GORE-TEX Professional Reviews Over 200 Years of the History of the Coverall


From farm workers to astronauts, the evolution of the one-piece suit in workwear has made it standard kit across many industries today, but how exactly has it enabled such a diverse range of practical advancements? Tracing its varied developments uncovers the remarkable answers.

When we think of modern-day coveralls - or boiler suits, as they are commonly known - we picture factory workers, engineers or mechanics in the typically dirt-stained cotton or nylon attire. And when imagining workers in overalls, or dungarees, the decorator in denim will spring to mind. But these garments have in fact been subject to enormous adaptation over time, taking us from military wear to flame retardant suits and even into space travel, by way of their unique potential for providing protection under almost any circumstance. The GORE-TEX brand celebrates the history spanning from very basic coveralls to hi-tech PPE.

History of the coverall

Coveralls: 1815-1885

The industrial revolution, it seems, produced the first version of the coverall: a loose-fitting suit that is still worn today over workers' entire bodies, except the face and hands. Men tasked with cleaning and checking coal-powered locomotive boilers had to climb through a tiny opening into the firebox of the steam train - and hence the name boiler suit. Evidently, negotiating a tight space in such conditions would have soon necessitated a practical one-piece, preventing soot from entering regular clothing and taking precautions against needless hazards - but the heavy canvas suits were soon protecting all kinds of manual labourers, complete with elasticated waistbands and large exterior pockets for tools. The late nineteenth century therefore saw this type of garment spread to global usage and its design hasn't actually changed too much since.

History of the coverall

Overalls: 1775-1940

Their counterpart, however - overalls - provide less protection by nature and their history has not encompassed quite so many industries. Manual labourers made use of practical features such as the bib, which allowed for tools to be carried without the need for a belt. The early twentieth century then saw overalls become even more durable, with buckles instead of buttons to attach straps and waterproof styles in different colours soon becoming available.

A Uniform: 1860-1945

Both coveralls and overalls have been widely adopted and adapted in many different spheres over the years - as official uniforms and simply as a practical measure. Winston Churchill's famed WWII siren suit demonstrated a style invented for modesty and practicality in times of crisis and when women of the era stepped forward to replace men in the workplace, the garment found a whole new legion of wearers. But two occupations that have definitely adopted them in combined purpose are the military and the police. Having long made use of the garment, many different police units around the world still do so today and they are especially popular with SWAT units.

History of the coverall

In Flight: 1917-1960

The use of the one-piece in the military though, centres largely on the flight suit, invented for British pilots during the First World War. Multi-layered to provide essential warmth, the "Sidcot" suit soon replaced leather outfits for high-altitude flying in unheated cockpits. The suits had multiple sealed pockets and were the precursor to more modern flight suits that were widely used by the RAF until the 1950s. Electrically heated suits and cotton suits treated for flame-resistance were also introduced and the G-suit was developed in the decades following WWI to stop fighter jet pilots from passing out due to the speed of their manoeuvres.

History of the coverall

Fire Protection: 1930-2020

Full pressure suits were invented in the 1930s for flying, but they can now take us into space and fully flame-retardant materials are now also used all-round (most notably a lightweight spun aramid developed in the 1960s). Fire-resistance is a key feature of the workwear coverall today for firefighters, laboratory workers and those in the oil and gas industries as well as in many other contexts. Coveralls today must offer protection from the high risk factor of extreme heat and fire, however and wherever this is encountered. Contemporary PPE fabrics, offer high breathability, long-lasting durability and thermal protection.

History of the coverall

Electrical Protection: 1989 – 2020

As far back as 1879, the use of electricity became widespread to illuminate streetlights but research shows scant provision for the protection for those working in this field and numerous injuries and death in service. Surprisingly it wasn’t until 1989 that OSHA Occupational Safety and Health Administration bought in strict regulations to reduce risk and help protect workers.

By late 1995, industry bodies decreed the requirement for protecting workers from electrical arc flash and burning from electrical explosions. About this time, to protect electrical engineers from arc flash hazards many organisations and governing bodies required a worker wearing clothing made from certain fabrics that couldn’t be ignited, burn readily, continue to burn or melt when exposed to flames or electric arcs.

Thankfully today, protection from arc flash and all electrical hazards is widely recognised as crucially important. To protect workers from accidents due to close exposure to electrical equipment, textiles were developed with three layered protection. Although these were highly effective for protection, they clashed with the need for comfort: were heavy, bulky and often hot and sweaty to wear. One recent fabric technology innovation now satisfies the seemingly contradictory needs of protection vs comfort. Arc rated GORE® PYRAD® protective garments are 50% lighter and crucially consist of only one layer, so are much more lightweight, offer breathability and are comfortable to wear.

Fully Suited, 2020

New materials for these suits are constantly being engineered today, whether lighter, moisture-wicking or more breathable. On the racetrack, both mechanics and drivers have worn flame-retardant coveralls for decades and recent styles see the latest technology deployed to keep them cool, comfortable and safeguarded in case of a crash. By contrast, workers needing personal protective equipment for exposure to hazardous materials today often wear impermeable hazmat suits that contain breathing apparatus - firefighters, paramedics, researchers and other emergency workers all require such suits in instances to protect against various chemical and biological dangers. The advanced uses of this kind of attire in the present day continue to evolve and as mentioned previously, wearers now expect not only protection, but comfort, lightness and intelligent wearable designs.

Future Workwear

So, with a progression as varied as this, there is no doubt that coveralls and overalls will undergo further modification in years to come, to cater for the needs of and to benefit by future scientific and technological developments. The workwear of the future will doubtless take into account changes in the needs of industry, the demands of legislation and the comfort and protection of wearers.


About Gore

W. L. Gore & Associates is a global materials science company dedicated to transforming industries and improving lives. Since 1958, Gore has solved complex technical challenges in demanding environments — from outer space to the world’s highest peaks to the inner workings of the human body. With more than 12,000 Associates and a strong, team-oriented culture, Gore generates annual revenues of $4.5 billion. gore.com