Phoenix museum celebrates the jumpsuit - East Valley Tribune: Get Out

Phoenix museum celebrates the jumpsuit

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Posted: Saturday, August 30, 2008 11:21 pm | Updated: 8:55 pm, Fri Oct 7, 2011.

When astronaut Neil Armstrong walked on the moon, when Elvis Presley said “Aloha” in Hawaii, each did so in a jumpsuit. Charles Lindbergh wore one. So did Rosie the Riveter, Emma Peel and Catwoman. (Not the same one, obviously.)

SLIDESHOW: One for All, All for One: The Jumpsuit

When astronaut Neil Armstrong walked on the moon, when Elvis Presley said “Aloha” in Hawaii, each did so in a jumpsuit. Charles Lindbergh wore one. So did Rosie the Riveter, Emma Peel and Catwoman. (Not the same one, obviously.)

SLIDESHOW: One for All, All for One: The Jumpsuit

“One for All and All for One,” an exhibit that opens Friday at the Kelly Ellman Fashion Gallery at Phoenix Art Museum, traces the garment’s trajectory from onesie to coverup to supersuit.

It’s “an incredibly practical, modern” outfit, says Dennita Sewell, curator of fashion design for the museum’s Arizona Costume Institute, which is perhaps why for years it’s been forecast as the outfit of the future, especially in science fiction.

But its roots prove equally fascinating — the exhibit includes not just fashion’s interpretations of the jumpsuit, but also historical pieces like one of Lindbergh’s flight suits (courtesy of the Missouri Historical Society). To underscore their separate importance (and evolution), such items hold their own court in the gallery, while a multilevel dais on the opposite wall displays outfits from the fashion world.

“With all the historic (jumpsuits), the design has to be functional,” says Sewell, who also has curated single-focus exhibits about other now-ubiquitous garments, such as the motorcycle jacket. “With the fashion ones, all those boundaries of utilitarian-ness and safety are unleashed. I think that’s also an important reason to separate them.”

Thanks to “We can do it!” war posters and moon walks, the jumpsuit has secured a spot in our collective consciousness as a garment that makes history, but it has more humble roots: As America shifted from an agrarian society to an industrial era, the coverup protected clothing from grease and steel.

“This is a garment designed to help man deal with the Machine Age,” Sewell says, pulling out copies of early advertisements for everything from “Spalding summer flying togs” to Levi’s coveralls designed for auto mechanics (“plenty of pockets, no buttons to scratch” vehicle paint).

Later, it helped men and women prepare for battle on the front lines (like the gunmen’s heated leather flight suits that plugged into turrets of B-17 Flying Fortress planes) and assembly lines (coveralls for the factory workers churning out 16 planes a day).

Only later, when it became acceptable for women to wear pants as fashion — not just workwear or sport — did fashion begin to take inspiration from those now-iconic images and interpret them into more luxurious variations.

“Then the jumpsuit entered a whole new realm,” Sewell says — “not of function, but of design and fashion.”

By 1958 designers were creating jumpsuits in leather — for cocktail hour, no less! — and by the ’70s Diane von Furstenberg had translated her hit wrap dress into a faux-wrap pantsuit.

Asked to pick her favorite outfit — fashionable or functional, Sewell demurs.

“I think the whole thing is totally fascinating,” she says, gesturing at her “inspiration wall” (which has spread onto the vertical surfaces outside her office as well). The garment “has been around but has never really taken off, and nonetheless is always predicted for the future.”

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