Overalls and the Everyday Elegance of Chance the Rapper


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Philip Burke

Obsolescence is the engine of style, and the sad fate of any fashionable garment is to die after each season, as the fashion historian Olivier Saillard once said. Yet there is at least one article of clothing that is seemingly inoculated against this inevitable death sentence. And that is overalls.

The thought came to me not long ago as I wandered the aisles of the Tractor Supply Company in Warsaw, Va., population 1,512, passing the aisles of posthole diggers, egg incubators and udder balm. Not far from a carousel of straw Stetsons drifting suspended like windmill blades I came upon two racks of $69 Carhartt overalls that struck me as the most covetable things I had seen in some time.

That I suddenly burned to possess those overalls had little to do with any yard work I had left unfinished. In a year in which I traveled to Tokyo, Florence, Milan and Paris — places where otherwise sensible people speak of things like “sprezzatura” — the most compelling stuff to be seen on the street or runway could have come off the racks of this farm and garden store.

One thinks of the influence of work wear on recent collections by Demna Gvasalia at his own label, Vetements, and also Balenciaga; by Junya Watanabe in his North Face work, with Carhartt jackets slashed up, turned inside out and resewn; and of Kim Jones, the gifted men’s wear designer at Louis Vuitton, who nudged Wall Street fat cats into boiler suits.

Tractor Supply Company was on trend, I found myself thinking. And yet it is most likely the other way around.

Amnesia being a chronic condition in fashion, I would hardly expect designers to engage with the historical factors — the Industrial Revolution, the Gold Rush, the Great Depression and several World Wars — that led to the development and adoption of an egalitarian coverall suitable for workers of either traditional sex. What’s surprising, though, is that in its embrace of a garment designed for the factory floor or the barnyard, fashion neglected to remember that it had been down this road before.

Way back in the 1930s, the couturier Elsa Schiaparelli devised zip-fastened coveralls she referred to as “shelter suits.” She was followed by the American dressmaker Claire McCardell; the French designers Sonia Rykiel and Agnes B.; and, in the benighted 1980s, Thierry Mugler, who created overalls with shoulders so ludicrously padded they made the wearer look like a Constructivist spinning top.

It may not be altogether true that the American designer Patrick Kelly did more than anyone else to put overalls on the global fashion map. Yet it is safe to say that, in transforming this simple garment into an emblem of high style, the Mississippi-born Kelly laid the groundwork for designs like those worn by Chance the Rapper, a musician whose stage uniform is, as an entertainment publication recently noted, “redefining hip-hop style, one pair of overalls at a time.”

Don’t take The Hollywood Reporter’s word for it. Ask anyone who saw Chance the Rapper at the MTV Video Music Awards show or on a recent “Saturday Night Live” appearance performing his churchy hit “Finish Line/Drown.” Clad in crayon-red overalls by the Chicago designer Sheila Rashid and a New Era 3 cap, the rapper was the embodiment of work wear transmuted into something more powerful than mere fashion.

“A guy in overalls is a statement,” said Sasha Jenkins, the director of “Fresh Dressed,” a 2015 documentary about the evolution of hip-hop style.

The statement is one of solidarity with the music’s originators, Mr. Jenkins said, as well as a subtle dig at the more studious followers of high fashion among the ranks of today’s major hip-hop stars. By choosing a work wear item as his onstage uniform, Chance the Rapper taps into realities remote from the runways of Paris and Milan.

“It’s not about trying to count how many carats are in someone’s crucifix pendant,” Mr. Jenkins said.

Humble and egalitarian, overalls, even custom-designed, are an emblem of working class pride, the director added.

“It’s like when Run-D.M.C. came along and wore the stuff that everyday people wore in the ’hood,” Mr. Jenkins said. “The energy of that look had real connectivity to the community.”

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