Overalls for Grown-Ass Women
I noticed recently that fashion bloggers are working really hard at making overalls happen. On some level they seem to realize the magnitude of the task, but they gamely offer advice on how to make them look “chic” or “adult”, or, alternatively how to wear them without looking like a toddler or a farmer or a toddler farmer. You can get tips for wearing your overalls in the spring or in the fall. This has been going on for a while--magazines and retailers have been offering all kinds of slideshows with outfit ideas going back to at least 2013. “The 90s are back!” they say, “overalls are in style again!” They are back so hard that you need to learn how to style them even if you hate them. (NB: If you hate overalls the only styling instructions you need are “don’t wear them.”) Now, I teach at an urban university with a wealthy and trend-conscious student body. I’ve had students come to class wearing sequined tops, rompers, over-the-knee boots, and, once, a sequined romper with over-the-knee boots. “Cold shoulder” tops confuse me and make me feel old, but half my female students are wearing them on any given day, so they are definitely a thing that is in style. You know how many times I’ve seen a student wear overalls in my class in the last ten years? Zero. So I am pretty sure that overalls are actually never going to come back in style.
Once I went down the overall styling rabbit hole, though, I realized it’s deep (coming soon to The Scold: my article on how to style overalls for traveling through rabbit holes). For example, there is a company called Second Skin Overalls, which, in case it’s not clear, is a clothing label that sells seven different styles of overalls and nothing else. You will probably not be surprised to learn that the founder of Second Skin Overalls, Danielle Bernstein, is a fashion blogger. The least expensive pair of overalls you can buy from Second Skin is the “oversized culotte” which is sort of an overalls version of a pair of jeans that I like to wear around the house and which my husband calls my “Kentucky jeans”. He calls them this I guess because he thinks they look like what my mom might have worn to walk around barefoot behind her daddy’s horse barn and welding shop when she was growing up in Kentucky, though last time she came to visit he referred to them as such and she was like “I never wore jeans that looked like that!’ If I had to guess, I’d guess that growing up in the 1950s she never wore jeans at all, much less wide leg crops with unevenly hacked off hems. I like my Kentucky jeans and their hacked off hems, but I paid $9.29 plus $3 shipping for them on ebay. The oversized culotte from Second Skin will run you $200.
The kind of overalls that fashion bloggers and magazines praise tend to have similar price tags--you could easily shell out $185, $279, $295, $398, and by the time you look at all of those, this pair for just $148 at Madewell may start to seem like a bargain. Obviously there are people who have someplace to be where it’s appropriate to look like you are a model from a Huckleberry Finn themed fashion shoot, and where the appropriate price point of your outfit is upwards of $200, but I’m pretty sure 90% of them are, in fact, actively working as fashion bloggers. But let’s say you decide to buy a pair.
Once you earn the money to pay for your overalls, you still face the job of figuring out how to style them. Bernstein claims that overalls are “a versatile, seasonless wardrobe essential that can be styled for both casual and dressy occasions.” Of her high rise flare overalls she says, “I love how effortless and sexy it looks with a white pump.” These claims that overalls are “effortless” and “versatile” are unpersuasive, in part because of how ubiquitous they are. “Effortless” is probably the single word most often used by fashion media and bloggers when describing overalls. “It’s a ready made outfit!” they insist, “one piece, and your outfit is done!” This is hilarious, because every single article about styling overalls is about choosing the right shoes, or the right accessories, or the best tops. There’s painstaking advice on how to tuck in your shirt so that it looks appropriately effortless--or you could just wear a bodysuit, (preferably mesh?), because “if you’re already going through all the work of undoing your overalls to pee, you might as well add 2 more snaps on a bodysuit, too.“ Nothing says “effortless” like a mesh bodysuit under a pair of overalls!
All this work is necessary because overalls are so deeply coded “storybook farmer”--except when they are coded “poor southern urchin”--that they never really look “effortless”. Everyone knows that urban-dwelling women in 2017 do not just happen to own a pair of overalls, so if you are wearing overalls, you are Doing A Thing. Here Bernstein herself is Exhibit A. I don’t doubt that she genuinely loves overalls, finds them comfortable, and likes how she looks in them, but she is Doing A Thing where she Wears Overalls so intensively that she has made a career and a literal fashion brand out of it. She even wore them to a wedding once! I am 100% certain that the friend who invited her to that wedding told everyone, “Oh, you know Danielle! Overalls are her thing!” This gets to the heart of why, even if women are buying overalls, they maybe aren’t actually wearing them very often: in order to wear overalls you have to be willing to visibly be Doing a Thing, and visibly Doing a Thing is risky for a woman.
