“We still wear the undershirts for about the same reasons that Victorian men took to wearing their long johns: they save wear-and-tear on the layers above them, and can be used long after a visible garment would be considered too stained or worn for public display.” – The Art of Manliness
Although inconspicuous in nature, undergarments are tied to the very sartorial culture of the western world. We might not think of them beyond protecting against the cold. Yet, insofar as the history of underwear is concerned, the narrative goes back much farther. A children’s onesie covered in soaring rocket ships is a far-flung relative to the union suits, Henleys and long johns of yore.
In the 18th-century, England’s textile industry grew with the creation of the water mill. One of the first to capitalize on this newfound technological innovation was John Smedley, a company still in production since it opened in 1748. Located in Lea Mills, England, the brand is credited with the foundational success of long johns. The garment has taken many forms over the years, from flannel loungewear to merino wool sleepwear, and perhaps most importantly, as a piece of athletic clothing.
The “John” in long johns purportedly comes from the infamous 19th-century American heavyweight boxer John L. Sullivan, whose winning record and pugilist charm made the form-fitting and durable leggings he wore synonymous with his name. (Disclaimer: Sullivan’s middle name is Lawrence, but unlike today’s boxers, he wore pants in the ring, not shorts.) “The Boston Strong Boy” as he was known, was perhaps the toughest man in the world to have ever fought in tights. Looking at a portrait of Sullivan, fists raised, one cannot help but figure him an unofficial forerunner to Mel Brooks’ film Robin Hood: Men in Tights.
Along with the emergence of industrialization in the mid-19th-century, a reformation in men’s and women’s apparel also arose. Companies seeking to utilize the benefits of mass-production began to create garments that were straight-forward in design and, therefore, easy to reproduce. Enter the Henley. When it first launched, the iconic undergarment was, in fact, not worn by workers in soot-stained factories, but rather the porkpie hat and parasol set of the English royal regattas.
While the piece of clothing is ubiquitous with the big names in menswear today, the Henley takes its title from Henley-on-Thames, located in the hillocks of Oxfordshire county England that has hosted the Henley Royal Regatta since 1839. Back then, rowers sported the simple, collarless shirt with two or three button plackets that could better withstand the constant tug and pull of crew racing. Although the Henley-on-Thames team did not intend to spark a spectacle in fashion, the shirt’s facility to the sport quickly became a staple of every rower’s uniform up until the Second World War, when textile manufacturing began to incorporate synthetics into their lines. These new materials shifted the look and cut of most active wear from traditional cotton jerseys to form-fitting elastics.
As of the 1950s, the Henley, like the union suit and long johns before it, became a part of the workaday American ensemble. And, as with most sartorial trends, the rarified circles of high-fashion took notice of what was being worn on the streets. Fast forward to the 1990s at the height of grunge, when designer Marc Jacobs sent models down the runway in a cashmere version of the humble waffled Henley. As former New York Times Style writer Dan Shaw – who himself “wore a red union suit underneath overalls” during that period – explained to KM:
The union suits and long johns added a rugged aura, possibly pointing to the whole logger aesthetic. At the time, there was the deconstruction trend coming out of Belgium, and showing undergarments was similar to showing the seams and threads of clothing.
Incorporating pieces such as long johns into a runway show belied the fashion world’s take on deconstructionism. In order to dress up, one had to first dress down. Journalist Michael Gross describes that after seeing a Johnstown Knitting Mills three-button shirt, Ralph Lauren responded with wonder: “This is a new shirt.” Men’s undergarments were not new, but styling them as such in order to make them chic and original was a novel idea.
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Leading photo courtesy of Wiki Commons.