March 4, 2002
-- They've been worn by slaves and sharecroppers, railroad engineers, college students, children in sandboxes and, more recently, rap music artists. Overalls have clothed Americans at work and play since the 1700s, becoming a national icon in the process.
On Morning Edition
, Neda Ulaby reports on the evolution of overalls -- from low-class work clothes to pop fashion -- as part of NPR's Present at the Creation
Their origins are murky, but overalls date back to the 18th century and were first called "slops," according to costume historian Sandra Ros Altman.
At first, they weren't very comfortable and people who wore them were looked down upon, says Nan Enstad, an American history professor at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. "They didn't fit well, they were made of coarse and durable cloth, they were cheap, and they definitely marked the status of the people who wore them," she says. "They were low-status clothing and carried a stigma."
But darts and custom pockets for watches, rulers and pens were added and in a sign of their popularity overalls became among the first mass produced clothing. By the mid-1800s, the colors were standardized -- painters and plasterers wore white overalls, farmers wore blue or brown. Railway workers sported a variety of pinstripes.
"Dirty work called for angled pockets and hardy denim," Ulaby reports. "Carpenters added the hammer loop. Sturdy buckles and vest backs made overalls ideal for industry."
Rosie the Riveter came to symbolize the millions of women who worked in factories during World War II. But the celebration of women dressed in overalls goes back earlier than that. In 1914, The Hazards of Helen
silent movie serials featured actress Helen Holmes jumping from a moving car onto a train, while wearing overalls.
But overalls are perhaps best associated with rural America and country music. The Grand Ole Opry often featured overalls-wearing musicians. The cast of television's country variety show Hee Haw
had them on as well. Charles Wolfe, who teaches folklore and popular culture at Middle Tennessee State University, finds irony in that. "You have this ludicrous situation where people like Buck Owens and Grandpa Jones and Roy Clark and these major country music stars that have millions of dollars to their name are dressing up in bib overalls," Wolfe says.
Today, some hip hop artists wear them "and make more money than most people can even dream of, which is a great way of getting the last laugh," Enstad says. "So overalls have been redefined by the very people who were either excluded from them like women, or stigmatized by them like working class people."
The history of denim
, according to Levi Strauss & Co.
Grant Wood's American Gothic
Photos and posters of "Rosie the Riveter"
History of Princeton University "beer suits,"
which included overalls