Picture, if you will, a painter. Now, no one told you what type of painter to picture. It wasn’t specific if this was a house painter or a portraitist or someone who creates landscapes. But still, you probably pictured a person wearing overalls. And probably, those overalls were white. Many, many painters, all kinds of painters, wear white overalls when they’re working. But why the heck is that? How is there some universal memo that all painters seemed to get? Why do painters wear overalls…and why are they usually white?
Picturing a Painter
Overalls, particularly white overalls, are actually known as painter’s overalls because painters are seen so often wearing them. Even beloved painter Bob Ross wore a pair of overalls in the intro to his legendary painting TV show. If you see someone wearing all white clothes and they’re not in a wedding dress, you probably think it must be a painter. But strangely, this tradition of painters wearing white began not in homes that were being painted. It didn’t start in an artist’s workshop. It started on sailboats.
The Legendary History of Painter’s Whites
House painters are often seen in “painter’s whites,” which are often comprised of white pants or white overalls with a white T-shirt. The story of when this first happened and why is part fashion legend and part fashion history.
In the 1600s, sailors in England invented re-purposing and became the first to upcycle their fashion. We kid, of course, but in a way that’s exactly what they did. They started using old sails from ships to make pants, resulting in white canvas pants that had a distinct look. They were durable, however, because the tough canvas material even resisted water and staining.
As legend has it, local painters noticed the lightweight but durable pants and they, too, adopted this style. However, some traditions are slow to develop. White didn’t become officially associated with the painting profession for another two centuries.
Making It Official
In the 1800s, white became the official color of the International Union of Painters and Allied Trades. They wore the color to distinguish themselves from non-union painters. This made it quite easy to tell painters in their white overalls apart from farmers, who wore blue denim overalls, and from railroad workers, who wore pinstriped overalls.
Members of the union all over the world started wearing white to show that they were professional members of the organization. This was a visual sign of professionalism. And to this day, painters still wear white.
Benefits of Wearing White
Why white? Well, if the story about sailors is true then the color was already a tradition. But it is true that in those days, interior and exterior paints were white. Different colors of paint were not widely available or common in any way. Plastic, caulk, spackle and drywall, common materials used in home construction, repair and painting, are all white. The white overalls were a perfect camouflage for the common materials that painters worked with every day. They could get covered in paint, spackle and caulk and still look clean, as everything they were wearing was white anyway.
White is also reflected in the sunlight. White clothes are popular in summer for just this reason and they’re worn in summer athletics because they reflect heat and sunlight so well. Painters who are working outside stay much cooler in their all-white clothing. When you spend hours painting the exterior of the house, it’s helpful to have bright white clothes that will deflect the sun’s rays, rather than absorbing all their heat.
An added bonus was that back then, white cloth was simply cheaper. Dyeing clothing could still be a rather lengthy process and sometimes, expensive. White cloth, however, was very affordable. Industrialized dyes that became available in the 1900s would finally make brightly colored clothing easy and affordable for all. Painters stuck with white.
Other jobs that wear white clothing garments include doctors, who wear white coats, and butchers, who wear white aprons. White is also associated with chefs and once, it was a standard color for nurse uniforms.
White clothing is easy to bleach clean. It’s already white, so there’s no worry that bleach will ruin the clothing. This makes it easier to remove paint stains and dirt.
The thing is, painters don’t just wear white clothing. Often, they wear white overalls. This is another tradition that dates back hundreds of years. And strangely, this fashion trend of wearing overalls also originally began in England.
History of Overalls
As far as fashion historians can tell, the British Army invented overalls. The design was made to cover uniforms, adding a protective layer when dirty jobs needed to be performed. The overalls protected the body while soldiers were mucking stables or digging trenches, in addition to other tough tasks.
The overalls were easy to wear and incredibly practical. And when a piece of fashion just really works, it spreads. Well, overalls spread…very far. Soon, farmers all the way over in the U.S. were wearing overalls. The tough overalls could take a hard day’s work, which suited farmers just right. Overalls were soon noticed by miners, ranchers and laborers in all different fields of work.
Overalls Go to Work
Early designs were baggy and sort of thrown together using whatever tough fabrics were available. But then, overalls became more refined thanks to companies like Levi Strauss and Lee’s. They become more streamlined and many pockets were added. Importantly, they also started to be made with denim. Strauss had helped make the fabric popular in the U.S. through his blue jeans, a design which he patented along with tailor Jacob Davis in the 1870s. People began widely wearing denim overalls and soon, other professions began wearing overalls made in canvas, cotton duck and other materials, dyed different colors to denote their specific line of work.
Mechanics and plumbers, in addition to farmers, are linked to overalls as part of their standard workwear. The look is so famous for plumbers, overalls are part of the official attire for a famous video game character who is known to be a plumber by trade.
Why Are Overalls Great Workwear?
What made overalls so popular with working types across so many different professions? After all, they’re just pants that have a flap that extends up the chest and connect to the pants via straps that go over the shoulders. It’s all pretty strange but the simple design is actually perfect for tough tasks of all kinds.
Working overalls are made to fit somewhat loosely around the body. The sides of the design are wide open and there are no sleeves. This allows for a complete range of motion. Every part of the body can move freely in overalls. The arms can do full circles, the torso can bend and twist, the legs can squat and sit. Any movement and all movements are possible in overalls, which are not restrictive anywhere in standard work-friendly designs.
Because of the open, somewhat minimalist design of overalls, they are airy on the body. Overalls can be made to be warm and insulating but the open design also lends itself well to maintaining cool temperatures in more lightweight fabric designs.
Overalls also still do what they were originally designed to do. Overalls made for painters are still made with durable materials, including canvas and denim, to create wear-resistant overalls that can take a tough day’s work. They still make a great outer layer to catch dirt and workplace debris, protecting the stuff you’re wearing under your overalls.
Thanks to the design, overalls also have lots of pocket space. Even the bib has a pocket or multiple small pockets on it, an area that’s just perfect for storing lots of small tools.
The Old Razzle Dazzle
There are some pretty big visual advantages to wearing white, as well. White clothing looks clean and crisp. It sends a message of cleanliness that homeowners certainly appreciate. Now that white overalls and white clothing have become so linked to painters, seeing white overalls also conveys a message of professionalism.
The white clothing also allows paint splatters to show. You can visually see a hard day’s work all over painters once they’ve been painting for a few hours. This shows customers that the professionals they hired have been working hard.
What Are Painter’s Overalls Made From?
In keeping with the long tradition of painter’s clothing, many painter’s overalls manufactured today are still made with cotton, just like the canvas sails that were once used to make simple pants. Cotton is naturally durable and it’s even stronger when it’s woven into denim or canvas, materials that resist tearing and wear quite well.
Cotton material is soft and flexible. It hangs well on the body, machine washes easily and it looks nice. The only problem with cotton is that clothing made with this material can shrink in the washer and dryer. To avoid shrinkage, wash cotton clothing in cold or warm water and use a low heat in the dryer.
Why Do Painters Wear Overalls?
Why do painters wear overalls? It all comes from a blending of some pretty strange fashion history, some of which may or may not be entirely accurate. Today, it’s part of the tradition of the job. Many painters still wear all white and don’t even know why they’re wearing white, or how far back this tradition goes. But some painters have also stopped the practice altogether and instead, wear whatever clothes they have that they can get paint on when they’re going to work.
Overalls ended up being a perfect item for working, white ended up being the color chosen by the painter’s union and it all sort of came together from there. So the next time you see a painter wearing white, ask them why they’re doing it. Chances are, you’ll know a lot more about why they’re wearing white overalls than they do!
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