Ahh, the dependable and versatile overalls. While they have asserted their place among women’s casual fashion since as far back as the 60s their history in men’s fashion is a little more complicated, with deep roots in workwear and practicality. Today, this oft-denim outfit element merits a bit of reconsideration among the boys who would traditionally (and incorrectly) reserve it to the realm of the job-site.
Let’s dive into an exploration of the overalls in men’s fashion and look at some styling options with different variations.
Before getting right into the juicy styling details, let’s explore a little bit of background first.
What are overalls?
You may know these by many names: bib-and-brace, dungarees, coveralls, and boiler suits, among others. It’s hard not to have seen a pair of these around, or even worn them yourself. They are ubiquitous in workwear culture and have even become attached to certain cultural and socioeconomic norms. In its simplest sense, the overalls are a protective piece of clothing that is meant to cover the majority of your body, with lots of front pockets and loops to facilitate easy access to whatever tools you may require for the job at hand. They usually consist of pant legs, a chest piece (a bib), and reinforced ‘suspenders’.
Traditionally – given their workwear roots – they are built for hardiness and durability and as such, overalls are often made of cotton fabrics like dense denim, canvas, and twill materials that can withstand a bit of a beating. While they are still a staple part of the wardrobe for workin’ men, the overalls have become fully integrated into the fashion world for men and women, who have come to appreciate their strong construction and comfortable fit. With overall shorts, there are seemingly greater possibilities for how to incorporate this fashion piece into your everyday looks.
History of overalls
As I’ve hinted at already, overalls have their roots in workwear, designed for construction, farmwork, and other physical labor positions that require comfort, coverage, and durability. Given the broad range of what this sort of garment could be, and its various iterations and evolutions, the exact origins of the overall are murky. Certain sources place the original overalls as far back as the mid-18th century British Army to cover formal military wear from being dirtied. That being said, we can easily trace the mass-production origins of the overalls to the inimitable and iconic duo of Levi Strauss and Jacob Davis.
For those who don’t know, Strauss and Davis were partners in one of the most important clothing brands to ever have existed; Levi Strauss & Co. Every pair of jeans you’ve ever owned, whether Levi’s or not, were directly influenced by these two denim giants. The importance of this brand in terms of modern workwear and fashion cannot be understated. German and Latvian immigrants (respectively), Strauss and Davis worked together in San Francisco to pair hardy denim fabrics with copper rivets in the late 19th century, patenting the first iteration of the ‘jean’ which would change the world of fashion and clothing forevermore. With the development of the Western USA following the California Gold Rush, Levi Strauss & Co solidified their place in utilitarian fashion by selling their jeans as the necessary gear of ranchers, miners, fishermen, builders, and more. The new frontier, built out of the blood, sweat, and tears of railroad workers and pioneers, may as well have worn denim for how closely related these cultural influences are.
Interestingly enough, the first iterations of the iconic jeans we know and love were in fact overalls – or a form of overalls – with suspenders that connected straight to the pants. While missing the bib the we have to recognize as iconic to the overalls, the addition of denim suspenders to the pants were crucial when you spent the entire day whacking rail spikes into the Colorado dirt, repairing machinery, or out on the farm: clothing that you could work in and not worry about destroying would be critical to the growth of the American West and the American working class evermore. The many loops and pockets would allow you to hold your documents, tools, and items close on hand, something that was especially useful when you spent months out in the middle of nowhere building railroad lines or far in the fields of your farm. The relatively loose fit would be crucial in making the overalls adaptable: in the hotter months you had plenty of airflow and in the winter season you could layer as much as necessary. As an everyday, affordable piece, the overalls would become staple in the growth of the American industry.
