The union suit: the one piece long underwear suit with the seat flap (usually) have been around since the late 1800s/early 1900s. If you’ve watched classic cartoons or a Laurel and Hardy picture, chances are that you’ve seen one in action. Many are familiar with the sight gag of the man who lost everything while gambling, so he’s wearing a barrel over his union suit.
This gag was used in an old Highland Appliance commercial on television. Sometimes in clasic cartoons, when a character lost his clothes or his hide (if an animal) then he was left wearing a red union suit as a sign of embarassment.
Despite their old-fashioned reputation, these relaxed-fit button-front body-suits continue to be made and sold. Some even attribute sex appeal to the garment.
Worn by both genders, the union suit was made first of cotton, wool, or a blend of the two fibres. Both tended to shrink after washing which must have made wearing them something of a challenge. Understandably, a pure wool suit could be rather itchy. Today, union suits can be found in a variety of cotton fabrics, wool, polyester, polypropylene, silk, and even polar fleece.
Union suits were made from red flannel, but in 1906, New York-based Duofold Health Underwear Co. patented a two-layered fabric that “doesn’t overheat you on a mild day or in a warm room; yet it is a perfect safegaurd against the severest weather.” The blend comprised a cotton linen or silk inner layer and an outer layer made from wool, silk or silkaline, which is a type of cotton that looks similar to silk. Today, union suits can be found in various colors and fabrics, including silk and polar fleece.
Shades of white, gray and blue are popular colors, and patterned union suits can be found in stripes or even camoflauge. For women’s union suits, solid pink and floral patterns are common. They usually are long-sleeved and long-legged and feature a line of buttons from the neck down to the crotch. Short-sleeved varations are available as well.
it was common for men to wear the same union suit for a week or more, or even an entire winter. Today, union suits are favorites of outdoors enthusiasts who say this type of underwear can be warmer and less constricting than two-piece long underwear, or long-johns. The popular footed pajamas worn by children, and even some adults, are a variation on the union suit. They generally have zippers instead of buttons and the fabric tends to be thicker and fluffier than that used to make union suits.
Union suits also have comic appeal and have been worn in movies and television shows, such as Laurel and Hardy sketches and other comedies, including cartoons. The comic references are usually of men who have lost all of their clothes for some reason and have nothing left to wear but their union suit. An example is an oft-referenced scene where a man has lost everything gambling and thus has nothing to wear but his union suit and, perhaps, a barrel over top. There is also some toilet-humor associated with the union suits.