Tuesday, November 24, 2009

Clothes make the Man

Tonight, as I have for more than thirty years, I folded a pair of overalls and stuffed them into the armoire. The armoire is not an elegant cabinet and the clothes inside are a motley bunch. The first shelf is full of t-shirts and flannel shirts; the bottom shelf has overalls and some shorts. The white t shirts need to be bleached. The colored shirts are bleached by sun and Maytag. The summer t shirts have an 'x' marking the spot where the overall straps protect fabric and farmer. The winter shirts are snagged, fringed, raveled. They are usually consigned to the rag bag when there is more elbow than sleeve.
There is a closet with clothes on hangers; several fairly nice suits, probably a half dozen shirts under a year old with clean unraveled collars. A half dozen more that will pass for casual or family events. A rainbow of 'Farm Bureau' polo shirts. But the closet doesn't tell the tale of the man and his occupation.
I know farmers cannot be lumped together and categorized neatly by a single stereotype. Not every farmer is an overall aficionado. These days more sport jeans as a uniform; my great uncle, a Western rancher, wore pressed jeans with his cowboy hat. Those were his work clothes. But as a generalization, as an illustration in any book you can name, a farmer wears overalls.
There is good reason. My husband's overalls can carry nearly every item essential to almost any situation he's likely to encounter during a typical day. He'll have gloves in one back pocket and a bandanna in the other. His billfold and cell phone and pen and reading glasses are in the chest pocket. Half a roll of paper towels, wadded up, a handful of self tapping screws and a sample of whatever plant tags we are using could be in one deep pocket. During fall, a big enough test of whatever grain we are harvesting. Usually, lots of change, a straw wrapper, maybe a wadded up styrofoam cup, a couple of receipts. A pocket knife, if he hasn't set it down somewhere.
But the business end of the overalls is the pliers pockets...two screwdrivers, one each flavor. Pliers. Vise grips. Box end wrenches. And the hammer in the hammer loop. The pliers pockets on any pair of overalls were never intended to carry the tool box this farmer wields; they are always the first to wear and tear, to much weeping and gnashing of teeth. This farmer will never sneak up on anyone; like a knight of old, the clanking of armor announces his arrival.
I am not doctrinaire with regard to overalls. During these thirty years, I've bought Dickies and Big Mac, overalls from J.C. Penney and Sears, overalls of denim and duck. Overalls with the engineers stripe. The blue and white striped ones always remind me of Grandpa H. His overalls were faded nearly to baby blue and as soft as flannel. His shirts were chambray and soft as well. He could have been tinted like the oldest color photographs were, the colors were so pale and fine.
A well worn pair of overalls is even cool in the summer. Nothing binding with lots of space for the breeze to blow. Overalls are cozy in winter with plenty of room to layer with long johns.
I know the image of agriculture is not always well served by overalls. Our forebears in the 30s looked worn, weary, beaten down in the photographs that are preserved. Some farmers have used overalls as a political statement, defiantly proclaiming their inability to either adapt or succeed with their apparel. But that doesn't keep me from admiring the sheer utility and versatility of the garment: rather like the man who wears them.

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