“Now that I was compelled to think about it, reading was something that just came to me, as learning to fasten the seat of my union suit without looking around, or achieving two bows from a snarl of shoelaces.” – Scout, To Kill A Mockingbird
First produced in Utica, New York, union suits were created to support an ideology as much as a practical need. Designed for women, the garment lives up to its name: a combination of waist shirt and drawers knit together in a single piece. In fact, the original union suit patent describes it as “emancipation union under flannel.” The mass-production of textiles spurred a progressive shift in what women could wear, reducing the amount of clothing needed. With union suits, women required fewer skirts and restrictive bodices, which were not only physically inhibiting but “improper,” when breezes came up and ruffled skirts – a continuous bluster of embarrassment.
According to the Ohio State University fashion historian Dr. Trish Cunningham, two 19th-century figures crusaded to revolutionize womenswear: Annie Jenness Miller and Gustave Jaeger. Jaeger was a German hygienist who found cotton harmful and advocated for woolen ensembles, namely, the union suit. Miller was an American who called for “correct dress” – practical and aesthetically sensible clothing. Her championing of the union suit eventually lead to an ideological shift in fashion, making corsets taboo.
Although union suits were designed for women, the garment’s appeal quickly spread as a practical piece of clothing for all, due to its warmth and uncomplicated design. The undergarment quickly became a basic element to every soldier’s uniform after it was introduced into the army, as a means to keep warm and protect against rougher outerwear materials.
The union suit has accumulated various cultural attachments along the way. Yet, as with long johns, its origins do not reflect its current cultural status. The garment is considered somewhat comical – if not impractical – today. Its back flap was, as advertised, intended for the better facilitation of bathroom business, and quickly became the butt of many jokes. With time, toilet humor superseded practicality. Although several manufactures still make union suits, they are often disparaged as the clothing of choice for unsophisticated persons – and often caricatured as such.
In England, union suits are known as wool combinations – or “wooly coms.” Contrary to the vast latitude of American clothing brands, England, with its wool-making history (and continuous rainfall), has kept wooly coms a commonplace piece of their cultural ensemble to the present day.
From reform garment to army uniform to sports attire to fashion statement to everyday underwear – undergarments have been a top drawer item for centuries. Considering the three pieces have kept us warm and protected – or liberated, depending on the time and use – it’s hard to keep them under wraps.