Tuesday, October 14, 2014

Focus On: Jumpsuits

by Sherri, sewbettyanddot

The jumpsuit: every few years, the Paris runways are full of them; it's a style that has never really gone out of style since its appearance in the early twentieth century. Technically, a jumpsuit is:

  1. a garment incorporating trousers and a sleeved top in one piece, worn as a fashion item, protective garment, or uniform.

But we all know differently! A jumpsuit can be an easy-breezy, cool, and fashionable garment (as a slew of entertainers--Elvis, David Bowie, Freddie Mercury--and fashionistas have known for decades!). 

The word itself explains this garment's origins: they were developed to keep aviators warm in freezing open-air cockpits during the early days of flight (Amelia Earhart can be seen wearing them)--and paratroopers wore them to "jump" out of planes. A similar garment, coveralls, well, they covered all (of the clothing worn beneath them). They are also called "boilersuits," and they were originally worn by workers maintaining steam-powered engines--as this work required one to sometimes climb into the boiler (or firebox on a locomotive), the one-piece suit prevented soot (or embers) from getting into, for example, the waistband of trousers; the sleek lines also helped to prevent the garment from snagging on something when one needed to enter tight spaces. And as skiing became more popular as a leisure-time activity in the 1920s, specially designed ski suits (often one piece for aerodynamics and to keep the snow out) were available, including chic suits by couturiers such as Lucien Lelong and Elsa Schiaparelli).

Women began to fill factories during World War II--Rosie the Riveter, we're looking at you!--and coveralls (and overalls, too) were worn, again, as a protective garment, both in terms of nothing getting caught in machinery (their hair was worn back or wrapped with the famous Rosie bandanna/scarf) AND as a way to keep clothing clean (fabric became more scarce during the war so new clothes became a luxury for most people). Reportedly the workers hated them as they had to practically undress just to use the bathroom--but the coverall has become an iconic image representing the "Yes We Can" spirit of women moving into the workplace and helping in the war effort.

Top left: Clad in a fur lined leather flying suit with oxygen facepiece, NACA test pilot Paul King prepares to take to the air in a Vought VE-7, 1925. Courtesy NASA Langley Center, courtesy Wikipedia.
Top right: Boiler suit [at right], from a 1920s Brown Bros. leaflet, courtesy oldclassiccar.co.uk
Bottom left: Lucien Lelong ski outfit, photo by Egidio Scaioni, 1927.
Bottom right: Factory workers in coveralls/boiler suits in England during World War II. Photo courtesy thephotodetective.co.uk

In terms of a non-work-related jumpsuit, in 1919 Italian designer Ernesto Michahelles--who was part of the Futurist art movement--designed the "TuTa," a T-shaped garment for men cut from one piece of cotton and constructed with one straight cut, several seams, seven buttons and a belt (pictured below, top row left). (He renamed himself Thayaht, a bifrontal palindrome, reflecting the symmetry of his design.) The pattern for the TuTa was published in an Italian newspaper to make it accessible to the greater public. There was also a version for women. Alexandr Rodchenko also designed a uniform-like jumpsuit in 1922 (interesting that artists first jumped on the bandwagon--pun intended!). And from that point forward, as some women (those in the upper economic classes, at least) had more time for sports and leisure, easy-to-wear jumpsuits (except for that pesky visit to the bathroom) became a popular garment. (There were also "beach pyjamas," sometimes one piece, sometimes two--but that's for another post. And rompers and playsuits: often simply an abbreviated jumpsuit!).

Top row: “TuTa,” designed by Thayaht (Ernesto Michahelles), 1919
Joan Crawford, looking amazing (and slightly spooky!) in a jumpsuit, ca. 1920s. Image from ilarge.listal.com, via Pinterest
Jean Harlow in a velvet jumpsuit designed by Vera West; photographed by Ray Jones. Courtesy Mothgirlwings.tumblr.com
Middle row: Elsa Schiaparelli “shelter suit,” 1940s. Courtesy costumedept.eu.com
A pre-blonde Ginger Rogers in a wide-legged jumpsuit, 1940s. Courtesy pickyourselfup.tumblr.com
Jumpsuit from Vogue, 1950s. Courtesy tammy17tummy.tumblr.com
Bottom row: Mid-1960s jumpsuit. Courtesy blog.wiseling.com
 Veruschka in a Norma Tullo jumpsuit, 1970s. Courtesy superseventies.tumbler.com
Thierry Mugler jumpsuit, 1980. Courtesy beauty-is-a-warm-gun.blogspot.com

The jumpsuit evolved from slinky (1930s) to more functional (1940s) to wide-legged palazzos for entertaining (also 1940s and then 1960s) to more streamlined (1950s) to anything goes (1970s) to avant-garde (1980s) to today: halter, wrap, sleeveless, wide legged or slim, there is a jumpsuit for everybody (and every body!). Remember, fit is important--no saggy bums, please (unless you're going for that M.C. Hammer effect). 

Now let's look at some lovely jumpsuit patterns from members of the Pattern Patter team on Etsy!

Top row, left to right: McCall 7277: retromonkeys

Top row, left to right: Simplicity 9370: RebeccasVintageSalon

For more on jumpsuits, refer to this informative post written by Amy from ViennasGrace, which was published on our blog last year.

Which jumpsuit would YOU like to jump into? Tell us in the comments!

Text sources: Wikipedia, Italian Vogue (vogue.it/en) 


  1. Great post! I remember wearing jumpsuits back in the 70s. :-)

  2. Love the variety of styles you've showcased!

  3. I remember wearing overalls and jumpsuits in the 1970's I had overalls with the ever popular (in the 70's) rainbow stitching up the legs!

    1. Those overalls would be worth a pretty penny right now, fabulous retro style!

  4. Great article. I love learning the history of patterns. I'm especially drawn to the World War II overalls and work suits. Thanks for a very informative article and showing the progression of the jumpsuit through the decades. Now, thanks to AMERICAN HUSTLE, another generation has fallen in love with jumpsuits, despite its inconvenience re the restroom:)

  5. I've always been a fan of jumpsuits or pantsuits as some call them. I'm just too short to wear them. Great post and I love the illustrations.

  6. I had so many jumpsuits back in the day - as well as coveralls and overalls. What a great article!

    If I were to sew up some jumpsuits today...Lots to choose from but maybe the Vogue 7697 at Anne 8865

  7. I just love jumpsuits!! I have a couple in my own closet. I really enjoyed this post. Great history and wonderful photos! Thanks Sherri! :)

  8. Thanks for a great post! I'm not sure I have the right figure for a jumpsuit, but you have shown so many great styles I'm sure I could find one!

  9. I would Jump right into the Leo Narducci Vogue 1389!

  10. I don't really were jumpsuits myself but I do have 4 daughters I will have to show these patterns to.

  11. Love the jumpsuit story....always fascinating how styles evolve !
    Great Article !

  12. Fabulous post, Sherri! I love the history!! My fav would have to be a pair I made in the 70's ... still have my pattern ;)

  13. Love the Spadea from Denisecraft!, Love the style.

  14. Jersey girl patterns love that style!