This would be most prominent in the Great Depression of the 1930s. Farmers and working men across the Dust Bowl and other places greatly affected by the economic downturn would look toward overalls and denim for multiple factors, chief among them denim’s durability, versatility, and importantly, affordability. Long after the economy returned, overalls remained after having proven themselves in spades to the working class. Different brands would appear and be marketed toward specific fields and industries, like Blue Bell’s connection to South Carolina railroad workers, or Larned, Carter & Co.’s Detroit steelworker and railroad worker uniforms. Brands like OshKosh B’gosh would tailor their overalls to children with the iconic blue and white corduroy stripes, a utilitarian piece that made sense for growing kids who were constantly spilling things all over themselves and running around in the dirt. Denim could be washed lots without much stress about wear and tear and as such, people who needed to keep an eye on expenses – especially with a family – likely saw the overalls as a godsend. The Second World War would also see a resurgence of denim among soldiers and factory workers, and men and women alike would turn to these garments for affordability and high quality.
In the 1950s and 1960s, with the growth of youth culture, denim and overalls saw a transformation from strictly-utilitarian to a fluid incorporation among the fashion of mods, rockers, hippies, and greasers. Overalls came with, representing a nostalgic tradition that was well-understood and prevalent in the shared fashion subconscious of these groups, many of whom who took influence from their parent’s generations of fieldwork. Overalls – denim as a whole – would extend out of the working class and out of the typically-male audience: women would come to incorporate these fashion elements into casual fashion and their own workwear as the lines of gender norms began to shift. With these gendered changes came changes to the use of the overalls, which would now not be limited to just workwear.
In modernity, the overall exists at all strata of wearability, from pure utilitarianism (Levi’s and Carhartt still specialize in workwear overalls) to high fashion (Gallery Dept. sells a model of overalls for over $3000). As you can imagine, there are a lot of ways to style them in whatever weather and context.
What are the different types of overalls?
There are many different kinds of overalls given their long evolution. Let’s get familiar before we start styling!
The main ‘cuts’ of overalls
There are two main cuts of overalls that we see around – short leg and long leg. Let’s go through some of the pros and cons of each.
Classic Long Leg Overalls
The classic cut and look! I see very few drawbacks with this style of overall, given its adaptability and versatility. The full leg overalls have their roots in workwear and protection from the elements, which makes them extremely useful for a broad range of fits. In the summer it might be a little warm depending on what fabric you use, but being specific about how you layer the overalls will be key in maintaining your comfort. In the winter, however, the overalls can really shine: layering underneath them helps keep all of your body heat regulated and gives your outfits a textured look with lots of depth.
Short Leg Overalls
Overalls with shorts are a relatively modern thing – it tends to highlight the movement of this clothing piece into more fashion-oriented worlds as it doesn’t need to be used as a protective garment. Instead, this cut of overalls are well-suited to a hot summer’s day, keeping you cool and covered while still offering a bit of protection. I see this look as a staple on the lake or at a July barbeque (maybe even the 4th of July as shown by our model above). There are a few drawbacks however, as the lack of protection from the short legs reduces the variability and adaptability of the overalls to many different contexts. It would thus be reserved for a few specific moments and wouldn’t be able to be used season-round like the long leg overalls would be.
Overalls – and denim in general – have a couple of iconic names that are known for their style and dependability. Let’s take a look at three.
Levi Strauss & Co.
We went over Levi’s briefly in the history of our overall’s section. Levi’s is arguably the most iconic denim brand in existence. It is the juggernaut of denim worldwide, something that is well-known given the huge cult following of the brand and the immense resell value some of their more iconic vintage pieces have, especially where fans of ‘Americana’ exist (like Japan). Levi’s are as much a part of American history as the Gold Rush and the World Wars – they are representative of a group of working-class people that helped build the foundational elements of the country like its railroad and early ranches out West. If you want classic denim with a long history of durability and use, look no further than Levi’s.
Carhartt is another key American brand that emerged out of the end of the 20th century, around the same time as Levi’s. Like Levi’s, they have managed to become iconic in both their workwear sectors and in their more fashion-oriented looks, becoming staples of the modern overall today. They began making clothing for specific members of manual labor industries like railroad workers – this approach to heavy-duty and quality clothing has remained a staple part of the brand and is one of the key reasons they have only grown in success since the 1890s.
