In the fast-paced world of fashion, dungarees have maintained a comparatively simple, functional design over their 168-year history. As the day-to-day uniform of a large part of the world, they debuted as something resolutely anti-fashion. But over time, the much-loved wardrobe staple has dipped in and out of fashion becoming a well-worn item in many women’s wardrobes. But as with other items of the workwear family, the dungaree has a storied history.
The Oxford English Dictionary bravely asked the Twittersphere to unpick the controversial question of ‘what is the difference between overalls, coveralls, and dungarees?’ Now if we took a pair of Milldreds, Americans would talk of overalls, the Canadians might say ’bibbed trousers’ - the British, dungarees.
From Dungri to Dungaree
But if we can’t decide on the exact terminology, we can agree on their origins: Dongari Killa. India is one of the greatest textile exporters in the world, and at the turn of the 17th century, a port city north of Mumbai was producing an unusually hard-wearing fabric. When the colonial East India Company discovered it could cheaply clothe its workforce, huge shipments of ‘dongari’ cloth were sent to the West.
Image: Land girl off to work, 1930s
Image: Dungaree Pattern Cutting, 1947. Image courtesy April Mo.
In America, the cloth was taken up by cattle ranchers, with Levi Strauss creating the first pair of recognisable bib overalls in 1853. ‘Slops’ were everyday protective clothing: baggy enough to be slipped in and out of, comfortable enough to be worn each day. But the overall would accompany blue-collar workers from the farm to the factory, as the industrial revolution began re-shaping the economy.
But as much as the dungarees are representative of working men, this history has sometimes overshadowed the working women who wore them. Dungarees have long been part of the feminist’s arsenal.
During WW1, three million men left Britain on military service. Groups like the Canary girls and The Women's Land Army shouldered much of the work, shifting gender dynamics forever. And while it wasn’t always well received, one farmer complained of Land Girls “trying to catch husbands”, it was largely seen as a source of pride to see “the girls in their working clothes.”
By WW2, the same shift was underway in America. Iconic factory girls like ‘Rosie the Riveter’ were busy re-shaping the labor force, donning dungarees. For the 1940s woman, dungarees signalled a shift from the domestic sphere into the public world of work. Image: Land girls bring in the harvest in one of Britain's largest wheat fields, 1943. Image courtesy of Library of Congress.
In the late 50s, as films started to re-interpret post-war life, Hollywood saw Judy Garland, Doris Day, and Marilyn Monroe in a pair. The once working staple became fashion for the first time. But this was not long-lived, as many women were keen to return to fashions denied over the war, and instead brought into the heavy materialism of the 1950s.
In later decades, the dungaree swung into an anti-fashion statement. Reacting to the materialism of the generation before them, young college kids and the countercultural movement sweeping across America adopted the dungaree as a symbol of ‘authenticity’. Rock’n’rollers tried them on for size too. In Patti Smith's autobiography Just Kids, she arrived in New York for the first time wearing her “dungarees, black turtleneck, and the old gray raincoat.” That’s how to storm a city.
Over in the UK, the Dexys’ Midnight Runners were looking for a ‘scruffy’ look that was meaningful. And, chancing upon grubby workwear in FLIP, (the dead-stock store with branches in the King’s Road and Covent Garden), they found their trademark. They knew that dungarees, unlike other items in your wardrobe, get better with age.
Image: Couple attend a unisex wedding, 1960s, Alamy
For the Women’s Liberation Front, the power of the dungarees lay in its unisex appeal. The bagginess of the body refused the overt sexualisation women’s clothes had previously been designed around. In fact, the item became so linked to the women’s movement, it’s still referred to today. You’ll find ‘Dungaree Feminism” is called on time and time again by the mainstream press to put-down women’s politics.
The 1980s - 1990s: Hip Hop
In the ‘90s, dungarees returned to mainstream fashion — but this time they had a subcultural feel as Hip Hop dominated the music charts. The genre favoured a tension split between authentic realness while being broadly individualistic. Rappers adopted oversized styles as they imitated the hyper-masculinity of street culture, while girl groups TLC and Cleopatra adopted dungarees while navigating a distinctly male-dominated industry. The 90s girl had found a quiet power in subverting her traditionally masculine dungarees.
Image: Jennifer Aniston at Rachel Green in the hit 90s sitcom, Friends. Stream via HBO.
New Twist on an old tradition
When Alexa Chung told the FT, “I am part builder, part child,” she was referencing her love of the classic dungaree, but also marking a new stage in its journey. “The practical element of the dungaree is very appealing, and that they make everyone look immediately cool – low-key and relaxed.” Her interview came mid-peak of recent dungaree revival which she herself had helped galvanise.
In comparison to the frills and flap, the dungaree fast found a home with working women who prize its easy adaptability: from day to night. The unisex, ‘wardrobe’ developed as demands to make women’s clothing more comfortable and functional have become louder. If the #ithaspockets hashtag tagged popularity recently, it's because female clothes have not been designed with their needs in mind.
But there are larger forces at play here too. More than two-thirds (68%) of Europeans consider themselves more environmentally friendly now, than five years ago. With its continual push for trends and quick consumption habits, fast fashion has caused a wide-scale ecological and humanitarian crisis. Instead, well-made, durable, seasonless items are giving us sustainable options.
The past two years have seen a world of change, from Covid-19 to mounting climate concerns. As many were left in a quagmire of endless days, with no divide between work or play, the dungaree became a reliable favourite. As we renegotiate a post-pandemic world, the simple statement dungaree will continue to reign supreme.
- How the first world war changed women's fashion, Lauren Cochrane
- The Gendered Politics of Fashion, Tanya Basu
- How the pandemic is changing women’s fashion, Shia Kapos
- ‘I am part builder, part child’ – Alexa Chung talks personal taste.
- Consumed: The Need for Collective Change: Colonialism, Climate Change and Consumerism, Aja Barber (2021).