Overalls now seem to play a smaller part in daily life than they used to. When my mother was preparing to do the day’s housework she would put on her housecoat. Before my time this would have been a simple cotton garment in some plain cold, but in my youth it had become a pretty enough nylon garment with a pattern of flowers. It was intended to keep her clothes from getting soiled by the dust that was all around. The cleaning of ash out of the fireplace was among the first tasks of the morning, and this produced the dust. This was followed by the breakfast frying pan, which produced its own kind of atmosphere. Our activities are a bit less grimy these days, and now we are lucky enough to have a cleaning lady who comes weekly. She does not wear an overall, and this reflects the relative cleanliness of the house. In the past Julie would have arrived with her overall ready to put on and probably wearing a hairnet as well!
Overalls were very much a kind of uniform in many trades. Boiler suits were made fashionable during the dark days of the Second World War by Winston Churchill; he would wear one to tour bombsites and similar war zones on the Home Front. Boiler suits had been a feature of the workman’s apparel long before the Prime Minister adopted them of course, and continued to be so long after peace had returned. They were reserved for the dirtiest tasks and were introduced for cleaning out steam engine boilers, hence the name. Boiler suits were an all-in-one garment that had as few openings as possible to keep out the filth. Having the leggings integrated with the blouse made them a bit tricky to put on and take off, so for less extreme jobs the operative could fall back on another kind of overall, the warehouse coat.
Despite its name the warehouse coat was not restricted to the back office or warehouse of the workplace; for certain shops they were worn in customer-facing rôles. The staff of a draper’s shop or a newsagent would wear normal clothes – a suit for a man and perhaps a skirt and high collared blouse for a female- but the ironmonger would wear a grey warehouse coat. The fishmonger or greengrocer who also handled dirty items like fish skins or unwashed potatoes would also wear overalls. Now self-service, rigorously clean produce and over-packaging have banished the possibility of the shopkeeper getting soiled.
Both boiler suits and warehouse coats were made of cotton duck, a thick and hard wearing material. The colours were restricted to navy blue, dark grey and fawn. The white clinical coats worn by chemists for instance were tailored to a superior cut, as befits a professional person. The superiority of certain types wearer (and therefore of overall) is particularly noticeable in the provision of buttons. With ordinary working clothes buttons were easily removable by slipping them off a metal ring, when the remaining cotton material could be given a hot wash. For the more elegant clothing of semi-professionals such fixtures were less easily removed, and the overalls needed dry cleaning. Overalls are still used in some jobs, although in the professions that now use them a more respectable terminology is used. ‘Work wear’ is perhaps a more elegant term than overall.
Surgeons about to enter the operating theatre go to considerable lengths to dress in hygienic clothing, and dentists also wear clinical dress. It is very common for businesses to provide a dress code, and some shops even require the employee to wear a uniform. Some tradesmen wear a uniform too; the milkman’s white coat and white peaked cap were definitely a uniform, but these garments have vanished along with the milkman himself. The post-person (officially the delivery officer, but still in common parlance the postman) remains dressed in a uniform of sorts.