirt extended in all directions - that offered the same kind of ease and simplicity of purpose.

As for free movement - given that Thayaht and Rodchenko’s contemporaries were typically buttoned-up and besuited, and that to be otherwise in good company would be considered bad manners, their one-piece proposals seem somewhat prescient in at least one way: overalls surely prefigure today’s ubiquitous, unimaginative, comfort-driven sweatshirt/sweatpants combo.

That grey sloppiness probably wasn’t what either of them were aiming at: more an exploration of the idea that, if so much of life was changing beyond recognition as a result of industrialisation, why shouldn’t clothing go through the same process too? After all, Rodchenko named his overalls  ‘prozodezhda’ - a conflation of the Russian for ‘industrial’ and ‘clothing’.

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Josh Sims

Josh Sims is a writer on menswear, design and much else for the likes of Wallpaper, CNN, Robb Report and The Times. He's the author of several books on menswear, the latest 'The Details', published by Laurence King. He lives in London, has two small children and is permanently exhausted.