Wednesday, July 06, 2011


19 year old riding sensation Mike Hailwood at Aberdare Park in 1958
A certain magic is generated when a separate shirt and trousers are united in a one-piece oufit...why else would generations of artists, thinkers, comic book fans, and perverts find such inspiration in a relatively simple clothing modification?  The story of the 'boilersuit' and its (super)heroic descendants is a curious tale; a purely functional clothing item historically laden with a mix of Utopian hopes, fantasies of superhuman power, and sexual desire.
The boiler crew of the HMS British Sovereign ca.1950
One-piece utility outfits first appeared in the mid 1800s, as 'boilersuits' for crawling into the firebox of coal-burning steam vessels for cleaning, where a gap between jacket and pants could catch on the tight hatch of the 'firehole' (where coal is shoveled into the burner).  Further uses were soon found for the boiler suit, especially where dust, rain, or cold could enter a vulnerable gap at the waist.  By the turn of the 20th century, some industrial manufacturers required one-piece suits at work, and the boiler suit came to be seen as a symbol of industrial progress.
World Champion John Surtees attending his AJS special in a boiler suit
It was Adolf Loos - architect, acerbic journalist, enemy of Decoration - who first declared the one-piece industrial suit as the ideal expression of Modern dress, devoid of superfluous frills.  The utter lack of fashion potential was perfection for Loos, who railed against all decorative flourishes in architecture, penning the seminal essay 'Ornament and Crime' in 1908, seeing simplicity and 'clean' design as an almost Moral necessity.  The only way humanity could save itself from destruction, he felt, was to embrace an aesthetic freed from cultural baggage, and move forward into a modern coveralls.
Rodchenko's Soviet coveralls of 1921
Irascible Adolf Loos had a profound impact among Modern architects and Utopian thinkers, and the one-piece suit became the cliché uniform of the modern worker-citizen.  In support of the Soviet 'experiment', Constructivist artists Alexander Rodchenko and Vladimir Tatlin each designed coveralls by 1921, to be worn by all Soviet workers.  At the same time, Le Corbusier wore workers' coveralls as an expression of his Utopian theory of the mechanization of modern life, with houses as 'machines for living', adoration of Henry Ford's mass-production techniques, and belief that assembly lines and industrialization were the model for humanity's salvation from itself.  Many Bauhaus artists and thinkers were similarly drawn to the one-piece suit, for the same idealistic reasons. 
Fritz Lang's workers dystopia of 'Metropolis'
Other artists, such as Fritz Lang in his remarkable 1926 film 'Metropolis', saw the industrial worker's suit as the very symbol of a Dystopian future, reducing people to replaceable mechanical automatons and neglecting the messy beautiful heart of humanity.  And indeed, by the 1930s, the icons of the Modernists had lost their lustre; the Soviet Union had devolved into Stalinist totalitarianism (imprisoning avant-garde artists and intellectuals), while Henry Ford gave hundreds of thousands of dollars to Adolf Hitler, who had a very different uniform in mind for Germany. 
Ripe for parody; Devo used the 'universal worker' outfit to advantage
But none of this was the fault of the boiler suit! The usefulness of having no gap between trousers and jacket became apparent for different applications; rainproofing and warmth.  During WW1, pilots of open-cockpit biplanes needed protection to fly in inclement weather, which inspired Sydney Cotton to invent the one-piece 'Sidcot' flight suit, in 1917:
Cold-weather Sidcot flying suits ca.1918
 "In the winter of 1916, several members of his squadron returned from a mission practically frozen. Sidney Cotton, however, was not troubled by the cold, a fact which he attributed to his oily overalls which he did not have time to change out of in the scramble to get airborne. He concluded that the oil sealed the fabric and trapped a layer of warm air next to the body. He had his tailor make up a special suit of a light Burberry material [waterproof cotton gabardine] with a lining of thin fur and air-proof silk together with fur cuffs and neck. He registered his design as the "Sidcot Suit" which was worn extensively thereafter [until 1950 in the RAF]...when Manfred von Richthofen was shot down, he was found to be wearing a suit of similar design."  ('Aviator Extraordinary', Barker, 1969)
Another early example of a Sidcot suit, without fur trim
Coveralls were also worn by early automobilists and motorcyclists, typically to protect streetwear beneath.  These were invariably made of cotton, sometimes waxed, and appeared in motorized transport by 1900, a very dusty period with unpaved roads and open vehicles.  As cars became enclosed by the 1920s, they shed specialized clothing, but motorcyclists continued their exposure to the elements, and coveralls of various types are still popular, now called 'riding suits'.
Geoff Duke on the first appearance of the Norton Featherbed frame, April 1950
