Utilitarian Fashion 

VCU design and merchandising students comment on the timelessness of the boiler suit.

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Bygones/Olivia Lloyd

If Oscar the Grouch took a turn toward junk chic, or wearing clothes at all, he’d wear a boiler suit. A metallic one, to be exact, that matches the rounded garbage can he’s called home for the past 50 years on “Sesame Street.” Perhaps it’s made of recyclable material, with “I Love Trash” stitched onto a side pocket.

The boiler suit trend has made its way onto Balmain and Hermes catwalks and, my most recent favorite, Harry Styles’ body for his Rolling Stone cover.

It once hugged Winston Churchill with green velvet and fashion icon David Bowie, who donned one with hand-drawn figures, when he wasn’t rocking Kansai Yamamoto’s Ziggy Stardust jumpsuit. And let’s not forget when the boiler suit made its glamorous debut in “Ghostbusters,” both the ’80s original and the 2016 remake.

But the loose-fitting garment’s origin story is muddy. It’s a one-piece with many names — coveralls, jumpsuit, flight suit — that once was meant to protect manual laborers in the middle of the Industrial Revolution with a thick material. Usually paired with a utility belt, the pockets were deep and wide enough to fit the occasional tool.

Then, in no particular order, it made its way to electricians, plumbers, gardeners and women taking over previously male-dominated roles. Tom Cruise established it as a Halloween costume for years to come in “Top Gun” while mechanics on racetracks adopted a rendition of the suit to avoid oil spillage on their favorite jeans.

Boiler suits became a staple for the working class, and with the natural evolution of workwear being adapted for fashion, its resurgence almost begs for a continuous reinvention. That’s the beauty of the boiler suit. It’s amorphous. Androgynous. A moldable yet wearable pajama if you will. Utilitarian, but make it fashion.

It’s a trend that continues to transcend generations. But why? Or how? We looked toward Virginia Commonwealth University design and merchandising students, who are arguably the most on-fashion people in Richmond, to see their hot takes on the boiler suit.

Jonathan Clarke, junior design major

Jonathan Clarke admittedly didn’t recognize the word “boiler suit” before looking up an image and realizing he owns multiples, including a vintage one from the ’70s. The junior design major is a fan of the outfit’s subtlety, and how it’s managed to transition military and workwear into the fashion world.

“I found my mom’s boilersuit from the ’90s when she was in the Navy. She was the mechanic so she’d do a lot of painting and do a lot of repair,” he explains. “So it’s got all these paint stains, oil stains. I was like ‘Hey, I’m taking this.’”

It’s become a conversation piece, Clarke says, since asking about it can easily turn into talking about fashion history. With some boiler suits combining textures or fabrics and adding details, Clarke says it only adds to the versatility.

A suit that he could’ve worn as a minimalist chic streetwear staple could turn into a discolike Studio 54 moment with the right funky belt.

Amari Brown, senior design major

Brown’s mother rocked Carhartt overalls back in the day as an electrician to keep her warm while on the job. So she’s into the trend too, jokes Brown.

“It’s tying into a lot of the unisex nature of today. I really love anything that has a hint of a masculine feel, especially for women,” Brown says. “You can implement so much of that functionality. I think a lot of people lose a lot of function when it comes to fashion.”

William Jacobs, senior fashion merchandising major

Senior fashion merchandising student William Jacobs acknowledges it as the natural progression from the romper and change in seasons. With designers cutting back on the material they use, Jacobs views it as a utility jumpsuit with a conscious edge.

“It represents people trying to look a little bit more working class and rugged. They really represented blue-collar, hard-working people,” Jacobs says. “It’s just people looking at how to draw style from areas you wouldn’t expect.”

A potential next step for the boiler suit? A slimmer, more form-fitting fit, says Jacobs — think of Ruby Rose’s catsuit as Batwoman.

Until then, I’m rolling up to an after-work happy hour with an off-white, nontightly fastened version. Maybe paired with Chelsea boots and a textured clutch as I toast to the women who allegedly took over the suit from men who maintained coal-fired boilers.

These women continued adding fire to flames.


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