Dickies is another American company with long roots in workwear, whose origins begin with denim bib overalls for farmers and ranch hands. It has since gone through many evolutions, iterations, and groups, well-loved by farmers and skateboarders alike. I personally love Dickies clothing and own multiple pairs of their chinos myself. They have a rigid quality to them that makes them structured and uniform. I can see their workwear being extremely high quality.
How do we style overalls?
Now that we have some background and know about the different cuts and brands available to us with overalls, let’s look into some different styling options.
With its roots in workwear, it only makes sense that we take a look at some of the fits that the overall’s origins inspired – and are still in use today.
Flannel and overalls
This truly is a ‘double-threat’ of workwear: the flannel and the overalls? With their roots in the working men of the world, it makes sense that they would go together. While our model above may not be walking down the catwalk in this outfit, we do see how this fit – comfortable and protective – is a staple both for its utilitarianism and its look. The flannel’s tartan pattern is a really good way of incorporating some texture and depth into your looks, and with the uniform, single-tone of overalls it makes a lot of sense to look into a bit of a louder pattern in order to create some distinction and definition among the two pieces.
While maybe not a ‘look’ all on its own, having the insulated overalls in the back pocket is a great idea. It definitely has its roots in utilitarian workwear, where people expect to be outside in colder weather for longer amounts of time, but that doesn’t reserve it to just that context. The insulated overalls can be a staple piece of any outfit where comfort and the look need to be balanced. I live in Canada and being able to pair warm workwear with my everyday fits is really key for me, especially when the compositional elements of my look are versatile – wear this to an outdoor winter gathering with friends and hot toddies or leave it for scraping the car at 6 am, the beauty of versatile pieces like this are that the choice is yours.
Overalls with lots of pockets
These stonewashed overalls caught my eye on Amazon. I especially liked how many pockets it had, a feature obviously intended as a supplement to the workwear element of this look. While extremely useful for holding tools and documents close by while on the jobsite or the farm, I actually think that all the utilitarian pockets add something to the fashion element of the look that should is worth mentioning. While wearing overalls with a solid-tone tee shirt like the model in the photo, having something as a part of the overalls that give the look some complexity can serve to add some depth, reducing how ‘flat’ and one-dimensional the outfit can be. Plus, this seems super handy as a way to have everything you need right on hand. Whether in the garden, the workshop, or the barbeque. this style of overalls is worth looking into.
This model offers both a dark borwn and a lighter khaki overall option, one I think is a welcome change from the traditional blue denim that is so commonplace with overalls. I think brown is a really great color in workwear and I think it looks really good with lots of different fits. In this way, let the overalls stand out and be the main part of your outfit: pair this colorway with muted, single-tone, or toned-down colors in order to avoid clashing with different textures and patterns.
Overalls and long-sleeve shirts
I really like the look of overalls with long-sleeve shirts. It helps tie the whole fit together and avoid some of the stererotpyical ‘farmer’ looks (if that isn’t what you’re going for). A long sleeve helps introduce a bit more depth into the look as well – pairing your overalls with a baggier long sleeve will give your look texture, With a nice pair of boots or even some skate shoes/sneakers, the overall begins to move into the realm of more casual fashion and streetwear while still retaining the comfort and warmth that made it a staple in the first place.
It’s a bit of a bold look for those worried that they’ll be confused for a painter but mark my words, this bold color choice can pay off in a lot of ways. Stark black and white outfits can be a bit daring to pull off but if done properly, they make a great statement. With something as ‘loud’ as white pants and overalls, you have to be pretty conscious of how you style this look. I’d recommend letting the overalls be the statement piece and having the rest of your outfit be a little more toned down to avoid clashing or seeming cluttered. Accessorizing is a great way to add some flair to white overalls as well – maybe a cool leather bracelet or some sort of headgear would look good in this context. I’d recommend sticking to black and white for this and wearing some toned-down shoes that don’t distract too much from the rest of the look.