Racing a motorcycle requires a more stubborn material than waxed cotton, and the leather one-piece racing suit was allegedly invented by six-time World Champion Geoff Duke in 1950, when he instructed his tailor to wrap his body in form-fitting leather.  Duke reckoned the baggy two-piece 'Brooklands' racing outfits worn by professional bike racers since the 1920s were causing all sorts of aerodynamic drag, and he was right.  Riding his Norton against the technically superior European 4-cylinder machines, Duke's riding skill and the visual appeal of his tight black outfit made him a huge star in the popular press, and ladies swooned for him as they would for a movie star. The form-fitting one-piece leather suit very soon became, and remains, the only legitimate motorcycle track-racing outfit.
Anke-Eve Goldmann on her brand-new BMW R69, in 1955
Another pioneer of the leather racing suit, for women in love with speed and motorcycles, was Anke-Eve Goldmann, the stylish and talented moto-hearthrob of 1950s Germany.  As one of a rare cadre of women racers, AEG wanted the same advantages as Geoff Duke, and designed her own form-fitting one-piece leather racing suit to be made by Harro, with modifications accommodating her feminine figure - the obvious tailoring changes, plus a diagonal zipper across the chest.  Anke-Eve, initially reviled in 1950s Germany for daring to be herself, soon gained respect of motorcyclists around the world with her journalism (published as far afield as the US and Japan) and riding skill.  Typical for women at the time, she was barred from official road-racing competition (except 'ladies races', which she always won), but she wore her svelte leather racing gear on the roads of Europe in all weathers, including the Elephant Rally in mid-winter Germany, many times.
Anke-Eve Goldmann and her BMW R69 with aftermarket Heinrich tank
Anke-Eve, a highly visible and charismatic person, drew the attention of writer André Pieyre de Mandiargues, who befriended and corresponded with her.  The central character of his book 'The Motorcycle' (1963) was clearly based on a fantasy of Ms Goldmann, as 'Rebecca' rides her Harley-Davidson across Switzerland, naked under her black leather one-piece riding suit, to meet her paramour in Heidelberg.
Marianne Faithfull riding her Harley Davidson Duo-Glide in 'Girl on a Motorcycle'
De Mandiargues' book was made into the 1968 film 'Girl on a Motorcycle', starring a very young Marianne Faithfull as a speed-mad vixen, riding 'naked under leather' (the European title), fantasizing about her lover while masturbating on the vibratory saddle nose of her Harley, dying at the climax.  (Intriguingly, Marianne Faithfull is the Baroness Sacher-Masoch, and her great uncle Leopold von Sacher-Masoch will be remembered eternally for writing 'Venus in Furs', the source of the term Masochist) A serious woman like Anke-Eve Goldmann, attempting to gain respect as a rider, journalist, and feminist, was not impressed with the fetishization of her riding attire.
Marianne Faithfull as Rebecca
But long before Marianne Faithfull donned her fur-lined leather suit on film, Diana Rigg zipped into her own skintight outfit in The Avengers television series, making Emma Peel a crime-fighting fetish goddess in 1961, the show understandably becoming the longest-running TV serial for decades.  Emma Peel's outfit was an obvious nod towards comic book heroines...
Diana Rigg as Emma Peel from the Avengers
Being tall, blonde, and beautiful in a tight-fitting leather suit had been the stuff of men's dreams for 15 years before AEG donned her custom riding gear, and 20 years before Emma Peel high-heel kicked baddies to the floor.  In the comics, the Cat (later Catwoman) began to sexually vex the hugely popular Batman as early as 1940, wearing what became the 'catsuit'. Muscular men in skintight outfits had been around only a few years more, Superman having flown into pulp by 1938.
Julie Newmar as Catwoman
By 1966, Catwoman leapt from pulp to screen, purring her way to Batman's heart in the wonderfully camp television series, actress Julie Newmar making her own best possible catsuit from Lurex, not leather. The magic of her one-piece, just as with Mrs. Peel, conjured visions of feminine dominance and aggressive sexuality, even among innocent young boys (like myself) who had never laid eyes on fetish porn.  Everyone, male and female, felt instantly the switch of electric current generated by a confident woman in a black leather bodysuit; while male heroes in similar outfits evoke strength, physicality, and danger, a woman clad thus is a total inversion of traditional sex roles, poking a gloved finger into some ancient part of men's brains, driving them absolutely nuts with desire.
Giacomo Agostini on a very early MV Agusta 4-cylinder racer
The parallel worlds of fantasy and reality met in the persons of Anke-Eve Goldman and the road-racing men of the 1950s and 60s, who all gained a spark of superhero magic in their sleek black outfits, hammering out epic battles while crouched on howling machines.  Not surprisingly, motorcycle racers became sex symbols at the same time they slipped into a second skin, and Geoff Duke yielded to youngsters Mike Hailwood and Giacomo Agostini, the real-life hot young Supermen of the 1960s.
All the young dudes; Agostini, Hailwood, Phil Read (foreground), Bill Ivy
And while Superheros caught the public's imagination, it was Motorcycling heroes who wore 'the suit' in real life.


