From a series written for ABC Radio National’s Blueprint for Living. First broadcast on 28th January 2023, you can listen to the audio here.
When you consider the history of the jumpsuit, sows ears and silk purses come to mind. After all, how did an unassuming item of workwear became haute couture?
The jumpsuit started out, as the name implies, as a one-piece garment designed for parachutists. It had to be form-fitting with minimal openings to stop the force of air ripping it open when hurtling to the ground. It was based on aviator suits, created for the new aeroplanes. During the First World War, when fighter planes were first used, British pilots often wore a Sidcot suit. It was named after its creator, Sidney Cotton. The one-piece outfit was made from khaki-coloured cotton with a rubberized lining for wind resistance and a further soft lining for warmth. Neck, ankles and wrists were fastened tight, and a large flap was buttoned over the chest to one side, keeping the opening away from the direct impact of air that might yank it open. Parachutists, however, needed something similar but less bulky.
The first recorded jump using a parachute without a frame was in 1793. During the First World War, parachutes were used only by those manning airships and observation balloons. It wasn’t until the 1920s that they became safety kit for pilots, vital when escaping an aircraft in distress. The Soviet army used them to show how troops could be parachuted into areas ahead of a slower land-based offensive, something that quickly became part of normal warfare. The jumpsuit was therefore an essential part of military design.
The idea of one-piece clothing was popular in industry, too, as part of safe work practices, with baggy boiler suits worn by men stoking fires in smelting works. A more tailored type was used when any loose fabric might become caught in machinery. By the Second World War, the jumpsuit had become the regulation uniform for workers in wartime manufacturing, famously illustrated in America by Rosie the Riveter, clad in a blue jumpsuit as she encouraged women to join the industrial army.
It wasn’t long before fashion designers claimed the jumpsuit as a style statement. In the 1930s, French designer Elsa Schiaparelli produced a version with a figure-hugging bodice, flared legs and deep pockets that magnified the crossover style. It was too daring for most and yet, by the 1940s, they’d become acceptable, in high fashion at least, worn by glamorous stars such as Katherine Hepburn and Marlene Dietrich. There’s something slightly unsettling here, the contrast of Hollywood celebrating the glamour of the jumpsuit as troops wearing the real thing were being parachuted into warzones elsewhere. By the 1960s, the jumpsuit had truly arrived, starring on the cover of Vogue in 1964 and popularised by designers such as Guy Laroche and Pauline Trigère, who magicked them into stylish evening wear. In the 1970s, they were a mainstay of pop culture, highlighting the androgynous quality of musicians like David Bowie and Elton John, although Elvis in his famous spangled version probably didn’t intend that. There was even the skin-tight version known as the catsuit which fetishised the thrill of wearing only a single item.
The jumpsuit’s popularity has remained, as workwear and fashion statement, both cygnet and swan. Most recently it’s cropped up in uniforms designed by Ozwald Boateng for British Airways cabin crew, providing an option for a gender-diverse workforce. The jumpsuit therefore highlights the alchemy of design, turning utility into stylistic gold, and showing that silk purses really can be made from sow’s ears.
I love them! I have several sleeveless versions in my wardrobe and they are a summer staple. In fact I wore one to a country lunch yesterday so your article is timely. Glad to be in the company of Kate Hepburn and Marlene Dietrich plus all the women war workers 😍
How very Hepburn of you – I’m rather envious. Best I can do is a pair of dungarees…