Easy and environmentally friendly, they are empowering women to dress for themselves
You could call it the new power suit – except this one isn’t exactly fit for the office.
This spring, the boilersuit is fashion’s go-to trend. It’s not the new jumpsuit – they share the same DNA, but it’s looser and comes in more durable fabrics – nor is it anything to do with International Women’s Day, though it is a trend originally borrowed from the boys. Instead it’s a sign that in some corners, the casualisation of fashion is really catching on. In short, faff is out and functionality is in.
Like most trends this season, boilersuits first appeared on the spring/summer catwalks. But unlike most trends, there was no one style fits all. They appeared across the board, in lightweight cotton at minimalist label Jil Sander and in navy denim at the usually staid Armani. At Giambattista Vallithey came in loose-fitting cream, while at Hermès they were loose fitting, in bright red cotton. On the high street too, they come in relaxed washed-blue cotton at Arket and smart black at Other Stories.
This month alone they’ve appeared in Vogue, and on the cover of Hello Fashion worn by model Edie Campbell.
The increasing trend for jumpsuits has been well documented.Jumpsuits are now permitted in Ascot’s Queen Anne enclosure, while in their latest bid for survival, high street stalwart John Lewis are now stocking bridal jumpsuits as well as dresses. But the jumpsuit’s shift into a dressier market has left something of a vacuum – which is where boilersuits come in.
James Scroggs, founder of MC Overalls, credits shifting work norms as part of their new-found appeal. “We live in complex, fluid times – not least the lines between work and leisure have dissolved,” he says. Launched just over 100 years ago, MC Overalls traditionally made surplus uniforms and traditional coveralls, before relaunching in 2017 as a unisex, workwear-inspired label, with a broad customer base, under Scroggs. He describes the £150 boilersuits, which come in orange, navy, pink and cream, and have just gone on sale in Harvey Nichols, as “part uniform, part armour, easy in a muddle of fashion choices”.
Like jumpsuits, their appeal comes from their ease: they are a one-stop garment, a time saver, a top and trousers in one. But increasingly, they are also catching the attention of environmentally conscious shoppers who want bang for their buck – £150 might seem like a lot, but for two garments in one, it’s not. Daisy Bridgewater, founder of British label Spry Workwear, agrees, adding that it is a reaction against over-buying and a deluge of choice. “All of this is very relevant in today’s fashion narrative of buying less, and buying well,” she says.
Bridgewater’s boilersuits are a take on a vintage mechanic’s overall, adapted to fit and flatter a woman’s shape, and made in East Anglia by a family-run business from traditional heavy cotton twill. She largely sells to creative types, but recently has attracted more fashion-conscious buyers “who are wearing them as statement pieces”.
Designer Louise Markey agrees. Launching her label, LF Markey in 2008, she has seen a sudden boom in sales of her 1970s-style Danny boilersuit, bringing with it a new type of customer. Where once they were bought by “creatives with scissors in their pockets” they are now worn “slim fitting, with a bit of cleavage and a heel”.
The boilersuit’s roots are in workwear – as the name suggests they were first worn a century ago by men for more manual reasons, designed without any loose flapping fabric, which could get caught in machinery. They evolved into womenswear around the second world war for similar reasons, worn by women in munitions factories. The catwalk and high-street versions are closer to unisex, although as Bridgewater suggests, are predominantly part of womenswear. Why? To wear one “is empowering: wear a boilersuit and you are dressing for yourself, not the male gaze.”