One Size Fits All in One for All, and All for One: The Jumpsuit at Phoenix Art Museum
"So . . . jumpsuits, eh?"
Combined with a look of slight confusion, that's the reaction I've gotten when I've told people I'm writing a review about jumpsuits.
"All for One and One for All: The Jumpsuit" at the Phoenix Art Museum may sound like a fluff show, but, as with anything, there's a lot more to the story. And it's one I'm happy to tell.
PAM does an excellent job of providing a total portrait of this garment. Curator Dennita Sewell should be commended once again for gathering a killer exhibition of pieces from PAM's permanent collection and works on loan from designers, historical societies, and private collectors. She takes something seemingly simple (and arguably goofy), digs deep, and presents an interesting tale of the jumpsuit, following it from humble beginnings as blue-collar garb to a heroic uniform to high fashion.
Just beyond the front lobby, PAM pimps the show with a stunning gold jumpsuit designed by Jean-Paul Gaultier. Poised right next to the gift shop, it's a showstopper. The garment, made from gold-plated metallic paillettes on silk, was designed this past spring, and worn by Beyoncé Knowles last month for a performance at the "Fashion Rocks" event at Radio City Music Hall in New York. From neck to toe, overlapping gold discs varying in size, from that of a sequin to a silver dollar, make up this armored, scaly piece. With cap sleeves, belled pant legs, and a V-neck that plunges to the navel, the garment is the perfect teaser, dramatic and sexy.
But the jumpsuit isn't just over-the-top glitz and glamour for megastars. As with most articles of clothing, it was originally designed as a utilitarian device. One-piece suits, referred to as "coveralls," came about as early as the 18th century.
With industrialization came a need for protective wear against the grease and grime of mechanized industry. And since the U.S. took the lead in the industrial revolution, most of the early jumpsuit designs are homegrown.
And then there was WWII aviation. Heroic images of fighter pilots and parachutists (this is where the word "jumpsuit" originated) flooded American media and established the garment as a symbol of heroism, strength, and military power. And don't forget Rosie the Riveter. You've no doubt seen her with hair in a red bandanna, flexing her muscles, and rockin' a factory-worker coverall. It's really during this time that the jumpsuit crossed the gender line and became an American symbol of courage and strength.
Along the north wall of the gallery are pieces that illustrate this history beautifully. There's a 1920s Levi Strauss pair of coveralls — ravaged with grease spots and holes, unlike its neighboring Berkshire MFG, Co., a pair of cotton twill coveralls for a working woman. This garment is immaculate by comparison but isn't without its evidence of wear. The difference here is that the stains have been cleaned out and the holes are neatly patched — as a woman of that era would have known how to do.
Alongside the worker clothes is an impressive display of aviation suits and a 1970 Apollo Mission spacesuit. It's a lineup that further illustrates the courageous acts associated with the jumpsuit.
Even from a fashion viewpoint, to pull off the same color from head to toe is a risky move, and you'd better have the guff (and the body) to make it work.
Of course, the 27 mannequins that don the high-fashion jumpsuits certainly have the right body types, but even so, there are a couple of frightening ensembles, for sure. We are, after all, talking about jumpsuits — endeavors that have gone very, very wrong (think Las Vegas Elvis and Mr. Roper if you need visualization).
Take Preen, a periwinkle one-piece made from dyed suede. It's probably the most forgiving garment in the room and would hide any fat rolls, but it's baggy, like an unstuffed jack-o'-lantern Halloween costume. The whole thing just hangs on the mannequin with the folds of heavy fabric billowing all around the middle, only to be awkwardly reined in by a tapered leg.
Potato-sack pieces aside, most were stunning and feminine — like the James Sterling Paper Fashions 1966 jumpsuit. Paper clothing was a brief fad in the 1960s. I can see why people were into it. The piece is a spaghetti-strap halter with a fitted waist that flows down to some super-wide-legged pants. It probably looks more like a dress when it's on a person, but it has a great geometric print of converging circles and rectangles in pea green, coral, cobalt, navy, and ochre. Whoever wears this has got to bring some major sass. And, as with the other fashionable jumpsuits on display, I picture the woman who wears this being the hostess of the party, not a mere guest. Credit the jumpsuit's courageous history for that.
I'm completely sold on this show. Literally. I just went online and ordered a jumpsuit in black.
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