The Future Is Now: Examining Fashion’s Love Affair With Dystopian Jumpsuits

I have a box of Soylent sitting atop my kitchen cabinets — the ironically named drinkable meal replacement that’s engineered to deliver maximum nutrients with minimum effort. It is not green, nor is it made with humans, but the glee with which my fiancé consumes the stuff still weirds me out. I have apps on my phone that alert me to the optimum moment to go to bed and wake up, and a toothbrush that tells me when I should move onto the next quadrant of my mouth. I even think about my autonomous robotic vacuum like a pet, and coo when I find that it hasn’t made its way back to its dock because of a stray sock or a cord.
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While the creep of life enhancements has taken over nearly every other aspect of my home, the contents of my wardrobe are almost quaint. Nothing is sweat-wicking or muscle-aligning; I have somehow avoided athleisure and uniform-dressing, both designed to allow you to increase your time spent doing things. Compared to the rest of my life, my clothes are a hassle, do not save me time, augment my performance, nor equip me for a chaotic world in which anything could happen — even our destruction.
But you know what does? The jumpsuit. Boilersuits. Mechanic’s overalls. The type of one-piece wonder that had slowly been infiltrating runways and racks, and pitched by showrooms as the trend of the moment. I recognised them: In nearly every sci-fi book or movie, tomorrow’s humans wear jumpsuits. Shapeless but economically cut (excess fabric is obscene in dystopian futures), these jumpsuits were practical, joyless, and always came in the sort of dull colours you might find in melted garbage. They erase your differences and swallow your sex appeal, but are made to accomplish any job — from cleaning out gears (1984) to saving the world (Alien). Jumpsuits are what you wear when someone else considers you helpless. So why are they suddenly a fashion trend?
I’ve always considered fashion’s number-one magic trick to be its manifesting abilities. Want to be a boss? Dress like one first. Want to move to the country? Dress like you already live there. Want to be a drone in a toiling march towards insignificance? Try a jumpsuit! Dressing like the world is about to end seemed to me like a very bleak self-fulfilling prophecy that’s already started to prove true. Trendy jumpsuits when, during each news cycle, things seem to creep closer to the apocalypse? It’s too on-the-nose. But everywhere I looked, on fancy e-tailers, trendy fast-fashion sites, and on the bodies of the women and men whose fashion authority I never questioned, there they were: dystopian jumpsuits that were for the most part, totally lacking in “fashionable” design details or “flattering” elements. But if you know anything about the fashion reality we live in today, where normcore is a thing, the jumpsuit's lack of appeal is its most appealing quality.
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And when I really examined the things that had been gnawing at me this past year — the things that have led me down a path of nighttime teeth-grinding and spontaneous blips of panic — they were the exact things that a jumpsuit would fix. I wanted to hide and disappear in the crowd, to be a person first and a woman second, and to feel prepared for the worst. Preppers have emergency food storage bunkers and wellness nuts have Moon Dust. Dystopian jumpsuits would be my way to becoming an advanced human in a regressive world.
Not all jumpsuits are dystopian: Those breezy rompers in florals or jewel tones that women like to wear to music festivals and frosé happy hours are figure-flattering, look like Pinterest, and pair well with very white teeth. They accentuate a small waist and hug your bum. They make you look long but curvy, playful but sophisticated. But the types of jumpsuits I had borrowed and purchased for this project were roughly the shape of a skinned Gumby [an American animated character] and as vibrant as a puddle. Lined up in my closet, they radiated depression.
I wore a stiff cotton jumpsuit from The Frankie Shop that a friend told me looked like it had belonged to a Baptist swimmer from the 1800s. A jersey one from Zara was basically a union suit, complete with a row of buttons, threadbare fabric, and a dropped crotch that made my midsection look like Mitch McConnell’s chin from the front and his neck from the back. An Ilana Kohn one was baby onesie-shaped, and I even wore a jumpsuit to a wedding — a moss-green linen suit with a row of tortoiseshell buttons that was almost chic with a swipe of lipstick.
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The easy part was figuring out what to wear with a jumpsuit. As with all one-pieces, all you really need is a pair of shoes. The hard part was coming to terms with the fact that if I was going to be swanning around in what was essentially a pair of pyjamas, those shoes were going to be uncomfortable. Here’s why: The difference between a dystopian jumpsuit and a fashionable one — the difference between your dad and an art student on Instagram — is that you need a sprinkle of glamour if you’re going to be serving some frump. Every time I wear something aggressively unflattering, I think about an Edith Wharton quote from The House of Mirth that basically describes a read: “It is almost as stupid to let your clothes betray that you know you are ugly as to have them proclaim that you think you are beautiful.” Those who know they can pull off fusty corduroy trousers or dresses that looks like butter bean skins know that their entire being is glamour, and no matter how much frump they layer on, they’ll always look stylish. The rest of us need fancy shoes.
And to get it out of the way — yes, peeing was moderately more annoying and took half a minute longer than usual. Most people who talk about jumpsuits will want to talk about peeing! It's true that there's no way around it, that you have to sit, half-naked, gathering the tops of your jumpsuit in your hands like a bunch of wildflowers. That part is a pain. But no one ever talks about the private amusement that comes from manoeuvring your body inside your jumpsuit so the least amount of you touches any part of it, while waiting for the subway, for your meal to heat up, for the elevator to open, for your dinner partner to arrive — et voilà! You’ve got the sensation of being naked in public, except no one knows.
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Instead of oppression, my dystopian jumpsuit provided me freedom. Without bands or straps, my belly was at liberty to paunch over my lap while I sat, and my bum quaked when I spun around quickly. For a full week, I ate until I was too full, without a waistband to tell me I was approaching my threshold. I left my bra at home, and it didn’t matter at all. But covered in a shell of fabric, my body’s gymnastics were just for myself. And unlike a tent dress, a jumpsuit isn’t just breezy, it also defies gravity, which means I could sit cross-legged, flip over a fence, jump on top of a friend, and lie on a couch with my legs above my head. If there is a garment equivalent of dancing alone in the dark, this was it.
But the best part about the jumpsuits was that they made me invisible to people whose opinions I never took much stock of — leering construction workers, that guy at the bar, friends of friends who ask me if I get to go to a lot of parties for my job. Instead, people told me stories about how jumpsuits reminded them of the jumpsuit-wearing oddballs in their lives (one person’s grandpa would wear his unbuttoned to his sternum, and carry around a kitten like a feline Babybjörn). A coworker told me how she loved jumpsuits because of their ease-to-impact ratio: They’ve got the one-piece efficiency of a dress but are still badass. A male colleague, Jon Bulette, told me he’s steadily worn mostly jumpsuits for the better part of three years. Having tried out kilts and sheer skirts during various phases of his youth, Jon appreciates how freeing jumpsuits are for someone who feels trapped by trousers. “The jumpsuit offers sweet escape. The jumpsuit defines what I hope I can become. It suggests that I will be a participant in a rapidly approaching future where gender transcended binary, where action supersedes rote consumption, and where I am my best self.”
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As far as I can tell, that doesn’t sound like dressing for dystopia. Jumpsuits, chosen and loved, mean dressing with optimism. Some might even call that utopic.
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