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even though it is common to associate union suits with men–prospectors, old west cowboys, etc–the garment was originally made for women as an alternative to restrictive clothing during the middle and late Victorian age.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….
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?