In Depth: Dungarees and Bib Overalls
Dungarees (or bib overalls, as they’re known in America) are a true classic of utilitarian work-wear design. Worn by carpenters, painters, mechanics, factory workers and pretty much anyone else who requires hard-wearing, no-nonsense clothing, they’ve been a mainstay of the working wardrobe for well over 100 years, and are still as useful as ever today.
With this season’s collection featuring a full range of dungaree styles for men and women, now seemed like a good time for a quick history lesson...
Whilst no one can say for certain, the word ‘dungaree’ is thought to have originated back in the 17th century in the Indian village of Dongri. Located on the coast near Mumbai, this small village was famous for the production of a hard-wearing indigo-dyed calico cotton cloth, known as ‘dungri’. This tough stuff soon made its way to England, where the name was anglicised from ‘dungri’ to ‘dungaree’.
Thanks to its hardy nature, low cost and unfussy appearance, ‘dungaree’ was the ideal fabric for work clothing, and by the late 18th century it was being used to make simple all-in-one garments known as ‘slops’. Worn by farmers, slaves and sailors, these slops were intended as protective layers to be worn over a shirt and trousers as a much-needed shield against grease, oil and mud—and whilst they were oversized so they’d fit over clothes easily, they were designed with few extra features so they wouldn’t get caught up in tools or machinery.
As work (and how it was done) evolved rapidly throughout the 19th century, so too did workwear. Railroads were built, factories popped up on the edge of every town and, with the American Civil War over, emancipated slaves turned to sharecropping to earn a living. With the industrial revolution and the advent of the production line, the basic slops of the 18th century made way for a new wave of multi-pocketed overalls, complete with metal rivets and triple-stitching.
Some were just worn over trousers (like the ‘waist overalls’ which eventually became today’s jeans), whilst others covered the arms too (like the fairly self-explanatory ‘coveralls’), but perhaps the most versatile were the ‘bib overalls’ which did the job of over-trousers, braces and tool belt in one fell swoop. Countless brands across America made these, but the formula was essentially the same—tough cotton fabric, handy pockets and a roomy, relaxed fit to accommodate the varied shapes of the American worker.
By the time Henry David Lee patented his bib overalls for mass production in 1911, the simple design had already become the unofficial uniform for the working man, and a symbol of the American working class. Painters wore white canvas, railroad workers wore hickory stripes and those out on the farms (like the stoney-faced pitchfork-wielder in Grant Wood’s American Gothic) wore blue denim. These fabrics had ousted the original ‘dungaree’ cloth which set the ball rolling, but in Britain at least, the name stuck as a way to describe the garment itself.
When the First World War sent millions of women to work in farms and factories, the long trailing skirts of the ‘respectable lady’ suddenly seemed particularly impractical. A few clothing companies tried to solve the need for female work-wear with billowing cotton bloomers, but for many, a pair of old dungarees was just as effective.
This shift towards function in women’s clothing kickstarted a shift away from the stuffy formal designs of the 19th century, and by WW2 the image of a hard-working woman in a pair of overalls was a regular sight on posters and newsreels. Once again, dungarees had become a powerful symbol, this time representing the tough toil on the home-front.
WW2 also saw dungarees employed for military use. Working on the hectic deck of an aircraft carrier was arduous work that required serious clothing. Designed with damp, miserable weather in mind, the ‘deck bibs’ worn by the US Navy were a distinctly militant take on dungaree design, with hickory stripes swapped for thick olive drab jungle cloth.
Another interesting chapter in the dungaree story took place in Alabama in the 1920s. Angered by rising clothes prices, a group known as the ‘Overalls Club’ took to wearing old dungarees as a protest. This lot saw overalls as the perfect example of well-made, affordable clothing, and the antithesis of profiteering in the clothing industry, and soon sparked a movement for the middle-class to replace their suits for work-wear.
Those involved with the civil rights movement of the 1960s also understood the emblematic power dungarees, and often wore them during marches and protests to emphasise their link with the sharecroppers of the 19th century.
Powerful stuff for a humble piece of work-wear, and throughout the second half of the 20th century dungarees remained a strong statement, worn by everyone from east coast hip hop groups to the stripped-back pastoral indie bands of the 1980s. What’s more, they still fulfilled their original duty as a piece of no-nonsense work-clothing, and even today they’re relied on by legions of hard-working men and women.
This season, Nigel’s much-loved Naval Dungarees have returned once again. Inspired by US Navy deck bibs, these are available for men in both pigment-dyed canvas cotton and single-wash 12oz Kuroki denim, and for women in hickory-striped cotton. There’s also a new women’s design, aptly titled the New Dungaree. Heavily influenced by mid-century American work-wear, these have a relaxed, oversized fit, and feature a unique buckle design taken from a pair of vintage 1950s overalls. Like the classic designs mentioned in this article, they’re built with function firmly in mind.