Boilersuit Nation: Dressing for the Revolution
The boilersuit isn't a question of turning women into little girls in rompers or cleavage-bearing femme fatales (as fabulous as those looks can be). This is about grown women saying: pass me the wrench. We've got a broken culture to repair.
In March 2019, NASA was meant to conduct an all-female spacewalk. But because there was only one female-sized jumpsuit, the trip had to be canceled. As if NASA could not foresee that one day a mission would be “manned” entirely by women. How ironic, at a time when jumpsuits fill the shops and our Instagram feeds, where I scroll past women wearing not the flowery, delicate ones we saw a couple of summers ago, but serious boilersuits in heavier fabrics, like canvas, or cotton-linen blends. This trend, it seems to me, is telling us something: we want to walk on the moon. We want to get our hands dirty. We want to remake the world ourselves, and we need the workwear in which to do it.
The jumpsuit became a symbol for feminist anger when Serena Williams was forbidden to wear a lycra one during the French Open in 2018. Even now, in the twenty-first century, women are required to wear skirts, female athletes included. Williams protested that since giving birth to her baby, she’d been suffering from life-threatening blood clots; the jumpsuits helped with circulation. The French Open responded by changing their dress code to specifically outlaw jumpsuits. In their response to Williams’ jumpsuit, the French Open was “policing” women’s bodies, commented the tennis champion Billie Jean King. (This year, instead of the jumpsuit that she said made her feel like a “warrior princess,” a “queen from Wakanda,” and a “superhero,” she wore a kicky little skirt and crop top with — get ready for it — a matching cape, designed by Off-White designer Virgil Abloh in collaboration with Nike. Printed on her outfit, in French, were the words mother, champion, queen, goddess.)
But the jumpsuit has a rather masculine history. Believe it or not, it was popularized by Winston Churchill, who saw some workmen wearing them around his estate, and decided he absolutely had to have a whole slew of them made for himself, in different colors and fabrics. During the Second World War, it came to be called a siren suit, because as soon as the air raid sirens began to wail, Londoners would don them before heading down to their bomb shelters. Women, in turn, began to appropriate the boilersuit as they joined the workforce, using their labor to support the war effort, just like Rosie the Riveter. Then, when the war was over, they threw themselves into Dior’s New Look, swathing themselves in as many yards of delicate, anti-utilitarian fabric as they could afford.
In the 70s, the jumpsuit came back with a vengeance, in polyester get-ups that united bellbottoms and sharp-collared shirts in the same groovy garment, just in time for disco inferno and the late Elvis. And then they went out again, but for a little blip in the 90s. Which brings us to 2013, and the runways at Balmain and A.P.C., which returned the jumpsuit to its hardworking roots, evoking manual labor, a vanished world of artisans in their ateliers, and fighter pilots. It wasn’t long before the look trickled from the fashion magazines to the high street, and a number of independent labels have regularly included jumpsuits in their ranges for the past few years — Ilana Kohn, or Black Crane, or Horses Atelier, which has adopted “Jumpsuits for the matriarchy” as its tagline.
There been a contemporaneous interest in playsuits, often in softer material, sometimes floral-printed, which — as their name suggests — are more about leisure and less about a radical worldview. Or in the kind of statement-making jumpsuit Celine Dion wore earlier this year at Paris Couture Fashion Week. The boilersuit isn’t a question of turning women into little girls in rompers or cleavage-bearing femme fatales (as fabulous as those looks can be). This is about grown women saying: pass me the wrench. We’ve got a broken culture to repair.
As the British feminist Caroline Criado-Perez shows in her recent book Invisible Women: Exposing Data Bias in a World Designed for Men, the world is built on the template of the male body, from crash-test dummies to bulletproof vests, from the size of smartphones to voice recognition software. But the science journalist Angela Saini notes in her Guardian review of the book, institutional knowledge about these concerns seems to make little difference: “The power of data to shame people into making society fairer, it seems, goes only so far. Beyond a certain point, it’s difficult not to conclude that they don’t particularly care.” The boilersuit is the point of departure for taking this male-shaped world into our own hands, remaking it in our own size and image — a first step in closing the “seemingly intractable don’t-give-a-damn gap.” We wear our boilersuits to signal that in fact yes, we do give a damn, and they should too.
The rise of the female boilersuit indicates that the female body is, more than ever, a site of resistance. When we slip into the heavyweight cotton, we slip out of the gender binary and all the ideas of behavior and treatment that go with it; we feel our way into the interstices between what women do and what men do. We’ve adopted them as our uniform for world domination, whether its winning Roland Garros or walking on the moon, and we are willing to break some rules and get our hands dirty to do it.
A version of this piece was originally published in French by Les Inrockuptibles.
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