By Marilyn Brinkman of St. Cloud
Bib overalls are viewed as the “uniform” of choice for many men, especially those with a larger girth. They are pants with a bib that covers the stomach and chest. In most cases, they have buckle-and-button strap closures near both the left and right shoulders. They feature many pockets, including a bib pocket at the chest and several in the legs. Some have a hammer loop. Older men love their comfort.
My brother-in-law and St. Stephen resident, Jerry Mehr, who died Dec. 31, 2022, told me some time ago, that he liked to wear bib overalls when he built furniture in his wood-room. All the extra pockets come in handy, and the bibs keep loose clothing from getting caught in his shop tools and motors.
Bib overalls come in a variety of colors, from canvas white to white and gray strips to denim blue and many shades between. They are comfortable because their roomy fit allows for easy movement. Along with their strong construction and durable fabric, the bib styling protects clothing and skin from spills, cuts and other hazardous working conditions. Mehr mentioned that they kept out the cold at the waist when he fed his livestock and pets.
The very first bib overalls, referred to as “slops,” were created in the 1700s. They were made for the working man, and at the time were considered a symbol of low class. They were not made of denim, but of any tough cloth. They were made for durability, not comfort, and were not fitted particularly well. Many men wore them over another pair of pants and took them off before leaving work.
As run-of-the-mill slops were not ideal for many workers, customization quickly came into play. This included better fit and pockets. They were white for painters, blue for farmers, and pinstripes for railroad workers. Around the 1850s, manufacturers started making them out of denim, a hardy cotton fabric.
On the farm, and in blue-collar occupations, by the 1930s and 1940s, blue denim bib-overalls competed for popularity with Levi waist jeans. I remember my father, Henry Salzl, always had a pocket watch attached with a gold chain neatly tucked in one of his many bib pockets. His pocketknife, snuff box, a pencil stub, handkerchief, nuts, bolts, washers, and maybe a piece or two of candy could be produced at any given time from one of the many pockets.
However, young men, teenagers especially, hated them. They considered them everyday wear for work on the farm, fields, and factories. They were often forced to wear them to school. For school pictures, these boys unbuckled their suspenders and tied them around the waist so they wouldn’t show on the finished picture.
They were ideal, however, for rough and tough toddlers and young boys. Mothers loved them. When these kid-size overalls were featured in the Miles Kimball catalog, sales went through the roof. Little kids could dress like their dads and grandpas. Oshkosh overalls remain a popular children’s garment today.
Bib overalls made the move off the farm and out of the factory onto the streets in the 1960s. More upscale retailers began producing them in high-end fabrics, in many colors. By the 1990s, popular hip-hop artists wore overalls with one strap unbuttoned, which started a trend that made its way through American high schools.
In 2007, actress Cameron Diaz showed up on MTV’s video countdown show Total Request Live wearing a skirt with a bib overall top, proving that overalls were no longer seen simply as the working man’s clothing. Plaid and patterned overalls showed up in boutiques, and soon individuals bought them simply to show off their high-fashion labels.
Wrangler was the first to manufacture bib overalls. Big Smith has been manufacturing them for more than eighty years and are the largest supplier of bib overalls in the world today.
While bib overalls are still very popular with painters, farmers, mechanics, and carpenters, they have moved a long way from their original stigma. Today they can be purchased almost anywhere.
A man in Hendricks, Minnesota, Trygve Trooien, collects bib overalls. He said in an article in The Land magazine that he has over 80 different models representing 42 brands. He also said few brands are still made in the United States but, Round House is one, created in 1903. He regularly shows his overalls when he puts on “Bib Overall Modeling Shows.” He said he wears them all over, even to weddings.
My husband and I recently ushered at a rock concert at The Ledge Amphitheater in Waite Park. Among the guests, I noted two young men sporting stripped overly large and overly decorated, bib overalls! A new trend?
And I’m sure Jerry Mehr’s children and grandchildren will always remember their beloved father and grandfather sporting his versatile overalls.