Overalls are an icon of the fashion world. Lots of people have worn them and everyone recognizes them. Overalls are a sort of unique piece of fashion because they’re been part of the working world, the high fashion world and they’ve even been to war.
How It All Fits
Why do we wear clothes? You can read stories about ancient happenings, talk about the need to protect the delicate human body and make an argument that honestly, it’s easy to get super cold when you don’t have on clothes. But if human beings only wore clothing to protect themselves from things like weather and that drawer that sticks out and gets you on the shin every single time, designer fashion wouldn’t exist. Everyone would just walk around in potato sacks, something that actually happened in the U.S. during the Great Depression. People put effort into their clothing because the clothing you wear says something about you.
And if your clothes don’t fit you correctly…well, it says some things about you that maybe you wouldn’t want people to think. Ill-fitting clothing is going to look unflattering and it will only emphasize problem areas of your body that you don’t like, while obscuring parts of your body you should be highlighting. You will look poorly dressed and not put together. You will look like you’re wearing clothing that doesn’t even belong to you.
The Quick History of Clothes
So in the Stone Age when the first human beings were hunting and gathering their way across wide-open landscapes, clothing was a necessary survival tool. The first clothes were simply crude animal hides, coverings that were tied and knotted onto the boy, held in place with braided cords of animal hair and other readily-available material found in nature. But one of the oldest inventions of humankind is the needle. Or at least, a type of needle.
The first awls were small, sharpened sticks that were used more for boring holes into clothing, rather than dragging a thread through clothing the way that modern needles do today. Once these holes were punched into hides, cordage could be used to bring pieces together and assemble more specific clothing designs. From here, clothing became a lot more sophisticated. Ancient people learned how to make fabrics, or textiles, such as the cotton and linen items worn by Egyptians and ancient Greeks and Romans.
Even by the time of these incredibly ancient days, when the pyramids still looked kind of new, specific types of clothes, certain clothing styles and even specific colors had taken on their own significant meanings. Even before Alexander the Great ruled in Macedonia in the 300s B.C., the color purple was meant to be worn only by royalty, for example.
Clothing has always been important. Certain clothing items have a certain meaning. Combat boots, for example, are clearly associated with soldiers, long hikes, with performing tough tasks of all types. Big white ball gowns evoke images of weddings, brides, true love. A waist-length black leather jacket is associated with riding motorcycles and just generally being cool. Clothes have a meaning. And overalls…well, they have a lot of meanings.
What Happened with Overalls?
Overalls have their own history and their own associations, too. See an all-white pair and you’re going to think of a painter. See a rugged, distressed pair of overalls made in denim and you might think of farming. What do you see when you see a pair of overalls?
One of the oldest known definitions of overalls dates to 1782, when they were described as “loose trousers of a strong material worn by cowboys, etc.” By 1897, overalls had taken on a modern modern look with a chest bib and the definition was upgraded to “loose-fitting canvas trousers with a bib and strap top.”
In these early days, overalls were worn over all other clothing in order to protect the clothing. This is why overalls became associated with tough, dirty work, such as farming, mining or cowboying around on the wild western frontier of the U.S. But they were first created as military wear in the 1700s and caught on with the armed forces for their tough performance. The same traits that made overalls great workwear made them perfect for military wear, too.
These early overalls, in fact, were more commonly referred to as “slops.” They were meant to be sloppy and ill-fitting because they were meant to protect the clothes you actually wanted people to see. Once the dirty work was done, overalls could e taken off and the rest of the day could be enjoyed in more tailored, attractive clothing.
The first overalls were like the first clothing in general. They were crude, sort of slapped-together items that didn’t fit well and weren’t made with quality fabrics. But then a dude named Levi Strauss met a tailor named Jacob Davis and together, the two men created one of the most successful fashion items of all time: blue jeans.
Davis was trying to design a pair of tough work pants that could be worn by the miners in his local area. Work pants worn by the miners were wearing out quickly. He needed stronger fabric, a tougher design. Davis talked about his problem with Strauss, a retailer, because they needed a durable material that could support the design vision he had. They began working with cotton duck cloth and then, a miracle of a modern fabric originally invented in France, denim.
The denim material selected by Strauss and Davis for their blue jeans and overalls would prove to be a huge game-changer in the world of fashion.
The newly-formed Levi Strauss Co. became famous for its blue jeans, which quickly swept the nation as the work pants of choice. Never one to miss an opportunity, Strauss also manufactured his company’s version of overalls, too. Made with denim and reinforced with the copper rivets that made blue jeans famous, these overalls were not quickly-made, crude pants made to be worn over other clothing. These overalls were sized to fit and finished with pockets, loops and little additions that made it easier to hold tools and gear.
Different versions of overalls were soon made. The designs made for carpenters and builders had hammer loops. Some styles had more pocket space. Lined winter overalls and lighter-weight summer overalls were made. There was no question about it. Overalls were a hit.
