Boilersuits: liberated, louche and as subversive as ever

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Fashion Boilersuits: liberated, louche and as subversive as ever

It started as a wartime utility garment before becoming a 70s glam/punk trend – and now the boilersuit is making a comeback

Boilersuits as seen Derek Jarman’s 1978 film Jubilee; the Queen in 1958; and Derek Jarman in 1992. Illustration: Guardian Design

Any survivor of the 1970s will sigh at the 2019 reinvention of the boilersuit.

This is no mere fashion statement, they will tell you. It is a political-gender-retro act of resistance: beyond sex and utility, ultimately fluid, an emblem of classlessness and intent. From the siren suit of the second world war to today’s restyling, the overall effect is far more subversive than just dressing. After all, the whole point of this garment was that it was as easy to get off as it was to put on. Its shape blurred bodies, revealed and concealed – a code for what lay beneath. The boilersuit may be the queerest piece of clothing ever invented.

Born to service industry and to wipe oily hands on, its fashion edge comes from its birth in an apocalyptic time. In the 1940s, utility overtook style. Britain was at its closest to a socialist country during the second world war: the government actually overtook fashion, in a manner that now seems almost totalitarian, creating its own label, CC41 – Civilian Clothing 41 – with a Bauhaus-like logo.

Winston Churchill in a boilersuit with pinstripes in 1949. Facebook Twitter Pinterest
Winston Churchill in a pinstriped boilersuit, 1949. Photograph: Bettmann/Bettmann Archive

The destruction of war was literally the great leveller. The siren suit was upstyled from the workperson’s overalls as something that could be put on quickly when the air-raid warnings were sounded. It was an entirely unisex piece of clothing, worn by women and men alike. In an all-encompassing war, the suit was a uniform for civilians, making them visibly part of the war effort. And women in uniform, as Jennifer Craik writes in her book Uniforms Exposed, “came to signal transgressive femininity and sexuality signalling ambiguity”.

They might wear the standard-issue boilersuit at work, as my mother did when she was making machine-gun parts. Or they could buy a zip-fronted siren suit in cyclamen with cuffs and belt in cobalt blue for 45s 9d. It was the forerunner of leisurewear, Geraldine Howell says in her book Wartime Fashion.

“People buy them for sitting about at home,” reported a buyer at DH Evans in Oxford Street, London. You could get them in tweed or wool, and Viyella commissioned the designer Digby Morton to create a couture version. Winston Churchill ordered his from Bond Street tailors. They came in smart pinstripes – futuristic versions of city suits – or positively decadent bottle green velvet from Turnbull & Asser. (You might not associate Churchill with gender fluidity, but he was said to have bedded the glamorous singer, Ivor Novello, in his youth. Asked what it was like, he retorted gruffly: “Musical!” – interwar argot for queer.)

A boilersuit by Hermes, Paris fashion week SS19. Facebook Twitter Pinterest
A boilersuit by Hermes, Paris fashion week SS19. Photograph: Victor VIRGILE/Gamma-Rapho via Getty Images

It is no coincidence that the boilersuit was reinvented in the mid-70s, facing its own apocalyptic mix of cold war and new austerity, when the street went dark and the litter and the dead went uncollected. I was growing up in suburban Southampton. My sisters and I would regularly raid Friday-night jumble sales for the interwar generation’s cast-offs – it was the only way you could afford to look like your heroes: Bowie, Roxy, Lou Reed, the New York Dolls.

In The Man Who Fell to Earth, the 1976 film directed by Nicolas Roeg who died earlier this year, Bowie played a flame-haired alien, Thomas Jerome Newton, who we first see stretched out on a bench outside a small-town store in New Mexico, his thin white body barely contained by his boilersuit. No one had ever looked so alluring, so fragile, so hypersexual in such a utilitarian garment – I certainly didn’t, in the boilersuit I wore for real in the cable factory in which I worked that overheated summer.

David Bowie, 1979. Facebook Twitter Pinterest
David Bowie, 1979. Photograph: The New York Post via Getty Images

Later, in 1979, Bowie would revisit the boilersuit in a custom-made version from Willy Brown, whose shop Modern Classics was the first of its kind in Hoxton, east London. The designer, the master of workwear (he also dressed Spandau Ballet when they were fashionable), created a sci-fi suit with hand-drawn figures, which Bowie wore to perform Kurt Weill’s Alabama Song.

In the mid-70s Bowie inspired soul boys and girls to appear in boilersuits at clubs such as Bournemouth’s Village Bowl, a celebrated site of retro-dandyism that I longed to hang out in. These suburban gods of style wore them with their wedge haircuts and plastic sandals (another detail from Thomas Jerome Newton’s extraterrestrial wardrobe). My sister wore hers with a stripy school tie cinched around her waist; we had seen Jerry Hall, then walking out with Bryan Ferry, in the same get-up. Shops such as Lee Bender’s Bus Stop produced their own fashion versions in 1975-76.

In many ways, it was the boilersuit that segued the 70s from glam to punk. As the political situation worsened, we were already hurtling towards the punk explosion, and all that it meant for music, fashion, politics and gender. For many women, especially gay women, the boilersuit was an anarchic statement, a two-fingered gesture to the patriarchy and the fashion industry’s control – the equivalent of the indie label and DIY ethos. It was threatening.

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Jordan, the shop assistant at Vivienne Westwood and Malcolm McLaren’s Seditionaires in Chelsea’s suitably named World’s End, wore hers with Kandinsky makeup and platinum hair rising a yard into the air. She scared the hell out of me when I plucked up the courage to enter the shop (I later co-managed, disastrously, her husband Kevin Mooney, formerly of Adam and the Ants).

Jordan was the first person to be awarded an Arts Council grant just for being herself – a walking work of defiant art. Meanwhile, McLaren’s sexy young acolyte, Adam Ant, sported the same overalls, as did Derek Jarman, who featured Ant and Jordan in his 1978 movie Jubilee, along with a post-Clockwork Orange gang of punked-up women, including Toyah Wilcox and Jenny Runacre, in flight suits.

Willie Brown boilersuit, c1980, now in the V&A. Facebook Twitter Pinterest
Willie Brown boilersuit, c1980, now in the V&A. Photograph: Jaron James/© Victoria & Albert Museum, London/William Brown

Jarman, quite posh himself, managed to look like a queer air mechanic out of the 1940s in his boilersuit – he had grown up on RAF airbases. His style spoke of sexual liberation and availability – all those tantalising buttons – but it was also a reference to art-college bohemia. Indeed, St Derek was wearing a boilersuit when I met him with Neil Tennant in Heaven; the director had art directed the Pet Shop Boys’ first tour in 1989.

The boilersuit’s current incarnation points to its anonymous, uniform aesthetic. It is still scary – as Tennant notes in an email to me, it now conjures up brutal images of Guantánamo Bay. But it also assumes a new symbolism: inverting the uniformity, the masculinity of the thing, feminising it – then turning back, repurposed, in a queer fashion.

And so we come full circle. My Willy Brown suit is in the V&A, boilersuits are back in Vogue magazine, and issues of identity, austerity, gender and resistance are sparking new revolutions. Extinction Rebellion, anyone?

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