One Easy Piece: Jumpsuits (Blech!) Return

WOMEN BEGAN WEARING JUMPSUITS at approximately the same time we began wearing pants—i.e., a long time ago—but Sass Brown, a professor of fashion design at FIT, dates the earliest designer jumpsuits to influential 60’s and 70’s designer Paco Rabanne. “He was very futuristic,” Ms. Brown said. “He really thought of the whole metallic craze. A lot of the designs at that time were very space-agey: It was the time when men had just landed on the moon.” Later in the 70’s, the jumpsuit was given a disco makeover, owing largely, explained Ms. Brown, to technological advances in fabric. “There’s a certain type of movement that’s necessary for a tight jumpsuit,” she said. “So the synthetic textile movement was important, and in the 70’s, nylons and lycras were becoming more accessible.” She cited the classic blaxploitation films and John Travolta as examples.

In the 80’s, jumpsuits’ popularity soared. “The whole dance craze exploded in the 80’s,” said Ms. Brown. “That made jumpsuits hugely popular—that explosion of dance wear and yoga wear, roller-blading, disco, all those things that required clothing that was comfortable, stretchy, easy to wear. I remember wearing leotards and leggings on the street in the 80’s. Thank God I can’t find any photographic evidence.”

Today’s jumpsuits are not demonstrably tied to any active impulse, and, rather than being worn by an entire generation of young aerobics aficionados, they’re primarily visible on lanky fashion types, at least for the time being. And for every pricey Diesel or Preen jumpsuit, there exists a mass-market option, such as the black catsuit-looking version Madonna rolled out for H&M, which is currently tearing its way through eBay. The aforementioned American Apparel cotton and spandex unitard jumpsuits come in several cuts from $32 to $38; at Intermix, we glimpsed the much-discussed Stella McCartney silk jumpsuit ($1,595) for fall, which appears to have been made to fit a woman of 6-foot-3, or perhaps Michael Phelps. “It’s for a certain customer,” the salesgirl shrugged, as the suit’s soft, gadget-esque limbs spread out between us, a very expensive, octopuslike scarf.

The summer’s recent parade of short jumpsuits (often called “rompers,” charmingly), are often versions of overalls, and thus have a schoolgirl quality to them. An innocence, if you will. (Witness Lauren Conrad’s recent denim version, which landed her on “worst dressed” lists from US Weekly to People magazine.)

This fall’s jumpsuits, however, are not playing around. They are grave, full-length, and tend to be more industrial-looking and utilitarian. Perhaps this owes something to the current celebrity incarceration trend: As the Fug Girls announced in August, from Paris to Nicole to Lindsay, “prison is the new black.” Could this be why, after a summer full of whimsical “rompers,” we’re now facing Diesel’s fall jumpsuits, one of which resembles the new body-hugging spacesuit that NASA recently unveiled?

Which reminds us: Far more troubling than the female jumpsuit is the male jumpsuit. If women run the risk of crossing that fine line between self-conscious 80’s revivalism and downright trend-slavery, men risk looking like auto mechanics, or perhaps like Kim Jong Il. Granted, the men’s jumpsuit revival is arguably more subtle, and has not been aimed at the men on the arms of the women wearing jumpsuits, but this makes it no less offensive. Stussy’s new version—aimed at skateboarders, one assumes—would blend seamlessly in a prison yard. And then, of course, there is Heatherette’s ass-less jumpsuit with tin-man print, paraded down the runway last February, which looks like a costume for the gay strip-club musical version of The Wizard of Oz.

This fall, many of us will probably watch the jumpsuit trend from the sidelines, waiting to see how it pans out before we dip our toes in the water of a black zip-front one-piece. But will they hang around long enough to convert us? Ms. Hoffman, the designer, suggested they might be here to stay: “They could become a staple,” she said. “Just another option, like a dress or pants—instead of ‘Omigod, I’m going to wear a jumpsuit today, wait till you see this!’”