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Overalls Are Honestly the Perfect Garment

They offer instant outfits and effortless movement.

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Woman in overalls Photo: Melanie Galea/The Street Muse/Trunk Archive

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At first, my excuse was that I had a crush on a boy who wore overalls.

It was the summer after my freshman year of college, working a job at an arts camp. Everything was green and buzzing; we wore shoes rarely and laughed often. His lanky stride in denim had a charm that made summer feel the way it had when I was 10: infinite and rife with possibility. I was smitten.

We kissed and I bought overalls, or I bought overalls and then we kissed — I don’t know which was the catalyst. Before the camp dance, we counselors piled into a car and drove to the nearest thrift store to prepare our staff theme: some hybrid combination of Wild West, cowboys, and farmers. Moving methodically through the hangers as if I were reading the spines of paperbacks, I finally stumbled upon a pair of pale tan overalls — Gap, decidedly not recent, a boxy extra-small. The perfect fit for a messy co-ed who’d barely grown big enough to ride shotgun. I strolled out of the store baggily clad and happy.

The camp romance faded with the August heat, but my love affair with overalls burned bright. It turned out the 10-again feeling was woven somewhere in the threads. Clipping the straps over my shoulders, I could be anything again. I wore the perfect neutral canvas and the world was mine to tromp fearlessly through. This was before the grand return of ‘90s trends, and reactions were mixed. One friend rolled her eyes and asked “Do you have to wear those?” A fling generously (or perhaps strategically) informed me that I looked like a 1930s movie star. I felt a little self-conscious, unexpectedly sexy, and decidedly like myself.

They were a magic charm that made me feel like me again, which was exactly what I needed. Freshman year had been confusing and bittersweet, and at times I had felt like a sketch of myself. The overalls felt reliably solid. I wore them with trepidation, but nevertheless I wore them. And in wearing them, I began to learn not to care. It wasn’t a quick process — I’m fairly confident it’s still happening. But in wearing something that some saw as fashion illiteracy and others as calculated quirkiness, I learned to believe more in my own choices. I learned to laugh when things were funny to me, regardless of whether a chorus joined in. I learned that it was okay to like what I liked and do what felt right, and not to let bolder personalities tell me when I was cool enough (and when I wasn’t). I learned the inner peace that comes with having the courage to not give a shit.

Since then, I have had ups and downs with both my own confidence and with my personal style. There was a confusing, post-college era of novelty prints and new-job anxieties. But the overalls have remained a constant, a thing that feels uniquely me.

Today, I own more pairs than I would care to admit — in denim, in soft sweatshirt fabric, chic black ponte, railroad stripes, even brick-colored suede. The original pair currently resides in a plastic bag, lovingly caked in clay from last summer’s pottery class. Many clothes come and go, but those stay, their purpose shifting between practical and aesthetic. Each time I weed out my closet in a fit of Konmari-inspired minimalism, I can’t bring myself to part with them, or any other pair. Overalls are the perfect garment. They offer instant outfits and effortless movement. It is acceptable to splatter paint or mud on them, but it is equally acceptable to buy a trendy black pair and match them with heels. They cover up enough to make you feel safe, but not so much that you feel hidden. They are perfectly designed for adventuring — you can throw one pair in a road trip bag and switch the tops you wear with them for days on end.

Right now, they’re in style again. I see them filling the racks of stores like Urban Outfitters and Madewell in neat, tempting rows, and remind myself of the seven-plus pairs already hanging in my wardrobe. I get compliments from the snarky middle schoolers I teach, which we all know is the ultimate measure of coolness. Eventually, though, the carousel that is fashion will start up again and overalls will fade into the same gray space previously occupied by tattoo chokers. I will slip quietly out of the category of on-trend — and overall, I feel just fine about that.