The Sundance Catalog, as its founder Robert Redford puts it, sells “the kinds of things that we have been privileged to collect, many of them handcrafted exclusively for Sundance.” Named for Redford’s Utah resort and film festival—which were in turn named after his iconic role as the Sundance Kid—the catalog has been burnishing its particular vision of the American West since 1989. Its vision is now earnestly artisanal, grandly scenic, and vaguely Buddhist: high-cheekboned models in distressed leather jackets wear silver jewelry inscribed with sayings like “See Beauty” and “Infinite Love.” Like Redford himself, the Sundance West is both attractively weather-beaten and perfectly turned out. It knows how to build a fire and ride a horse bareback, but it’s innocent of guns, off-road vehicles, mine waste, clearcuts, and subdivisions.
The Sundance West looks, in short, like a pretty nice place, but I’ve never been able to find it.
So I was struck by one of the Sundance Catalog’s newer items, the $248 “Boom Town Jumpsuit.” Described as “the perfect foundation for a bold, yet effortless look,” these denim coveralls are clearly intended to be worn in the Sundance West. But boomtowns, as someone could have told Redford, belong to the Real West.
Whether you’re talking about California Gold Rush towns of the mid-1800s or the Bakken oil-patch camps of today, there’s nothing “effortless” about boomtowns. They’re full of ways to earn money—and fuller of ways to spend it. And they can be horrifically dangerous: The oil and gas industry is six times more dangerous than the average American job, not counting the risk of being beaten to death in a boomtown barfight. Boomtown history is full of crimes against immigrants, Native Americans, and women, and the present is little better. When boomtowns bust, as they invariably do, they often leave behind environmental disasters and deep social scars. (The empty teepees behind the jumpsuit model are sadly appropriate.)
Jumpsuits or coveralls, also called boiler suits, were originally designed not for miners or oil-rig workers but for the guys who maintained the coal-fired boilers in steam-powered trains. Part of their job was to climb inside the metal box where the coal was burned and clean out the built-up soot; the one-piece boiler suit kept them from getting burning coals down their pants, or snagging a belt loop as they wriggled in or out of the narrow opening. Today, coveralls are used for all kinds of manual labor, but in the West in recent years, they’ve become emblematic of the oil-and-gas industry. They come with quilted linings for use on Arctic rigs, and in sturdy flame-resistant cotton to protect against wellsite fires and explosions. They generally cost a lot less than $248.
Of course, designers have been appropriating working-class fashion since Levi Strauss started putting rivets in denim pants, and probably long before. The Sundance Catalog—along with countless other outlets—has for decades fetishized cowboying, another dangerous gig with few prerequisites and uncertain rewards. I don’t know what the catalog’s buyers were thinking when they christened the Boom Town Jumpsuit (they didn’t return my calls), but it’s doubtful that they or their customers have spared much consideration for those who count on coveralls for survival. “What happens in these cases is that the lived experience gets completely evacuated—the clothes become divorced from history,” observes Minh-ha Pham, a professor of media studies at the Pratt Institute. “There’s no thought to the people who actually wear these clothes.”
The Boom Town Jumpsuit is, in other words, a particularly callous expression of a longstanding fashion tradition. While the number of working cowboys in the West is small and shrinking, the ranks of oil-and-gas workers are expanding fast. Last year, 112 of those workers died in their jumpsuits. Just last month, a 35-year-old man named Jared Loftiss was killed in a fire at a Wyoming natural-gas plant. Loftiss was the father of four young boys, and his wife Montanaela had just learned she was pregnant. That makes the Boom Town Jumpsuit look pretty tasteless—and the Sundance West look further away than ever.