Now, overalls were much more refined. President Calvin Coolidge was photographed wearing a pair while doing farm work in the 1920s. Women everywhere started wearing them while going to factory jobs during the tough days of World War I, the Great Depression and World War II. It was during this last event that overalls truly became part of women’s fashion. So many women had to go to work in factories and on farms during WWI, in both Europe and America, that overalls found their way into closets of people of all ages and all genders.
For decades, overalls were the height of work fashion. They were tough, they were rugged, they were worn by people who weren’t afraid to get their hands dirty. But how about those people who look like they’ve never even been dirty?
The World of Fashion
By the 1960s, overalls had made the jump into the world of fashion. Young people had discovered overalls in their parents’ and grandparents’ storage and wore them as a salute to the rural culture that had started to fade from the landscape. Farms were giving way to suburbs as cities grew and grew. Instead of vanishing entirely, overalls began to appear in the cities as cool street fashion, a classic blast from the style past.
Suddenly, designers were re-working this old classic and they created stylish looks that appeared in glossy magazines. Models strolled down runways in them. The music industry got into the action and soon, all the coolest artists were wearing overalls, too. They appeared in every color, in all kinds of patterns, with different fits and made from different fabrics. They became popular in hip hop fashion in the 1980s and 1990s and today, overalls can be anything. They’re rugged and tough, they’re sexy and stylish, they’re hip and cool.
But are they tailorable? Can overalls be altered? With such a long and interesting history, it seems almost as though overalls can be anything for anyone. But can overalls be made to fit a body they just don’t fit?
No matter what you’re wearing, if the fit is wrong then it’s going to be uncomfortable and it’s not going o look very good. At all times, you want clothing that fits you. Clothing must match the natural lines and curves of your body. If you’re wearing something that’s fighting against your natural shape, you know it. You’ll have areas of your clothes that sag and bag and droop. There may be places that constrict and pinch and prevent you from moving comfortably.
This not only feels bad, it looks bad. Clothing that doesn’t fit isn’t going to flatter you. Always wear something that fits well and looks like it was made for you.
Wearing clothing that doesn’t fit properly just isn’t a good option. But can the overalls still be saved? Can overalls be altered…like that wedding dress that doesn’t fit quite right or that pair of pants that are now just right?
Tailors have been around since those ancient days when fabric itself was still kind of a new thing. Once, all clothing was made custom-order and designed to fit. But with the rise of retail businesses and ready-made, ready-to-wear clothing, this is no longer the case. Most people just purchase their clothing from the store. But those standardized sizes don’t always fit every body perfectly because human bodies still don’t run in standard sizes.
The problem is, there are lots of things that cannot be altered. The shoulders of dresses and blouses, for example, are difficult to change in any way. When it comes to overalls, there are several parts of them that are difficult, if not impossible, to change. The bib of the overalls cannot be changed. Overall bibs are often detailed with pockets, decorations and other embellishments that mean the bib cannot be changed without compromising the existing design.
The waistband of overalls can also be difficult to alter. Though pants can be altered in the waistband, overalls are made very differently. Some overalls don’t have a defined waist area while others have only the suggestion of a waist. For the same reason, the rear end area of overalls is extremely difficult to change.
Some things about overalls can be adapted, however. The straps can be altered so that they are a little shorter and sometimes they can be a little longer, too. The sides of the overalls can be taken in or let out but not by much. In most places, alterations on overalls are going to create very small changes only. When a small change is all you need, this can be perfect. But if you’re having serious problems with the way the overalls fit, alterations aren’t going to help.
Experienced tailors can also remove the front pockets overalls, if any, to create a smoother, less bulky look.
A tailor can also add patches to overalls if there are holes or areas of damaged. Patches can actually be a great look. Some designers add patches to brand-new jeans just for the sake of style.
The cuffs off the overalls can also be altered, though not significantly. Cuffs can be let out or tapered in to change the silhouette slightly. Cuffs can also be shorted. They usually can’t be let out to provide more length, however.
Can You Upcycle Them Instead?
Maybe your overalls can’t be altered. After all, tailors are not magicians. But can the overalls still be saved in some way? With upcycling, it just might be possible. If you have scissors, some extra fabric, needle and thread and a DIY spirit within you, try changing your overalls to save them…well, after a fashion.
Turn your overalls in to a dress by cutting off the legs and attaching a skirt to the bib. This creates a cute, casual finished look.
Save just the bib of the overalls. Cut off the legs and wear the bib with the attached straps and make a bib top. You will need to add a new piece of fabric, probably a piece of denim from the cut-up overalls, across the back. This will give the bib a more top-like fit. Wear this with a crop top and a pair of jeans and it’s like you have two-piece overalls. And why not?
Can Overalls be Altered?
Can overalls be altered? Well, up to a point. Some small changes can be made. And if the small changes won’t do, you can get creative and turn your overalls into something brand-new. This is actually perfect, especially for an item like overalls that have had such a long history in style. After all, fashion is all about taking what exists and making it all over again.
Business Insider – 7 things a tailor can do — and 7 things a tailor can’t
NPR – Overalls
Online Etymology Dictionary – overalls (n.)