The Velobanjogent said...

Interesting your comment about Geoff Duke "inventing" the one piece leathers in 1950.
Bertie Goodman of Velocette always claimed this was wrong and that he had such a suit in the late 1940's. Without checking his actual comment I can't pin the date down.

the albion braidwood said...


and i will kill anyone who disagrees with me...

that is the probably the most amazing post ever.

adolf loos (anyone not read ornament and crime do yourselves a favour)
early constuctivist theory and suprematism, malevich, rodchenko, mayakovsky, lissitsky, tatlin
back to geoff duke
anke eve goldman and a masturbating marianne faithful and next that catwoman of my childhood raping my childhood dreams...the sexiness makes me feel guilty...even now (my christian brother upbringing of course)
and finish with ago, mike, read and mr ivy....

what the hell are you thinking giving us a post like that...

the end.

Jim said...

Through the fog of time and age, I remember my umm, excitement in youth of images of Ms. Rigg, Ms. Faithful and the purring Ms. Newmar in their boiler suits. And AEG, all in a studious piece on the development of riding gear.

Thanks Paul.

Anonymous said...

Agostini on the first MV 3-Cylinder?

Pipérade said...

Now go and have a lie down in a darkened room after that!
I hadn't realised that it was that great stylist Geoff Duke who'd pioneered the one piece suit..
I must be honest, I much prefer those period suits to the ones worn today - too flash by far.

Hodge said...

That last sentence nailed it. Great article, great photos.


Dave Roper said...

Paul, I think World Champion John Surtees in his boiler suit is attending to his AJS 7R special, not his Norton. Dave Roper

The Vintagent said...

@ Dennis; I've never heard this - please find his claim in print!

@ Albion; the subject is the best can of worms Topsy, 'it just growed' just took a walk inside my head.

@Dave; you are of course right! Thanks for the correction. I was looking at the suit! ;)

Anonymous said...

A good read, thanks for posting.
- Walter W

Anonymous said...

Does Sandy from Grease count, or am I projecting.....?

GuitarSlinger said...

Emma Peel in the original Avengers . I'll say no more ....... Phew ! ;o)

( @ Paul ; You and I must be of a similar age )

matt machine said...

sorry paul...didnt mean to comment with my other hat on....


Anonymous said...

Wow, Paul, as observed, one of your richest, if not the richest, posts in all these years. Where to go with this one?

Joan Jett and especially Suzie Quatro spring to mind, of course, and if you don't mind crossing gender lines, there's Jim Morrison who did more for leather pants than anyone I can think of and, closer to you, Peter Berlin, still going strong from what I can tell in SF, four decades plus since _Nights in Black Leather_ blazed its way across the grind houses in Times Square and (presumably) the Tenderloin. If you want to get into epigones, there's David Hasselhoff of course, far bigger in Germany--where else?--than here although the entertainment news today reports he's got a new TV gig this fall. I'll never forget entering Turbine Rosenheim in (at the time still West) Berlin and running into a larger than life-size _Knight Rider_ poster that was the essence of cool. His only competitor (poster, that is) was John Travolta in his white disco suit. And Travolta went black leather later, right?

I have a feeling there's lots more. What were Death's messengers wearing in _Orphee_, subject of one of your recent posts? And all those great British sci-fi/end-of-the-world films of the '50s and '60s? I have a vague sense there were lots of boiler/tank suits in them.

In any case, great fun. Thanks, as always.

Marianne still, my heart....


James J. Ward
Professor of History
Director, Honors Program
Cedar Crest College

The Vintagent said...