There’s a Brett Eldredge song from 2012 that keeps popping into my head, “Don’t Ya.” It’s a horrifying track that reached #5 on the Billboard Hot Country charts. The singer is the kind of guy who probably thinks all women are conniving teases, and definitely thinks the woman who is the focus of his attention in the song is a coy little liar. He has a lot of evidence that this chick is super into him:
She brushed against him on her way to the toilet
Every time she notices him staring at her she quickly avoids his gaze
She is wearing cutoff shorts
She is at a bar dancing
In spite of all these obvious and unequivocal signals of interest, she keeps LYING and saying she ISN’T into Brett Eldredge. Unclear: does “lying” in this song = ignoring him? Or does “lying” = literally telling him she’s not interested? Also unclear is whether he has actually interacted with this very hot and definitely-into-him woman, or only stared at her across the bar, but I have my own theory about why she keeps avoiding his gaze, based on the first verse:
Imagine you are dancing in a bar, minding your own business, and some mouth-breather comes up to you. “Baby,” he says, “Don’t even try to lie to me: I know that you cut those shorts off yourself. There is no possible way you bought cutoffs cut to that exact length in the United States of America. You want me, DON’T YOU, you cutoff-shorts-making-sexpot!” Whether or not you did make your own cutoffs is irrelevant, because you immediately realize that this man is not only a dangerous pig who has internalized toxic stereotypes about women, he is also radically unaware of the proliferation of disposable fashion under contemporary american capitalism, so who knows in what other ways he is completely detached from reality? If you have any sense of self preservation, you will make every possible effort to avoid eye contact with this predator who may have retreated for the moment, but who you can feel still staring at you.
There’s more to unpack in this terrifyingly unromantic song, but that verse is the part that I get hung up on, the part that is relevant to the overalls phenomenon: This is a song that is entirely predicated on the singer deciding that his target is Doing a Thing, and thus Into Him. The singer has determined that her appearance is not effortless, which he interprets as evidence that she wants to fuck somebody, and if she wants to fuck SOMEBODY, well, then, she basically wants to fuck HIM. Or any other man who might decide she is 1. sexy and 2. sexy on purpose. Now, sure, statistics indicate that looking like your style was effortless won’t actually protect you from assault. But at least you won’t get called a liar or a tease!
Which brings me back to overalls, a garment that is never, ever going to look effortless on anyone who is not an actual farmer actively engaged in literal farmwork. I am a forty-year-old-woman and probably not going to either buy or make myself overalls. But I am constantly Doing a Thing when I get dressed. The bulk of my professional wardrobe is comprised of clothes I handmade for myself from old t-shirts using techniques from Alabama Chanin. My Kentucky jeans may have been cheap, but they are a still a Thing I wanted to try Doing, and which I in fact cut off myself. And yet. Even though I’m almost always Doing a Thing, I do try to walk that line, to look effortless, to be all, oh, this old thing? I just spent one hundred and fourteen hours hand-stitching it, and then threw it on without a thought in the world. It’s effortless.
You know what? Effortless is bullshit. Walking that line is buying into the stupid catch-22 misogyny throws at women everywhere: the single most important indicator of your value is your appearance, but if your appearance is too pleasing, too obviously intentional, too anything on any given day, it’s an indication that everything else about you is valueless. I reject the idea that any “look,” any “style,” any garment that we put on our bodies is effortless. People toiled to make those overalls, someone labored to pay for them, and then spent two hours standing in the closet trying to figure out the best way to tuck a GD ruffled blouse into overalls--plus another two hours picking up every shirt they own off the closet floor. Do a Thing if you want to do a thing, whether it’s overalls, or cold shoulder tops, or Kentucky jeans. But let’s acknowledge that “wanting” to do it is a socially complex thing, and is never going to be purely a product of shallowness or vanity. And let’s call it what it is: work.