Function Meets Fashion

The story of the jumpsuit, a purpose-driven design that’s so simple it’s daring

The image of a model strutting down the runway in a navy liquid lamé jumpsuit, for Ralph Lauren’s Spring 2016 Collection, is one of the most iconic of the season. The same holds true for a jet-set-inspired photograph from a recent Purple Label campaign, with Andrew Lauren in a sleek broadcloth one-piece layered over an impeccable shirt and tie.

In the World of Ralph Lauren, the jumpsuit is clearly having a moment.

In fact, the style has been a staple of the Ralph Lauren aesthetic for decades. Soon after Mr. Lauren debuted his first women’s collection, he fashioned a yellow poplin version with large front pockets for the woman on the go, and in 1975, the jumpsuit was a cornerstone of his first women’s runway show. He helped establish it as a hallmark of American sportswear, rendering the one-piece in chambray, seersucker, linen, and corduroy. No matter the inspiration—safari one season, military the next—a jumpsuit from Ralph Lauren spoke of easy style and a healthy irreverence toward the rules of fashion.

But, the jumpsuit wasn’t always the stuff of runways. When Italian designer Thayat, one of the best-known progenitors of the look, debuted his “TuTa” (named for its T-shape) back in 1919, it embodied a certain anti-bourgeois practicality. A democratic, complete garment for all, it quickly became the workingman’s go-to. Factory employees wore the style to keep their own clothes free from grease and grime. A looser-fitting interpretation, the boilersuit, was designed to keep waistbands from catching in the fireboxes of trains. Parachutists strapped their packs over the low-drag piece before leaping into the wild blue yonder.

By the 1940s, the jumpsuit had become a call to action. “We can do it!” assured Rosie the Riveter (in a navy coverall designed by Vera Maxwell), signaling the moment it evolved from workaday uniform to wartime symbol. The greatest (and perhaps unlikeliest) jumpsuit aficionado may have been the British Bulldog himself, Winston Churchill, who became so enamored with the “siren suit”—a one-piece made for hurried nighttime dressing at the sound of an air-raid siren—that he took to wearing the style all the time. Churchill had his made in pinstripes, with broad lapels, even in velvet for formal dinners, and kept them in rotation post-war as a sort of industrial leisure suit.

Over the next few decades, stars like Diana Ross and David Bowie helped to make the piece a cultural touchstone, and more recently it’s become a staple of the smart, modern woman’s wardrobe. Heidi Klum and Zoe Saldana have made jumpsuits the centerpiece of daytime looks, and Jessica Chastain and Cara Delevingne have donned them to stand out at formal evening events. The versatility of the style—it dresses up and down with incredible ease—is on full display in the Spring 2016 Polo Ralph Lauren collection, which features a chic denim version that, when paired with heels and a statement necklace, marries Rosie-the-Riveter attitude with a level of chicness that couldn’t be more current.

Therein lies the magic of the jumpsuit. Depending on how you wear it, it can signify just about anything. All it takes to pull one off is a little confidence.
Sophia Gonzalez is a copy writer at Ralph Lauren. She has written for T Magazine and (now, among others, and resides in Manhattan.
  • Marcelo Soubhia