Fashion continues to ransack the 80’s—a sartorial decade that, even while it was happening, struck most as a particularly bad idea—so it was perhaps inevitable that jumpsuits were next up for a revival. And sure enough, they were everywhere this Fashion Week, from Diesel to Preen to Mara Hoffman. One need only watch The Bangles’ “Walk Like an Egyptian” video—YouTube it now, really—to be very, very afraid.
Two decades back, jumpsuits—those one-piece outfits with full-length legs—tended to be snug and, preferably, neon, though Steven Tyler and Diana Ross worked them with stripes, and Madonna went for cropped, basic black in her “Papa Don’t Preach” video. Of course, the 80’s didn’t invent them—Charlie’s Angels wore them in 1976, and Elvis in 1970, and what of Studio 54’s leisure suits? They, too, were part of the evolution. The 80’s, though, packaged the jumpsuit in teal and tangerine and rolled it out for the mass market, where many of us, or at least those of us currently over 30, purchased it at Units or Multiples (erstwhile beloved grandparents of American Apparel). We’ve spent the past 20 years trying to forget about our bad choices, and about T-shirt clips and Pop Swatches, too. But much to our shock and chagrin, the jumpsuit is back, attempting to seduce us again with its instant-outfit casualness, its forward-thinking utility, its ubiquity on lithe celebrity frames. Was nothing at all learned from Devo’s “Whip It” video?
The good news is that today’s jumpsuits, with some exceptions, are largely reinventions of the 80’s versions, not copies. So instead of Diane von Furstenberg’s loud, ankle-length red numbers, you have Karen Zambos’ V-neck black jumpsuit, whose wide legs, drooping neckline and general excess of fabric—not to mention the fat belt it’s supposed to be worn with—has more in common with other modern-day offerings at Searle than with Jane Fonda’s early exercise videos. Pop into American Apparel, though, and you’ll see that the younger set, apparently too young to have learned from Kathy Smith’s Fat-Burning Workout tape, is unafraid of the full-on fuchsia unitard. A young sales clerk at the American Apparel store on Broadway and Washington Place recently explained that often, women buy such pieces for the purpose of layering—i.e., to throw a dress on over them. He added that he himself prefers the short, looser “pocket romper” jumpsuits, also from the women’s section, which he buys in size large. .
“I’ve been making them and wearing them for a long time, but this summer, people really went nuts for them,” said designer Mara Hoffman, whose jumpsuits range from basic black to genie-shaped green, and have been seen on Chloë Sevigny. “If it’s done right, it’s flattering. It’s harder on a really long torso. It emphasizes the length of your torso instead of breaking it up like separates would do.” Backstage at her show last week at the SoHo Grand, Ms. Hoffman wore a slinky black strapless jumpsuit that showed off her rockin’ bod (ladies, don’t try this at home). She showed us several of the jumpsuits in her spring 2008 collection, among them a voluminous, silk blue strapless number with a floral print (her collection, she said, had a “birds of paradise in a dangerous garden” motif). Later in the week, British label Preen also put forth a jumpsuit-heavy vision of spring, showing several slouchy, sportier drawstring-waisted versions, which models wore cuffed at the ankles. And at Diesel on Saturday, Demi clutched Ashton in the front row as models in red wigs stalked by in jumpsuits made from sweatshirt material, tight white denim and more: Indeed, they seemed to comprise half the collection.
Beyond the chunky-heeled splendor of the tents, though, real women—while not opposed to the jumpsuit in theory—expressed doubt that the trend was really for them. “I would wear a jumpsuit if I wasn’t so short,” said Erika Martineau, 29, who works in public relations in Manhattan, as she perused the various jumpsuit offerings at LF in East Hampton recently. “It’s a really cute look—casual yet stylish—but you really have to have the right body type. And I don’t have any friends who have that body type.” She paused and considered: “Well, maybe Niki could do it. She’s, like, tall and foreign.” Ms. Martineau’s friend Amanda Ashe, 29, also a public relations executive, interjected, pointing out the hazards of the trend. “It’s kind of like wearing a dress, only you have the risk of camel toe,” she noted, adding, “I would wear a jumpsuit if I was aerobicizing!”
Suzanne Brose, 25, had a more positive take. “I like the ones you wear in daytime to the beach or by the pool or running errands,” she said. “I would wear one if I felt more in shape. It really hugs you.”
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!’”