What started as the antithesis of fashion, the jumpsuit, is now the trendiest item in men's wear. Jeremy Freed marvels at the wearability of the singular style
In 1920, an advertisement appeared in the Italian newspaper La Nazione for a new kind of clothing. Composed of straight lines, a few seams, a handful of buttons and a belt, the "TuTa" was a one-piece unisex coverall designed to be functional, stylish and easily reproduced. The advertisement included a pattern as well as a pronouncement from its creator, hailing the TuTa as "the most innovative, futuristic garment ever produced in the history of Italian fashion." This wasn't just hype. The TuTa, or as it's better known, the jumpsuit, turned out to be one of the most successful fashion designs ever created – just not in the way it was intended.
The TuTa's creator, Ernesto Michahelles, was a Florentine artist better known by his pseudonym, Thayaht. A sculptor, painter and industrial designer, Thayaht aligned himself with the Italian Futurist movement, a group of impassioned young men obsessed with burning down the gilded, silk-trimmed old world and replacing it with one defined by mechanization, speed and modernity. The futurists saw fashion and foppery as serious problems facing society and the TuTa was their solution. While the futurists would go on to become staunch proponents of fascism (Thayaht's most famous painting is a representation of Mussolini flanked by airplanes and barbed wire), some of their ideas about creating a better world were more palatable. Which brings us back to the TuTa.
Show me a vision of the utopian future and I'll show you someone dressed in a jumpsuit. By almost universal agreement, when asked to envision a time when humanity has solved a great many of its problems, our best creative minds all predict the disappearance of fashion and its replacement by a sturdy garment that's a shirt and pants in one. Part of this is certainly due to the fact that in the future we'll spend a lot more time on spaceships, but it also simply makes sense. How much time we'd save – and how many resources – if instead of following the whims of hemlines, trouser widths and statement accessories we could all just agree to wear the same thing every day. Despite the fact that I make my living writing about fashion, I find this idea immensely appealing.
In 2011, I went to Paris for fashion week. Aside from drinking at the Hemingway Bar at The Ritz, and eating a life-changing jambon beurre, the most memorable thing about that trip was a beautiful, supple and buttery soft deerskin jumpsuit I saw at the Hermès men's-wear show. I was familiar with this type of one-piece as a boilerman's uniform and as the stage costume of both Ziggy Stardust and aloha-era Elvis, but this one was something quite different. It was tough, masculine and utilitarian while somehow remaining completely impractical. I was fascinated. As much as I wanted one, however, I wasn't sure how it would fit into my wardrobe. What works for Bowie, I reasoned, doesn't necessarily work for me.
The jumpsuit has had a cultural moment in just about every decade since its inception, from the olive drab mechanic's uniform of Second World War to the floppy-collared disco onesie, to the neon-hued ski suits of the 1980s. Rappers favoured them in the '90s and they're perennially popular with toddlers. Now, after a few years' absence, they are suddenly everywhere again. Louis Vuitton, Armani, and J.W. Anderson all had a go at creating the perfect jumpsuit this spring, as did Rick Owens, Junya Watanabe and Levis. There's also the infamous RompHim men's romper, but the less that is said about it, the better. Some are more wearable than others, and each is appealing in its own way, but the question remains: How does one actually wear a jumpsuit in real life?
I finally worked up the courage to buy a jumpsuit a few months ago in Japan. I found mine at a uniform shop in a part of Tokyo full of restaurant supply stores. The first time I wore it out of the house I felt like I was walking around in a tuxedo or a firefighter's uniform. It seemed like people were staring at me, and I didn't know if that was good or bad. The feedback, however, was quite positive. "Don't you look snazzy in your jumpsuit," said a colleague who's old enough to remember how fetching Elizabeth Taylor looked in hers. "I should get one of those for work," said a writer friend who'd heard J.D. Salinger used to wear one. "You look like Tom Cruise in Top Gun," said my editor. I'm pretty sure this wasn't true, but it was too good a compliment to turn down.
It's impossible to say with certainty what Thayaht would have thought of Ziggy Stardust, Top Gun or Diddy and Mace in the video for Mo Money Mo Problems, but I'm pretty sure he'd be disappointed. The average person probably spends more time, money and resources on fashion now than ever before. Indeed, while the TuTa has been embraced with equal enthusiasm by celebrities on red carpets and tradespeople who perform oil changes on cars, it has largely been ignored by its intended audience: the vast numbers of normal people doing everyday things. Why put on a coverall to run to the store when you can wear jeans and a T-shirt? Or around the house, when you can slip on cozy sweats? I'm sure there are offices in which a jumpsuit would be appropriate attire, but I don't know anybody who works in one.
I like my jumpsuit, though. I wore it out to lunch one day, and to meet friends for drinks on a couple of occasions and it served me well. It's comfortable, has enough pockets for all of my stuff and is remarkably easy to accessorize. Thayaht knew this, of course – that was the whole point. He probably wouldn't have approved of his invention being co-opted by the fashion world, but perhaps it's not all bad news: this summer may be the closest he'll ever come to achieving his dream of a one-piece unisex utopian future.
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