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Unraveling Overalls ~ The History of Ordinary Things

Overalls were originally essential workwear intended to be worn over the wearer’s clothes. The design of overalls is a bib attached to trousers with over the shoulder straps. Bib overalls, also known as dungarees, also had an enlarged crotch section for the mobility needed to climb on the train engine, the tractor and fishing boats.

Originally, overalls were made from cotton denim or heavy canvas for rough wear. For fishermen, overalls were made of water-resistant or waterproof fabrics. Durability and comfort were the main considerations for work overalls. The design was also more comfortable for those with a big stomach.

In the 1700s, linen canvas and osnaburg, a course flax fabric, were used in overalls. There is evidence that protective, denim overalls were worn in the late 1700s by enslaved people. Denim material was sturdy. It also created a stark visual contrast between the fieldhands and their owners. After the Civil War, denim overalls were worn by sharecroppers which continued the negative perception that denim overalls were for Black and poor white Americans.

(In the 1960s early civil rights workers wore denim overalls still associated with sharecropping. Initially symbolic, overalls were practical because of frequent mending of tears from attack dogs and high-pressure hoses. Ultimately, the activists elected to be clean-cut and well-dressed to elicit a more positive response from white oppressors.)

The 1778 military uniform regulations for the U.S. Continental regulars stated that overalls, made of linen for summer and wool for winter, would be issued to replace breeches and stockings. This was the first purposeful use of overalls as clothing to be worn over undergarments rather than over clothes. Meanwhile, civilians continued to wear overalls as protective clothing except in hot weather when they, too, wore overalls over undergarments.

Strauss & Company patented the iconic Levi’s 501 Blue Jean with rivets in 1873. While patented as overalls, they were not. They were simply trouser overalls, also known as waist overalls, intended to be worn over undergarments. These first “ jeans “ consisted of suspenders attached to denim pants with buttons. The first mass-produced jeans were made by Levi Strauss and Jacob Davis in the 1890s.

The first patent for bib overalls was filed by Lee Jeans in 1921. Previously, companies such as Carhartt were manufacturing overalls, but Lee Jeans was the first to patent the cut and style.

Steam locomotive engineers and firefighters adopted overalls for their work. They needed rugged apparel to withstand the heat, grease and oil from their jobs. In 1920, a Wisconsin clothing manufacturer began producing engineer caps of a blue and white striped material. The matching striped cap and overalls became the universally recognized engine crew uniform along with matching denim overcoats and leather work gloves. The engineer’s overalls had pockets for tools such as a wrench for mechanical adjustments and a temperature gauge to take heat readings. There was also a special pocket for a watch.

Until World War I, overalls were worn mainly by men, or as playsuits for children. When women entered the war workforce, their everyday garments were too dangerous for factory work. Women’s overalls for work were eventually followed by fashion overalls in lightweight cottons with special cuts such as sweetheart necklines, waist-cinching features, dainty pockets and flared-leg styles.

Overalls are still relevant today for much the same reasons as in the past.

Doris Montag

Doris Montag

Doris is a collector, a storyteller and a free-lance curator whose passion is unlocking the stories in collections from family or private individuals. She develops and installs exhibits in small museums, libraries, and public spaces. And she writes about her experiences in her column, The History of Ordinary Things. > Read Full Biography > More Articles Written By This Writer