The union suit is a close-fitting underwear garment. The term union refers to the fact that a union suit involves the combination of both a shirt and pants (drawers) in a one piece suit. The garment commonly included a drop seat. This term began to be used in the 1890s. The term union suit was commonly used for adults. The
children's version was a waist suit or a waist-union suit. Women also wore union suits. So did girls. But they were associated mainly with men because more men than women wore them. With boys and girls, I'm not sure. I think waist union suits were equally popular for boys and girls because of the waist feature. Union suits for children were essentially combination suits. But union suits without the reinforcement straps were mainly a boy's garment.
The union suit is a close-fitting underwear garment. The term union refers to the fact that a union suit involves the combination of both a shirt and pants (drawers) in a one piece suit. The garment commonly included a drop seat. This term began to be used in the 1890s.
I am not sure when union suits firt appeared. Certainly it must have been the 19th century, but we are not sure just when in the 19th century. We believe the American company
Munsingwear may have created the term. If not, it certainly was a key company in populsrizing it. The term union suit of course refers to the union or combination of shirts and pants. Comination suit is the term used in Britain. In England they were known as " combinations ". The English still don't use the term "union suit" even today. A common colloquial term in America is " long johns ". The origin of the term "long johns" is very obscure. There are many different explanations, none of them very convincing. The term "john" was a slang term for a man, and union suits were originally made for men, although women and children because of the practicality quickly adopted them as well. But the term is American slang. The earliest recorded use of the term in the Oxford English Dictionary (OED) is 1943. This is much to recent. We thought that the 1943 entry may be due to all the Americans flloding into Britain during World War II. The new editors of the OED are international lexicographers
and come from all over the English-speaking world (so that Australia, Canada, New Zealand, the U.S., India, etc. are represented). A reader writes, "I doubt that the G.I.s in England in 1943 are the reason for the first entry of "long johns"." The term goes back at least to the 1920s and perhaps earlier. " Long handles " and " Long handled underwear " were equivalent terms for union suits which became popular in America about 1880-1890. We have lirrle information about foreign language terms.
A German reader tells us that she has noted, " reform hemdhose ". They seem to have been union suyits for women.
We think union suits were almost entirely store bought. I think men's and boy's union suits were almost never home
made, especially as late as the 1930s, since they were sold everywear
in all men's and boys' clothing stores and were widely available even
in rural areas through Sears Roebuck, Montgomery Ward, and other mail
order companies. Union suits were reasonably inexpensive, and it would
have been uneconomical to try to make them at home. Union suits have
knitted cuffs at the wrists and ankles and would be complicated to make
with only a home sewing machine.
The term union suit was commonly used for adults. The
children's version was a waist suit or a waist-union suit.
Women also wore union suits. So did girls. But they were associated mainly with men because more men than women wore them. With boys and girls, I'm not sure.
Union suits were primarily worn by adults, but children also wore them. In addition there were union suits with special features for children. Here are some of the union suit vaiations especially designed forf children.
I think waist union suits were equally popular for boys and girls because of the waist feature. Union suits for children were essentially combination suits. But union suits without the reinforcement straps were mainly a boy's garment.
In the early 1920s the “waist union suit” for children was invented, which combined the functions of the adult-style underwear with those of the “waist” so that only one undergarment was
necessary. Waist union suits became popular for children (both boys and girls) from about age 2 to age 13 or 14. They
went out of style in the mid-1940s when boys ceased to wear long stockings with either shorts or knickers into their
teen-age years and began to wear long trousers at earlier ages.
The union suit was the dominant form of underwear for men and boys during the early 20th century. Boys' union suits during the 1900s and 1910s tended to be ankle-length and long-sleeved, although short-sleeved and short-legged models gradually crept into favor. Part of the reason for such full coverage was the lack of central heating in even American middle-class as well as working-class homes. Most of HBC's informatio come from the 1910s and 1920s. But the union suit style did not change much. The same style was worn in the 1900s and earlier. The major changes began to appear after World War I in the 1920s. This involved involved a one-button flap seat to replace the three-button drop seat. Some boys wore separate undershirts and long drawers, but the union suit seems to have been the most popular garment. BVDs are a summer-style, loose-fitting, non-knitted kind of union suit developed in the 1920s. These usually were sleeveless garments with loose-fitting short legs made of nainsook (a light cotton material). They were standard men's summer underwear up until the end of the 1930s when they were
replaced by jockey-style briefs and knitted undershirts or tee-shirts.
In summer boys often wore BVD style union suits or waist union suits (see the ad for Sexton underwear in 1921) that were essentially junior versions of men's BVD style union suits. These were also available for children in waist
union suit form (during the 1920s and early 1930s) with reinforcing straps, waist buttons, and pin tubes for the attachment of hose supporters. Other summer suits were available. Some examples can be seen in the BVD ad (1922), the Wards ad (1923), and the Sears ad (1925) for boys' summer underwear. These are all relevant to the discussion of the summer union suit options. They all appeared in the 1920s catalog chronology.
Colors of union suits varied. I think that some were red, but I am unsure here. Many American movies seem to show red underwear in the 19th century. I'm not sure how accurate this was. I do not notice this in available catalogs and magazine advertisements. A reader writes, "Red flannel union suits were worn by men sometimes but not usually by boys." HBC is not sure why this was. The most usual color by the 20th century was cream-colored (as in this illustration) or a kind of natural mottled gray.
There is no particular convention about the number of buttons down the front of a union suit. The number would obviously depend on the height and size of the wearer. The three-button drop seat in the rear, however, was standard until the drop-seat was replaced by a flap that closed with a single button. The flap closing became popular in the 1920s and 1930s for men, but the three-button drop seat continued to be used in many children's union suits and waist union suits.
Originally wool or wool and cotton blends were used. Later all-cotton union suits, which didn't shrink in the
laundry and which didn't scratch the skin, became more popular.
The traditional material for knitted union suits was wool (for warmth). Later on (by the 1910s and 1920s) fabrics of wool and cotton mixture were developed (wool tended to be scratchy), and it was possible in the 1920s and later to buy union suits that were entirely made of cotton (for greater durability, comfort, and coolness). Porosknit union suits were made of a mesh cotton material to allow the fabric to breathe and to be more comfortable in the warm months. See the 1917 HBC pages on Porosknit underwear (made by Chalmers).
The boys' and men's models have buttons running down the front from neck to crotch. The girls model has no buttons down the front, although this style was far from universal with girls' suits. It has knee-length legs and sleeveless shoulder straps so that it can be
taken on and off without having to unbutton anything. Both male and female models, however, have drop seats with buttons in the back although the back view is not illustrated. All union suits had a back opening--originally a drop seat with three buttons and, later on, a one-button flap. The ones with short legs tended also to have short sleeves. But short sleeves with long legs was also possible.
The wrist and ankle openings of union suits were knitted elastically from the very beginning. But there was no blousing effect. The wrists and ankles or the thigh-opening or knee-opening in short-leg union suits were made so that the entire garment was form-fitting (like tights). Only modern, post-1980 knitted union suits are made loose-fitting. None of HBC's images of knit-style union suits shows anything but close form-fitting garments.
Union suits were underwear. Their usage, however, was not totally restricted to underwear. Some children may have slept in union suits. Also they were also sometimes used for swiming when boys did not have bathing suits. Boys often went skinny-dipping in the 19th and early 20th century, but in mixed company nion suits might be used. We notice one American boy, probably in the late 1920s or early 30s.
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