Writer and broadcaster

The return of the siren. The New Statesman

Sometimes, fashion can be like a loving mother – blind to the faults of its offspring and periodically pushing them to the forefront of the trend queue in the hope that, this time, they will have their moment of glory. The jumpsuit is one such runt, and this season it is being foisted upon us from all angles.

In a way, such fashion hiccups are useful. They highlight those in society with no mind of their own, those unable to discriminate between the hype and the hopeless. This is an especially handy signal for recruiting members of political parties; should Iain Duncan Smith wish to swell the ranks, his pixies could do worse than comb the streets this spring and summer, looking for people wearing all-in-ones.

Jumpsuits seem like such a good idea. You step in and you’re dressed. No fuss about co-ordinating tops and bottoms, no tucking in. They are quite cosy, and can be comfortable and practical if you plan to jump out of a plane or use Nitromors to strip the paint off your car. In theory, they should work as a mere fashion item, not least because they appeal to the reluctant adult in all of us; there’s something playful about them – you feel that you can get mucky in them.

But there are two fundamental problems with the suit of jump: they flatter no one (save for Marianne Faithfull in Girl on a Motorcycle and Elvis Presley, when he played a racing driver in the film Spinout) and going to visit Mr Toilet necessitates an entire strip. To facilitate movement, they need to be roomy – around the waist and “rise” (or crotch) in particular, otherwise sitting or crouching becomes a painful business. Yet this bagginess is the very thing that makes them so unflattering. This is why they have never become a fashion essential, and never will.

For the most fashion-observant, and this includes most of our readership, jumpsuits will seem like last year’s news. Weren’t they being trumpeted back then? Yes, they were. The brainwashing started late last summer. Jennifer Lopez had been seen wearing a military flight suit whilst showing no sign of enlisting; the pop stars Pink and Ms Dynamite also started wearing “boiler suits”; and this year’s Charlie’s Angels sequels will feature jumpsuits. Heady evidence, I admit.

Despite attempts to provide us with the means to fuel our addiction – even House of Fraser was offering a corduroy version last autumn – no one really took the baton. So this February and March, when the catwalks were showing the looks for autumn/winter 2003, jumpsuits were once again on parade. Roberto Cavalli showed motorcycle-inspired ones; Blaak had them in denim; Puff Daddy, in his guise as “Sean John”, showed “cargo” versions, promp-ting the New York Times to come to the obvious conclusion that it was “war and peace on the catwalk”.

But what the industry really needed was a proper war to tie up a ridiculous fashion trend with some sort of pur-pose . . . quite missing the point that no land force, save for its mechanics, wears all-in-ones on a regular basis.

Jumpsuits did indeed feature heavily in the civilian wardrobe during the Second World War, but not as items of mere fashion. Then they were known as “siren suits”. Many war children’s earliest memories are of being zipped in to their siren suits. The director Ridley Scott, whose father worked with Winston Churchill, distinctly remembers his: “I was five when my mother zipped me in to one of those siren suits and put me on the train for the north, to get out of London – one of those little kids, with a label round his neck.”

The most famous wearer of siren suits was Churchill. He wore his a great deal during the war: he needed to be able to jump out of bed at the sound of the air raid siren, and grab something comfortable, warm and easy to get into. In the 1920s, Churchill bought Chartwell, his house near Westerham, Kent; he watched his bricklayers (whom he would soon join to build his own wall), dressed in their boiler suits. Churchill decided this was a very practical garment for him and had various zip-up suits made in different fabrics for different activities. He even sat for a portrait wearing one made of blue serge.

He loved his all-in-ones so much that he would even work on his own paintings wearing a smock over his siren suit – making for a Hitchcockian silhouette.

Churchill’s most famous siren suits were those he had made in red, green or blue velvet (here was a man who understood that being casual need never mean slumming it), which he would wear at home, often with matching, crested slippers. (The green velvet version is on display at Chartwell.)

But even Churchill was not immune to the annoyances of the jumpsuit. He sometimes had trouble with his zip when he needed to “go”. One of his bodyguards, Sergeant Edmund Murray, recalled him “roaring when he was having trouble with his zip fastener”.

Sadly, Churchill is not with us today to add weight to the jumpsuit’s fashion agenda. Tony . . . perhaps?


Originally published in The New Statesman on 28 April 2003.