The History Of: The Jumpsuit

The origin story of the jumpsuit, like all fashion staples, is complex, cross-cultural and intermingled with various levels of the social and economic world - from Futurism to feminism. There is a large pool of articles that have been written about how jumpsuits fit into fashion history, each of them uniquely tackling various aspects of its iconography and evolution. Earlier this year Kung’ara Boutique in collaboration with Siri Studio released its own line of beautifully crafted jumpsuits. The design process for these jumpsuits has proven to be a case of trial and error as jumpsuits are a one-piece outfit, therefore accommodating them to different body sizes and shapes proves challenging. We are thrilled with the results however, and look forward to continuing our exploration of this historic form. Jumpsuits have been worn by both women and men for 100 years and have been utilised in business contexts, worn by labourers, as a uniform, used for functional aerodynamic purposes, been a part of the repertoire of high fashion and couture designers and now serve as popular smart-casual wear for the modern woman. 

Fashion and Futurism

  "Tuta" - by Thayaht 1919

"Tuta" - by Thayaht 1919

Although it’s difficult to document the first time the jumpsuit emerged as every-day apparel and not simply the uniform of manual workers, a Vogue article sites Florentine futurist designer Thayaht as the creator of the first jumpsuit in the fashion world. It was bold, daring and represented the future of fashion, something for the future man. From these early beginnings in the apparently ‘anti-bourgeois' circles of Italian society, the jumpsuit was intended to be a ‘universal item of clothing’, and in its later development crossed genders and all sectors of class. In 1923 a similar jumpsuit to Thayaht’s was created by Rodchenko and was deemed ‘the revolutionary garment of the new man’. The futuristic connotations of the jumpsuit are echoed in later years in shows such as Star Trek.

Starfleet Uniforms - Star Trek

Jumpsuits in Post War Europe

Elsa Schiaparelli, a revolutionary designer of her time, can also lay claim to one of the initial introductions of the jumpsuit into the fashion world for women. Her design, however, was not derived from the imagined futuristic direction of the fashion and technological landscape, but by war and practicality. In 1930 in Paris, though the first World War ended 10 years previously, the social landscape in Europe has begun to shift in terms of the roles that women play in society. To create a functional and practical garment that women can wear in the context of wartime as well as an everyday piece of fashionable clothing was Elsa’s main concern, and in so doing she made a design that was not only practical but socially significant to the mobilisation and independence of women. 






                                                                                Elsa Schiaparelli- MET display

The Jumpsuit Icon

Having established some of the historical beginnings of the jumpsuit; be it war, uniformity, creative foresight or simply pragmatism, the jumpsuit’s evolution in different cultures shows how societies consistently attach meaning, political commentary and social significance to just about anything. An article by the Baltimore Sun explores how jumpsuits and pantsuits are a powerful piece of clothing to the modern business women. Their capacity to retain femininity and still communicate a sense of professionalism and power has made both styles of dress popular among women in politics and in the corporate world. The iconic image of the riveting Rosies ‘You Can Do It!” poster from the 1940’s (pictured below) solidified the jumpsuit as a visual means of communicating the strength and resourcefulness of women. That iconography is still in play today. 


The Political Jumpsuit

There are countless examples of the jumpsuit making a political statement in its capacity as a uniform. Though one may struggle to see how these often very simple and unimaginative button-up jumpsuits are related to the modern fashion world, its significant to note how the cut, colour and context of an item of clothing can change its meaning entirely. In South Africa in 2014 Economic Freedom Fighters took to the streets in red jumpsuits, their striking uniformity as a body served to ‘express solidarity with the countries domestic workers and manual labourers’. In 2011 Japan’s leaders wore blue jumpsuits after the devastating earthquake and tsunami resulting in 16,000 deaths and devastating destruction across Japan. The blue jumpsuits are the uniform of the Japanese emergency workers and evolved into a symbol of solidarity by Japanese leaders with all the people affected. The jumpsuit in its functional and uniform context is the symbol of the working class, of industriousness, hands-on work and of a collective working towards a common goal.

The Modern Jumpsuit

The 60’s through to the 80's found the jumpsuit emerging into popular dress through pop cultural icons such as Elvis, David Bowie and Diana Ross. Amongst those in show business it became a popular style to reveal the flamboyance and glamour of the performer. The disco diva’s of the 70’s and 80’s wore figure hugging jumpsuits with flared bottoms, platforms and daring necklines on stage, a style that in the modern era has been toned-down and readapted to contemporary tastes. The 2000’s saw the jumpsuit evolve into a more sexual fashion symbol, with Britney’s famous body hugging vinyl jumpsuit creating a memorable impression on her audience. In Africa the jumpsuit is emerging in contemporary dress with designers from Nigeria to Kenya beginning to combine beautiful African prints and fabrics with contemporary jumpsuit cuts. Kung’ara Boutique has made a small mark with our own personal line of jumpsuits which have been met with widespread approval for their quality and the bold statement they make when worn by our stunning customers. 

The jumpsuit has flitted in and out of fashion in this past century, its return consistently bringing with it new cuts and creative ways of reimagining the original designs. They have been celebrated and despised, reinvented again and again across cultures and catwalks. They are the ultimate fashion challenge, a singular item of clothing that is not only versatile but also a whole ensemble on its own. What is your favourite jumpsuit style? What would you create if you had the opportunity to deign your own? Let us know in the comments below!

Wanja Wohoro
Kung'ara Kenya Team