The Wonder of the Union Suit

When I was in college, I had a hankering for a union suit, which is essentially a long-john onesy. I was studying geology and found myself in situations where I needed additional warmth. Since a union suit would be both amusing and practical,  I asked for one for Christmas. This was in the 1970’s, when outdoor technical clothing was in its infancy–down jackets were just becoming a thing–and finding a wool-blend union suit wasn’t that easy.  Cotton, I feared, wouldn’t be warm enough. My mom, bless her, managed to find an bright red union suit made of a wool-cotton blend and gave it to me for Christmas. How I loved my union suit. I was the only girl I knew who owned one. I had it for 20 years before I made the error of storing it in the garage in a container that mice got into. I think you know the

 rest of the story. (Insert very sad face here.)

Interestingly, even though it is common to associate union suits with men–prospectors, old west cowboys, etc–the garment was originally made for women as an alternative to restrictive clothing during the middle and late Victorian age. The union suit was created in Utica, New York in 1868, and was billed as “emancipation union under flannel”. It was a one-piece garment made of red flannel with buttons up the front and a drop-seat in the back.  The union suit was so practical in terms of comfort and warmth that it soon became popular with men. Men being men, it was not uncommon for a union suit to be worn all week, or even all winter. I once read an account of one man who’s leg hair grew through his union suit and he had to be cut out of it before receiving medical attention. Uh….

Okay, then.

 

The union suit continued in popularity, primarily as a working man’s garment, until the mid 20th century. As time passed, long johns–two piece thermal undergarments–gained popularity, eventually bypassing the union suit. The union suit survives, however, and is much easier to find than now than in the 1970’s when I made my Christmas request.

Do you have any experiences with or know of any anecdotes about union suits?

Happy Wednesday!

 

Jeannie Watt
Jeannie Watt raises cattle in Montana and loves all things western. When she's not writing, Jeannie enjoys sewing, making mosaic mirrors, riding her horses and buying hay. Lots and lots of hay.

18 Comments

  1. What a wonderful blog! Thank you! I had no idea that union suits started for women first. After the frigid winter we just barely survived, I’m thinking this may be a good idea for next year since we live in a very, very cold 225-year-old farmhouse. (I love history, but as I get older I sometimes wonder what the draw was of living in history! 🙂 )

    1. Your home sounds fascinating, Eliza! One thing about old construction–there’s rarely enough (if any) insulation. I heartily recommend a union suit to keep warm!

  2. No experience or stories about union suits here. All I can think of is how I would sweat to death in it. I cringed when I read about the man who’s leg hair grew through it. I would imagine this guy was single because no wife would let a man wear something that long.

    1. Agreed, Janine. I was grossed out…but had to pass the story along. 😉

  3. I am so sad to say that I have never heard of the union suit before. My husband is retired from the state police and had long johns for those cold nights but they were not a union suit.

    1. Long johns are handier in many respects, but there’s something about climbing into an adult onsey that is so comforting.

  4. My grandmother always wore a union suit, but hers were only to the knee. Every Christmas we had to go into NYC to buy them at Bloomingdale’s, the only place we knew carried them! Grandma has been gone for 42 years, so I doubt they are still available there. I wonder if the Vermont Country Store catalog has them…

    1. That is so fascinating, Karen! I’ll have to check my Vermont Country Store catalog. I’ve seen pictures of the knee length suits. Probably handier with skirts.

  5. Thank you for sharing your great post. No stories this direction!

    1. You’re welcome, Melanie!

  6. Avatar

    My dad used to keep a red union suit in his wardrobe. He’s a cattleman. I’ll never forget I had some friends over for my birthday one year, which is in November. We were outside playing basketball and my Dad came out in his red union suit, a pair of shorts, a hawaiian shirt and he had on his cowboy boots to complete his ensemble asking to join us. We left him of course. Lol

    1. What a picture, Stephanie! Your dad sounds like a lot of fun!

  7. We’ve always worn Long Johns but my son has a pair of red union suit he wears all the time. They open up in the back too. I don’t know if they are a real pair of the Union Suit.
    Stephanie Jenkins Ortiz Carrillo that’s so funny what your dad did. Sounds like something my dad would do.

    1. Yay for your son, Pam! I’m glad to hear that the tradition continues!

  8. No stories here but looks like it would keep anybody warm.

    1. It does, Kim. The cotton suit not so much, but better than nothing.

  9. We just had long johns in our house while growing up, but I knew what a union suit was.

  10. Interesting to learn they were originally developed for women. I grew up a bit north of Ithica and I can understand why they were developed there. Winter in that northern section of New York State can be wicked, just like it can in the northern New England states. My brothers had them during the 60’s, but didn’t wear them very often. I never had any. In the 60’s I didn’t even wear slacks. I would have been nice. I got mild frostbite several times walking to class. A knee length skirt and shoes don’t do much to keep bare legs warm.
    I like the catalogue page. The first thing I noticed was it showed realistic body images of women.

    I have a nice red set sitting in the closet waiting for my 7 year old granddaughter to get big enough to wear.

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