Winter Undie-land: A Brief History of Long Underwear
If you have the misfortune of spending the cooler months in a snowy climate, you may be considering how exactly to stay toasty this winter. The obvious choice is long underwear.
Underwear has existed in some form or another for about as long as people have worn clothes, but there isn’t a ton in the way of concrete history about its inception and evolution. Despite that stumbling block, we’re diving into the historical miasma of long-underwear-land to bring you back a relatively cogent history of long underwear.
Long John and the Disputed Origins
There are two sorts of long underwear, the first is the union suit, which is the full-body style with the ass-flap. The second we’ll be discussing more in-depth: long johns, are a set of separate long undergarments. Unfortunately, the jury is still out on the etymology of the phrase “long johns,” but several theories revolve around the above boxer: John L. Sullivan.
John Sullivan was one of the last champions of the bare-knuckle boxing era and the first champion of the more modern style of gloved boxing. He held the title from 1882 to 1892 and was known for his signature look, a simple pair of long underwear. But boxing wasn’t the only thing that was changing as the new millennium approached. The way clothes were made had been entirely overhauled by the age of industrialization.
This new modern style of production allowed for pieces like underwear to be made en masse. Prior to these innovations, long underwear was made by hand. Thermal underwear, though worn for centuries in environments that required it, would only be popularized and proliferated when the garments became more accessible and convenient.
The Long John story also involves another John. John Smedley, whose mills in Derbyshire, England may have created the iconic garments, or were at least an early innovator in the field. Another mill called Stanfield’s, located in Nova Scotia, lays claim to the creation of the long john, although they didn’t patent their creation until 1898, six years after John L. Sullivan (who apparently popularized the garments) had lost his heavyweight boxing title. As with many of the garments we take for granted, multiple innovators across the globe were producing and experimenting with these two-piece underwear sets at around the same time and several take credit for allegedly creating the style.
It’s also hard to trace any single one of these styles when so many were being made as well as being made from different materials. American varietals usually used cotton or linen, while European versions favored wool (yikes).
Another school of thought asserts that the name “Long John” comes from much later, and was first used by American GIs in WWII. An internet sleuth dug up one of the earliest confirmable references to the garment in a newspaper from 1941, but a more expansive quote comes to us from a 1944 issue of the Wisconsin Rapids Daily (as tracked down by World Wide Words).
“Many a rookie has been ridiculed and laughed at the first time he swallowed his pride and donned his LONG JOHNS. They are the winter underwear issued by the Army, and have the disturbing effect of making a G.I. look like a scarecrow trapeze artist. It might be added that they itch but good! After a soldier finally gets into his LONG JOHNS, he invariably swells his chest, flexes his biceps and struts around the barracks like a John L. Sullivan, after whom these practical if not sightly garments have been named.”
Was the term Long Johns created retroactively to conjure an old-timey feel? Or were people using the term for far longer, just never really recording the mentions? As with many issues of fashion history, the truth is unclear, but long johns (the style) could easily predate their own name by 50 to 60 years.
You’ve likely been referring to Union Suits and Long Johns interchangeably, but the big difference is that a Union Suit is a one-piece situation, while the Long John is a two-piece, the ancestor of the boxer and t-shirt combination. Union Suits are best known for their button-up fronts and the convenient (and comedic) butt-flaps.
The first Union Suits are easier to trace and first cropped up in Utica, New York in 1868 as women’s underwear. They were first called Emancipation suits because they liberated women from the discomfort and constriction of the painful corsets of the day. Their ease of wear made them a natural addition to men’s wardrobes as well. Long Johns slowly phased out these impractical one-piece undergarments, but working men wore them well into the 20th century, often wearing one union suit all week—or in some cases, all winter.
It’s frustrating that the history of long underwear isn’t cohesively laid out at our modern fingertips, but it makes sense. Undergarments, shameful as they are, aren’t exactly something people talk about openly, especially around the early 1900s. What we do know about both styles of long underwear is that they liberated male and female wearers alike, letting them experience a degree of comfort and practicality that had been sorely lacking in older styles.
We also know, that despite their sometimes goofy appearance, these long underwear styles can be a life-saver on those chilly days (at least in places that actually get chilly). So when the temperatures drop, don’t suffer for fashion and don the long underwear.