American Workware—Denim Overalls

by Samuel De Lemos

I’ve been a mild collector of denim jeans for some years. Most of my “shopping” time is going to thrift stores and combing with patience the endless racks of mens trousers. I particularly look for name brand denim jeans like Levi’s, True Religion, or Ralph Lauren, because I know these jean makers are quality and timeless. Once in a while, I will find a hidden treasure, and if the price is right, I will snatch it up.

Recently, I’ve shifted my aesthetics towards vintage denim overalls. Denim overalls have a flare of their own and I have grown to appreciate their history. Vintage American workware is making a comeback. Most notably this comeback is highlighted on Social Media sites like Instagram and certain Facebook pages. I’ve noticed that the appreciation for vintage American workware is centered in Japan and trickling down to American fringe groups who either collect or reproduce from “deadstock” true to form replicas for the growing niche market. Either way, I’ve become fascinated with the aesthetics of vintage denim overalls. They are an acquired taste, I agree; but, in terms of recycling and sustainable ideas, and when it comes to contemporary clothes, buying vintage can’t be beat. Mostly because in todays market there’s been an unhealthy influx of disposable clothing with a shelf life of a wash or two. These disposable clothes are not only a menace to our earth’s environment, they are terribly made, and a waste of resources. Buying vintage is the opposite, it’s recycling and saves valuable resources. Lets face it, farm equipment made in the USA in the past, was made to last. Vintage denim overalls are tough built for the hard working American.

Compared to Denim Jeans, finding vintage denim overalls is next to impossible here in Northern California. So, the next best place is browsing eBay. The difficulty with shopping on eBay, as many know, is seeing the quality up close and sizing; so its often, hit-or-miss.

At one time, there were many manufactures of denim overalls. You can see examples of this in the photography of the time circa 1920’s-1950’s. Most notably, we see images of men, women and children wearing denim overalls during the the Great Depression. Thanks to photographers like; Dorothea Lang, Theodor Jung, Ben Shahn, Walker Evens and Carl Mydans we’re able to see men, women, and children in their everyday existence during that epoch. Of course, not everyone wore denim overalls at the time, but it was certainly more prevalent and I suppose less of a stigma than what exists today. Outside of hip Japanese admirers of vintage American workware, and limited current day farmers, overalls are seldom seen on people.

That being said, I’ve learned about certain manufactures of quality Denim overalls by investigation and at times, sheer happenstance. For example I bought two recent pairs of vintage denim overalls, one manufactured by Sears, and another manufactured by Roebucks. I assumed prior that Sears and Roebucks was one corporate entity; but now, I know that they were in fact two separate manufactures and sellers of goods to the public.

In my humble opinion, Roebucks denim and surging is a step above the Sears in overall quality. Another brand I was unaware of is the company Five Brothers who have been in the workware industry for 122 years and still running strong. To date, I love the quality and look of most of my vintage denim overall collection. Exceptions in quality are Osh Kosh and Roebucks as I mentioned earlier, quality is visible in terms of surging, material used, and the beauty of the button design, as well as overall fit and comfort.

I’m not the only person with a growing obsession for collecting vintage American workware. I’ve met others in my journey, in particular a retired professor who now lives in northern Europe. He strictly wears denim overalls and blogs incessantly about the love of wearing them. The professor in question wears his overalls so much that he’s now learning the art of stitching so that he can continue wearing his well worn-in denim overalls.

I have to admit that vintage, well worn-in denim overalls are exquisitely comfortable and I have found myself wearing them more often— much to the chagrin of my wife. As a sophisticated Californian suburbanite, she finds my recent style contemptible. As I mentioned earlier, denim overalls carry a stigma associated with farming and agriculture, one that is hard to overcome in California. Perhaps due to the heavy influx of destitute depression era farmers, “Okies” as Californians pejoratively labeled them. They were the recently destitute who came here in droves during the 30’s and 40’s dust bowl crisis—looking for a second chance at life. Men, women, and children with thick Midwestern accents, beat up jalopies and their quintessential overalls. These spirited midwesterners were willing to work for pennies-on-the-dollar to get back at the American dream.

The midwest exodus, an American cultural phenomena, was wonderfully captured in John Ford’s adaptation of John Steinbeck’s opus, Grapes of Wrath. At times, with tongue-in-my-cheek, I refer to my style as the “Grapes of Wrath look.” People who know the book or have seen the movie, grin when I say this. Surprisingly, I have even had some of my colleagues say that I look like a hipster. Students once in a while, will ask me, “Mr. D, where did you get your overalls, I want a pair” or they will complement me about my overalls with words like, “they’re nice, or cool.”

Fashionistas shun overalls as “farm wear or outdated”, but In the past, this wasn’t the case, everyone more-or-less wore a nice pair of overalls. In America today, fashion wise, its still looked at with raised eyebrows by sophisticates. They tell us that its, “a faux pas” and to “avoid them with a passion,” but I disagree. In the study of design, beauty follows function, and the functionality of of overalls are understated. They have multiple pockets, they’re made with tough reinforced blue denim, and and the top bib section keeps your shirts clean while having a perfect place to store your pencil. I find vintage denim overalls to be more proletariate than bourgeoisie, more blue collar than white. Even though I’m considered a white collar worker, I find myself leaning towards loving blue colored vintage overalls. I mix them with a nice white button down shirt or a blue chambray button down shirt, Red Wing Iron Ranger boots, topped off by a wool or leather cap. If the weather is cold, then I’ll throw on a denim jacket or a cardigan sweater. Either way, you cannot beat the comfort and functionality of a good pair of vintage denim overalls.