Now we see the first real drastic change from the other overall looks I’ve shown you today, largely because these overalls were designed with fashion in mind. They have a bit of a taper at the leg down to the ankle with a relatively slim cut up past the torso. Our model is wearing these overalls with a fitted white tee shirt and some cool boots that look like Timbs. I think this is a really good way to style the overalls if you’re looking for something solely for fashionable looks – you don’t need to worry about milking the cows or repairing the combine harvester so why not wear something that looks good and is cut in a specific, form-fitting way. There are a few downsides, however, chief among them being that this fitted cut reduces the adaptability of your overalls – I’m not sure if it would be easy (or comfortable) to layer warm items of clothing underneath this piece, which makes it more of a summer look. That’s okay however, as this piece seems like it would fit right at home on the lake or at the patio of your favorite bar.
This product, which comes in a number of different colorways, caught my eye. Similar to the above product, this pair of overalls has a relatively fitted cut to it and seems to fit quite slim, which can be great as a summer piece. Furthermore, something that is very obvious in the blue and and stonewashed versions of this item, the little bit of distressing done to the denim helps give a bit of depth and texture to the look in a way classic overalls don’t. A couple of small tears by the knee and thigh as well as some decoloration along the seams can help give this a ‘vintage’ denim look, something that is increasingly popular. I’d recommend wearing this with a pair of sneakers like our model is to really add to the streetwear look. I’d also recommend looking into button-ups to wear underneath, which may help make the outfit pop a little.
Stonewashed shorts overalls
These are pretty neat! We haven’t explored a lot of shorts overalls yet, largely because they’re not as common as regular long leg overalls. I think this product works really well in terms of a more fashionable choice, especially since it doesn’t offer the same protection or versatility as overalls with full legs do. This item has a bit of stonewashing done around the thighs which helps give the piece a bit of texture. You have to be a bit careful as to how you wear this, however. I’d recommend choosing a minimal tee shirt (probably in white) and pairing it with some lowkey socks and sneakers to avoid making the whole thing too loud. This pair of overalls look really comfortable and I bet they’d be right at home on a hot summer day in the backyard.
‘Skater’ overalls look
I really like this look. Wearing a crewneck sweater underneath your overalls looks really good and helps keep you warm while still giving you protection and a solid fit. I like that this model is wearing some Vans-style skate shoes: it’s a look that’s not seen often enough with the overalls but looks really great and helps give the entire look a very West Coast, skater, streetstyle look. I’m a huge fan of this one.
I love how baggy these are, especially when paired with a simple fitted white tee shirt underneath. The look has a tone of depth with this and you can easily use these overalls in a working context as well as a more casual, fashionable scenario. It also straddles the line of skater-core that seems to have adopted the overalls, with comfort and durability being key but for far different reasons. The wide leg sits in the realm of the 90s early internet JNCO-style look, one that is quickly coming back with the fashionable young people that make up Gen-Z. If you didn’t know, allow me to be the first to tell you – in many circles, the baggier the jeans, the better. Pair this with some chunky Osiris shoes, a walkman, and a pager to really make the 90s/early 2000s look fully authentic.
I really like these! One thing you don’t see very often with overalls is a cropped look. Let those exposed ankles out – leave the long and baggy legs for those who have to worry about bugs and grass while they work. I also like how minimal these overalls are – there are few pockets and loops present on the item which tones down the loudness of the look. This product has a very slight taper at the thigh and leg, which is nice because it isn’t as pronounced as some of the other fitted looks we’ve seen but still serves to give some structure and definition to your outfit. Pairing these with some minimal sneakers or skate shoes would be a great way to round off the casual look and still have some protection from the elements.
I wish I had words. I like that the overalls still give you a chance to show off how much you love your country and flag, an adaptability that seems to be staple for the overalls. Pair it with a matching hat to push this look over the edge. Awesome.