What Is a Jumpsuit?

No one really knows.

Solange Knowles, Miley Cyrus and Iggy Azalea.
Solange Knowles, Miley Cyrus, and Iggy Azalea.

Photo illustration by Juliana Jiménez. Photo by Thomas Concordia/Getty Images.

Just as one man’s treasure is another’s trash, one woman’s fashionable confidence booster is another woman’s auto-mechanic cosplay nightmare.

I’m talking, of course, about the jumpsuit. I never so much decided that jumpsuits weren’t for me as I simply observed their results on the litmus test my brain automatically administers to all clothing styles: yes to pintucks and block heels, no to jumpsuits and to rompers (the Skipper to the jumpsuit’s Barbie). But even with a zero-tolerance policy in effect, I’ve noticed that jumpsuits keep popping up unbidden in my online shopping travels. I’ll be scrolling through the dresses at the Gap (which, its struggles notwithstanding, I still make a point of checking out) when there among the maxis and minis, in all opposition to the definition of the word dress, will be the racerback romper. In a more aspirational mood, I’ll be eyeing the pants and shorts offerings at Madewell only to be confronted with an engineer jumpsuit. Ninjas wear jumpsuits, and that suddenly makes sense, because dang, these things are sneaky.

We can attribute this categorical confusion to the jumpsuit’s relatively recent emergence. Last year Fashionista hailed the jumpsuit as “fashion’s new moneymaker,” an opportunity for brands to convince shoppers that a staple was missing from their wardrobes. Some e-commerce outlets followed up on the jumpsuit hype by making room on their menu bars for them. On Shopbop’s clothing drop-down menu, for example, jumpsuits/rompers are a category of their very own alongside skirts and jeans. Other sites, however, lump in jumpsuits with dresses: Nordstrom, for example, lists them as a “style” of dress, which is like saying that forks are a style of spoon.

As culottes and “boyfriend” cuts push pant openings to ever wider diameters, is the quality of having two legs no longer a meaningful distinction? On still other sites, a jumpsuit is basically a glorified pair of pants, like on ModCloth, where they frolic among the shorts and other bottoms. Is it possible that I could buy some pants—that turned out to be a jumpsuit? With a name like jumpsuit, should they maybe be in, I don’t know, the suiting category? Perhaps next to a selection of Janelle Monáe–style lady-tuxedos? They’re also technically onesies—should we add some footies, move them to the Adult Baby section, and call it a day?

Because I am a copy editor, I turned for reassurance to Webster’s New World Dictionary, which defines jumpsuit as “a coverall worn by paratroops, garage mechanics, etc.,” or “a lounging outfit somewhat like this.” It is demonstrably neither a dress (“an outer garment for women, having a skirt and usually made in one piece”) nor pants (“an outer garment extending from the waist to the knees or ankles and divided into separate coverings for the legs”). And yet jumpsuits often lurk around dresses and pants online, masquerading as the kind of item you ordinarily buy—two-legged wolves in sheep’s clothing.

Why has a consensus emerged that the jumpsuit’s closest evolutionary link is the dress? I asked Claire Mazur, one of the founders of Of a Kind, a company that specializes in selling pieces by emerging designers online. “When I’m looking for a dress, it’s usually because I want something that’s one-piece and easy and kind of dressy,” Mazur said. “So I don’t mind if I’m looking in the dress category and a jumpsuit pops up. I think to myself, Oh, I wasn’t necessarily looking for a jumpsuit, but that might actually work for me in this situation.” Which confirms the hypothesis that the jumpsuit is an undercover agent, infiltrating the dress department in its ninja disguise. By the time you notice you’ve got two legs rather than a skirt, it’s too late. We’re talking prom jumpsuits, flight attendant jumpsuits, first-communion jumpsuits, nun-habit jumpsuits, bridesmaids’ jumpsuits, the works.

So then why are jumpsuits also grouped with pants (or “bottoms” at Anthropologie)? “Maybe because you can throw a sweater on top of a jumpsuit or a jacket?” Mazur guessed. “The pants feel like the more important part of the jumpsuit to me. The top feels less consequential.” And yet without the top, there is no jumpsuit. There’s also a continuum—some jumpsuits are more pantslike than others. “The new thing is jumpsuits that are really just pants with straps attached to them, kind of like suspenders-slash-lederhosen,” Mazur said. “So in that situation, it’s definitely all about the pants, ’cause it’s really just a pair of pants with a strap attached to it.”

Regardless of how they’re peddled, jumpsuits have a gestalt unto themselves. Whereas their sibling the romper gives off more of a “weekend, playful vibe,” as Mazur explained, jumpsuits can have a commanding, power-suit quality—an attitude that some companies are eager to embrace. “Jumpsuits are our thing,” confirmed a Madewell spokeswoman via email when I asked about the brand’s decision to dedicate precious Web pixels to an “overalls & jumpsuits” grouping. It’s a statement: Jumpsuits are here to stay.

“We added a Jumpsuit category to our site about 8 months ago, when it became clear to me that it was becoming an ongoing category for us,” emailed Kristen Lee Cole, the creative director and head buyer at the online and brick-and-mortar boutique TenOverSix. “They are not pants, not dresses, and such a specific purchase that we wanted to make it easy for Jumpsuit girls to find them.” This Jumpsuit girl—who is she, aside from everything I’m not? Is she just a market-tested avatar on which to project all my insecurities? Long legs, that’s a given. Possibly a penchant for music festivals. Certainly an active Instagram presence, peppered with shots of her jumping in the air while wearing a jumpsuit. I have the feeling she coordinates with her friends about who is allowed to wear jumpsuits when, so as to avoid cheapening the jumpsuit’s allure. Or maybe that’s more of a Romper girl move.

Jumpsuit girls may look like they have it all figured out. They may in fact float above the inanities of categorization. But as Mazur observed, the lifestyle does bring with it at least one complication: “Give me a call when you want to talk about going to the bathroom in jumpsuits.”