Hi Jim,

I've been trying to get an interview with Marianne, but she's on tour. She'll be part of a writing project about a French'll know if it happens!

Regarding the rich subject matter in this post; the many threads of thought coursing through my head sometimes tangle unexpectedly, as in this muse on the Onesie.

Regarding the gay/leather/moto connection; I'm working on it, as the elements have been mentioned on The Vintagent already. 'Scorpio Rising', 'The Leather Boys', 'The Loveless', etc., all terribly homoerotic or explicitly homosexual.
The first gay motorcycle club was formed in LA in '54 - the Satyrs. Was it a coincidence 'The Wild One' came out the year before? Lee Marvin's gang in that film (the Beetles) were the types who actually got laid, while Marlon Brando, bent in real life, was hesitant with an obviously willing Mary Murphy. Did Johnny secretly prefer his leather mates? Only Kenneth Anger knows for sure...

Watch out bikoblogosphere, you're gonna get outed! Haha...

Anonymous said...

Great read with some even better pics. As a Formula One I enjoyed seeing Hailwood and Surtess.
Steve B.

Anonymous said...

Love the cat suits....
Johnathan B

Anonymous said...

Pablo, I always knew you were a pervert masquerading as a historian. Now this confirms it! :) -JZ

Don O'Reilly said...

Great post Paul. Though I seldom give leather much of a thought (it doesn't keep very well in the tropics) I must remind us all that one man's perversion is another man's diversion!

Red Fred said...

Hi ya Paul,
Me thinks you may have missed the main point of the one-piece jump suit. It was really to avoid the dreaded "Plumber's crack". Something we are all pissed off about with the Cat Women suit.
Miss Peel was attractive, but the Blower Bentley took the cake. One could get plural Miss Peels with such a machine.
Good on ya, RF.

GreginAdelaide said...

Hey Paul,
I think you may have posted a link to this film of Joe Wright and Freddie Barnes some time back.

I remember that white suit that Freddie wore.....and Joe playfully zipping him up to the chin after Freddie blew smoke in his face...
I knew zippers were no new invention and have always been meaning to check up on their history.
But I digress, those one-piece coveralls do nothing to make Freddie look sexy, a real bag-arse.......haha

Greg in Adelaide

GreginAdelaide said...

Oops! Not sure, but I might ahve forgotten to repost that link, so just in case.....

and if anyone hasn't seen it, do yourself a favour, it's an interesting little piece.
Greg in Adelaide

daveinnola said...

what no italian mechanics in their lightweight zipped blue suits

The Velobanjogent said...

Regarding Duke and the one piece leathers... I emailed the article on Bertie Goodman to you separately...for those following your blog it was in Oct. 1970 "Motorcyclist Illustrated", an interview of Bertie Goodman by Dave Minton.
The relevant passage is..
"..I helped myself to some more apple sauce, and commented on Geoff Duke's valuable contribution to the slipstream battle, by his adoption of one-piece tight leathers. "He simply had better publicity than me," grinned Bertie, 'in the 1947 Ulster I used a retailorcd German paratrooper's one-piece leather suit. It took me into third place in the Junior race. In 1947 remember, racing kit was non-existent and my tight one-piece suit therefore unique."
Regards...DQ,The Velobanjogent.

Hairy Larry said...

Great post. Ahhhh Miss Peel...yeah, reminded me of a time when I met General Curtis E. LeMay at Meeks Bay at Lake Tahoe around 1971. He was standing around the Marina inspecting the fleet of pleasure boats, chompin' on a cigar and wearing a one-piece suit. It seems a lot of retired military were sporting oddly colored one piece mechanics suits around that period. My neighbor, at the time,flew P-39's in the war, and he spent most of his time in a one-piece suit working on his Hotrod Studebaker.

Anonymous said...

As usual, females co-opt our clothes with the usual degrading of a menswear style into something " only feminine "; therefore lost forever as masculine style fashion. Numerous examples of such loss by female 's covetness/ jealousy of masculine wear such as : stirrup pants,leather pants, skinny pants,bodysuits,equestrian boots, sleek military boots, ala , German armies of the past, skinny pants tucked into tall or cowboy boots; etc. . The ooposite is never true and menswear variety shrinks big-time corrolating to females'great expansiveness of their fashion choices; such anti-male bigotry and sexism ! As a teen-age boy, Emma peel was the " hottest " fermale ever; fantasied of loving her; then donning that sexy male garment for myself !

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