How my grandpa’s overalls became an unlikely style hero

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I found my late grandfather’s overalls tucked at the back of the wardrobe. They’d been rescued when we cleared his house after he died in 2015, used by my dad for a while – mostly in the garage – and then ousted when he got a new pair. 

The cotton drill had been worn soft by decades of work, there were oil stains on the knees, a white patch that I suspected was my grandmother’s work. They held the distant smell of laundry, and hot metal, and car.

A civil servant, Grandpa was a dapper man who liked a party: he wore paisley ties, cravats and harlequin-print waistcoats on high days and holidays, and wide-wale corduroys at home. 

I don’t have a memory of him wearing those overalls, but I do recall us gardening together, which I suspect was one of the jobs he did in them. 

To be allowed into the greenhouse was a privilege as a child; in that warm, green fug we’d pot things up together. I’d marvel at his improbable dexterity, stepping over the bags of compost and plant pots strewn across the floor in his mid 90s.

The overalls were, however, too big to be of much use to me in the garden – I tripped over the hems, things fell out of the swagging pockets. When I discovered them again, though, I realised I could get them altered to fit me. 

With the help of Esther Wilson, a designer who makes bespoke clothing, I had the overalls shrunk down to size. Esther kept the wide legs and the high waist, she moved pockets and added a couple of new ones. When I saw them again, I realised she had hand-stitched my initials on the pocket. I’ve been working in the garden in them ever since.

These overalls are something of a holy grail after a long search for clothes to wear in the garden, which need to be warm, tough and mud-resistant. I had Esther keep them large enough so that they perform as their name suggests: over a gilet, over jeans, over all. After gardening, I peel them off and hang them up, ready for the next session – with far less laundry.

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