To consider what overalls display is to name what details emerge when viewing or examining them.  Are they simple, constructed from one-ply cotton that extends from the leg up over the shoulders, a narrow bib, and no or only back pockets? According to 1850s catalogues and wholesale flyers, the first overalls worn by farmers and tradesmen were simple and mass produced (Hemken 73). They were also baggy, so they could fit over and protect clothing.

Or, are the overalls more complex, with thick, maybe even oiled, waterproof denim, a reinforced diamond stitched in the back, adjustable straps hooked to the front with sturdy clasps, wide bibs for coverage from armpit to armpit, loops for hammers and other tools, and multiple pockets for watches, rulers, and manuals? Do they have a label that reads, “Union Made”?

The 1890s label was a way to increase sales and support Union workers. A percentage of sales went to the United Garment Workers Association to rally against long hours and dangerous conditions (Hemken 48).

The mechanized man satirized in the film Modern Times by Charlie Chaplin wore his bib overalls for protection from factory mishaps. The ideal fit was close to the body to prevent snagging on machinery.

Norman Rockwell’s illustration appeared on the cover of the Post May 29, 1943.

What information do bib overalls store?  Besides, what is literally found in pockets, there are encoded memories that can affect choices to wear overalls or how to photograph them (Losh).  According to Ann Revenaugh Hemken’s thesis on the development and use of bib overalls, “[overalls] are perceived as a uniform for the working masses, especially those in agriculture. Historic photographs showed evidence that males were the primary wearers through the early 1900’s” (Abstract).  In the 1940s, patents and advertising messages focused on young men wanting work clothes that were “like Dad’s,” absent because of war (Hemken 40). Around the time child labor laws were implemented (1916), parents were guilted into buying overalls called “Brownies” to protect their children during outside playtime (Hemken 34 and 47).  During the scarcity of World War II, wearing overalls was considered patriotic. Their image in magazines was used for propaganda (Honey 2 and 117).  Normal Rockwell’s cover on the Saturday Evening Post showed Rosie the Riveter in bibs and safety googles, with Hitler’s autobiography, Mein Kampf, firmly underfoot.  While working class women donned overalls to weld and drive trucks, to support country and family, many stopped wearing the workclothes once the war was over, eager for new wardrobe choices.


Tupac re-appropriated bib overalls for a gangsta rap style.

How do overalls disseminate information? Through being worn, they distribute messages about culture, personal preferences, and identity. In the recession of the early 1990s, Rap culture re-appropriated work clothing and made it hip hop. Their Dickies overalls, Timberland work boots, and bandannas became part of “the  gangsta rap style of West Coast rappers” (Blanco 4-155). Urban and “hyper-masculine,” the oversized clothing may have been a choice to dominate in videos. Their bibs became message boards for graffiti. According to Scott L. Ruff who writes for MIT’s academic journal Thresholds, “skin and by extension clothing has been a mark of oppression and a site of resistance” (74).

Through the years, seemingly during times of recession, overalls become practical, popular, tribal. They have been worn by Fly Girls and female celebrities for their roominess and comfort. Unfortunately, their image in film and TV is increasingly used globally to stereotype the rural South (e.g., Deliverance, Two Thousand Maniacs) (DeKeseredy, Muzzatti and. Donnermeyer 182), as urban city goers fear the unknown of being part of a tribe that works the land.


Works Cited

Blanco F., José, Mary D. Doering, Patricia Hunt-Hurst, and Heather Vaughan Lee. 2016. Clothing and Fashion: American Fashion From Head to Toe [4 Volumes] : American Fashion From Head to Toe. Santa Barbara, California: ABC-CLIO, 2016. eBook Collection (EBSCOhost), EBSCOhost (accessed September 27, 2017).

DeKeseredy, Walter, et al. “Mad Men in Bib Overalls: Media’s Horrification and Pornification of Rural Culture.” Critical Criminology, vol. 22, no. 2, 2014, pp. 179–197.

Hemken, Ann Revenaugh. “The Development and Use of Bib Overalls in the United States, 1856-1945.” 1993.

Honey, Maureen. Creating Rosie the Riveter : Class, Gender, and Propaganda during World War II / Maureen Honey. 2nd print., with revisions.. ed., Amherst, University of Massachusetts Press, 1985

Losh, Elizabeth. Personal interview. 2 Oct 2017.

Ruff, Scott L. “4Spatial WRapping: A Speculation on Men’s Hip-Hop Fashion.” Thresholds, no. 22, 2001, pp. 72–77.

2 thoughts on “Workers–Rappers–Unite!

  1. You’ve done a really nice job thinking through a particular genre of clothing as media designed — in McLuhan’s words — “as a means of designing the self socially.” While McLuhan’s analysis is largely confined to a post-war/Cold War temporal context, you draw on material from a longer historical timeline. You bring in a range of sources of expertise that show your creativity in working with a relatively narrow topic in the scholarly literature.

    In bringing in Rosie the Riveter I wondered if more could be said about clothing as a technology in regards to gender. For example, Judy Wajcman has said that “[t]echnology is both a source and a consequence of gender relations,” and some have gone farther to consider gender itself as a technology (following Beth Coleman’s influential essay about race as technology). I also wondered what might be said about bib overalls as a cross-cultural signifier, given their dissemination in a global market and role in street fashion in countries like Japan. What might bib overalls signal in a largely post-industrial economy in which robots do much of the factory work?

  2. The historicized account of overalls your post details is fascinating, particularly because it offers a backdrop against which to think about the signifying work of overalls in the contemporary moment, particularly as they are represented in popular culture. For example, the patriotism associated with wearing overalls during the World War II era seemingly contrasts strongly with the presumptively countercultural resonances of today’s overalls.

    However, in dialogue with the effective historicity your post traces, I am inclined to wonder whether overalls are used today to project an image of countercultural posture, rather than to situate oneself within the countercultural. Often, music artists within contemporary pop culture will adorn overalls with the intention of sartorially rejecting the hegemonic imperative toward imagistic homogenization; ironically, of course, these artists’ choices effect a homogenizing imperative that casts those persons who cannot afford “subversive” clothing as “unwilling” to participate in political contestation.

    Based on what your post chronicles, I think we have the tools to challenge the binaristic assumptions regarding subversion-submission, due in large part to the shifting signification capacities of the overalls. Once we realize that the meaning ascribed to figurative abstractions are not permanent–which your posts highlights beautifully–we might be able to imagine new modes of contestation that do not rely on conspicuous consumption as our singular tool.

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