Break out the banjos and inbreeding jokes, folks, the Appalachian lounge suit is back.
During the early days of the Sandra Bullock marital scandal, errant husband Jesse James wore a pair of denim overalls every day to his custom motorbike store. And these were not just any old overalls, but a pair from James’ own clothing line, Jesse James Industrial Workwear.
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James is a tattooed entrepreneur with a flair for outlaw chic. He presents himself as the ultimate badass—in his 2004 memoir, I Am Jesse James, he mentions that he has a needlepoint wall-hanging that says “Go Fuck Yourself”—but surprisingly, his clothes are finger-waggingly utilitarian. They say, “When you work, your clothes should, too.”
That may well be true, but after the torrid allegations of tattooed strippers and office seductions, hard work is the last thing anyone is going to associate with the Men’s Denim Bib Overalls complete with Zip Fly available from Wal-Mart for $30.
Jessegate is just the latest, and I would argue inevitable, setback in the centuries-long quest to gentrify overalls. Back in the 18th century, overalls were known as “slops,” and carried a semi-criminal stigma. The image softened when they became Hollywood shorthand for lovable country bumpkin. Junior Samples, who appeared on the TV show Hee-Haw, was the epitome of this bumbling stereotype. He was even buried in his overalls.
For 40 years, overalls have been the outfit of choice for any redneck scumbag with a sharp implement.
More recently, haute couture has even tried the romanticization of overalls. Ralph Lauren included them in his Spring 2010 collection, writing in his program notes: “I am inspired by the character of the worker, the farmer, the cowboy, the pioneer women of the prairies living authentically through challenging times. I have always admired the honesty of the work-weathered jean, the sturdy overall, the jean jacket, the faded blue work shirt.”
The honesty and sturdiness of denim was the last thing on anyone’s mind in 1972 when they watched the hillbilly rapists in Deliverance. All that Huck Finn innocence was wiped out with one ear-piercing pig-like squeal.
(In Great Britain, where overalls are called dungarees, the equivalent scene is a harrowing assault set in a prison greenhouse in the 1979 drama Scum.)
For 40 years, then, overalls have been the outfit of choice for any redneck scumbag with a sharp implement. They are almost compulsory for slasher films: Midnight Movie, Slaughterhouse, The Boogey Man, Hatchet, Motel Hell, Friday the 13th Part 2, and Child’s Play—they all have killers wearing denim overalls to match their one-eyed potato-sack hoods and hockey masks.
The only misstep came in The Warriors, released in 1979, when one of the gangs called the Punks wore overalls and rollerskates. Instead of being scary, the Punks were the gayest thing you’d ever seen. But this is always going to be a problem when you have any group of men wearing matching overalls in an urban setting.
The solitary urban male in overalls, however, remains instantly unsettling and creepy. I would go further and say overalls are like an essentially feral creature. As Sandra Bullock has found out, any attempt to domesticate them will end in a resounding failure.
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Sean Macaulay was the L.A. movie critic for The London Times from 1999 to 2007. He has also written for Punch, British GQ, and The Mail on Sunday. He was most recently creative consultant on the award-winning documentary Anvil! The Story of Anvil.