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What Is a Union Suit?

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  • Written By: Kristen Osborne
  • Edited By: Lucy Oppenheimer
  • Last Modified Date: 20 August 2014
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A union suit is a one-piece under-garment that dates back to the mid to late 1800s. They were invented in Utica, New York as an alternative for constrictive women's underwear. Despite this, union suits traditionally have been worn by men, typically to stay warm while farming, hunting, hiking, camping or doing any other type of outdoor activity. They are known, in particular, for the buttoned flap in the rear that allows the wearer to use the bathroom without having to take off the union suit.

Initially, 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.

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Until the mid-1900s, 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, due to the rear flap. Modern popular references to union suits can be found in movies Cold Mountain and The Wild Wild West and television shows Rugrats and Family Guy.

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