The Tale of the Union Suit

We may all have seen long red underwear, in cartoons if nowhere else, but how many of us know where they came from, why they’re called “union suits,” and what they’re doing at Uncle Sam’s?

Long johns were originally for women. In the 19th century, women wore a whole lot of undergarments. They’d have long drawers or pantalloons, a corset, a corset cover, a petticoat or two, maybe some hoops to keep their skirts in the preferred bell shape, and they might also have a chemise.

Toward the end of the 19th century, the daring feminists of the day suggested that ladies give up their corsets.Corsets pushed women’s organs out of place and made it hard for them to conduct their lives, let alone to get out in nature and enjoy themselves.

Instead, these women suggested a Liberty suit, Emancipation suit, or Union suit, which was a union of the pantaloons and the chemise, in one convenient garment that made it a lot easier for a girl to visit the privy.

Women were taking up cycling and tennis in those days, as well as going out to work, so “rational dress” and “dress reform” made a lot of sense.

The union suit became popular during the 1870s among the bolder women — and then the men noticed what a handy garment it was and decided to take it up as well. When John L. Sullivan wore some in the boxing ring, the name “long johns” was born, and the union suit became a unisex garment.

When knit fabrics became practical, the flannel union suit was replaced by the much more comfortable knit ones we know today. A century ago, the union suit was the norm for men, though women had largely gone back to more complicated undergarments. In the 1920s, college guys began wearing their gym shorts and singlets as underwear, and skirts got way too short for women to rely on union suits any more.

So what are they doing at Uncle Sam’s? The truth is, a union suit makes a lot of sense for cold weather camping. Try it and see if you don’t agree with us.

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