What are Long Johns?

Tricia Christensen
Tricia Christensen

Long johns, also known as long underwear, thermal underwear or pajamas, are two-piece garments worn underneath clothing to provide an extra layer of warmth. Either men or women may wear them at night as pajamas, and children’s pajamas may imitate the style. Though first made in wool or rough cotton, they are now made in a variety of fabrics. Some new fabrics are particularly designed to resist water or to help wick perspiration away from the body so as not to make a person too warm or soaked by sweat.

Thermal clothing is meant to retain body heat in cold temperatures.
Thermal clothing is meant to retain body heat in cold temperatures.

Long underwear, up through the early 20th century, was normally just one piece. It might feature a “backdoor” which made bathroom trips a little easier. The ability to pull the pants part of long johns down from the waist was a far more convenient element, making them preferable over one-piece long underwear.

Frank Stanfield, a Nova Scotian, is credited with the invention of long johns in 1915. In fact Stanfield's continues to make them today, combining more modern fabrics and styles with this first design. Though at first only popular in Canada, this underwear began to grow in popularity in the United States, so much so that they became part of army standard issue in World War II for those fighting in the trenches or in any type of ground engagement. Stanfield’s early version, and those issued in the US to armed forces, were typically wool and often itchy.

How two-piece long underwear began to be called long johns is rather a mystery. Some people believe that the John in the name refers to John L. Sullivan, a boxer who frequently wore long john bottoms, or long drawers tucked into his socks and shoes. This theory on the naming has not been proven, but seems the most viable explanation for origin.

As a clothing layer, long johns are worn by many in cold climates, or in climates with harsh winters. The layer effect provided by them does certainly add to their warmth. People looking for natural, light fabrics often find that silk long johns are preferable, though some complain they feel too warm. Long underwear may also be made of acrylic and polypropylene. Some made from cotton have a waffle weave in the fabric that is often considered “thermal fabric.” If the cotton or other material used is soft, waffle weaves can be comfortable. Inferior fabrics may make these itchy and uncomfortable, and they may shrink easily.

Tricia Christensen
Tricia Christensen

Tricia has a Literature degree from Sonoma State University and has been a frequent wiseGEEK contributor for many years. She is especially passionate about reading and writing, although her other interests include medicine, art, film, history, politics, ethics, and religion. Tricia lives in Northern California and is currently working on her first novel.

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Discussion Comments

anon987509

Long Johns are a staple in my everyday winter attire. From October to April, I literally wear them every day without even thinking about it. Winter stinks, so why not be warm? I don't live in the arctic or work for a living outdoors either.

Yeah, don't wear them with boxers, way too bunchy.

KaBoom
Wow, I feel sorry for the soldiers that had to fight during World War II wearing itchy insulated long johns! On the one hand, I'm sure they were grateful for the extra warmth the long johns provided when they were outside during the winter. But on the other hand, wearing itchy clothes is very unpleasant and distracting!

And what about soldiers that were allergic to wool? I guess they would have to go without the long johns and be cold, or suffer through having an itchy rash!

ceilingcat

@Monika - Yeah, long johns thermals definitely seem like an invention that made sense at the time it was invented, but then outlived its usefulness. Unless you live somewhere that is very cold, and you don't have heat, it doesn't really make sense to wear these.

On the other hand, I think people in the US sometimes forget that people in some countries don't have access to the heating and cooling technologies that we have here. Not everyone gets to go home to a nice, toasty house at the end of a cold day during the winter. So I think there is definitely a market for long johns somewhere in the world!

Monika

I think that these days, wearing wool long johns only makes sense if you're going to be spending a lot of time outdoors. Most people (at least here in the US) are able to heat their home to a comfortable temperature during the colder months of the year. So there is no need to wear extra layers of clothing if you're going to be indoors.

But if you're going to be doing winter sports or something, then I think it makes sense to wear long johns. Or you could wear them as pajamas, if you were really set on wearing them!

jennythelib

@ddljohn - Sounds like there are two options: either wear briefs or boxer-briefs instead of boxers, or find long underwear that's made of a softer material. They make ones for women's long johns that are silkier; not sure about men, but I bet you could find something that is designed to be worn by itself.

Personally, I like the silky ones that are stretchy so you can still move around. They also aren't quite as hot. I don't wear them inside usually, but they sure are nice if you want, for instance, to go to a Christmas parade on a cold evening or a First Night celebration. Winter hiking, etc.

ddljohn
I have a question about long johns -- are they supposed to be worn alone or with underwear under?

I always thought that you're supposed to wear underwear inside them, but I tried it and it didn't work too well with boxers. There was too much crowding and looked funny.

But if I don't wear underwear underneath, not only will it be terribly scratchy, but it will have to be washed after each wear. So I'm pretty confused. What's the right way of wearing mens long johns?

ysmina

@anon38286-- I think you are confusing long johns with one-piece long underwear (also called a union suit). Those definitely pre-date long johns and were around in the late 1800s. Long johns came a little later and it is two pieces made up of a shirt and trousers.

Even though long underwear and long johns seem very similar, long johns are considered a separate invention and 1915 appears to be the right date.

I think people might have started to wear long johns before John Sullivan. But he was the one who inspired British Lee Mills to start producing long johns underwear in large numbers and it really become popular after that.

serenesurface

I remember my dad used to wear long johns while he was in the army. He still wears them sometimes on camping and hiking trips to keep warm, but it was very much a part of his uniform while he was serving.

I tried wearing thermal long johns myself a couple of times and I have to agree with those who say it's too warm. Since you have to wear clothing on top of the long johns, you end up with several layers and it can get uncomfortably toasty in several hours. I think it would be better if I lived in a colder climate and I can definitely see it being more useful to Canadians.

anon38286

I doubt very much that long johns were invented in 1915. I would think pre 1900 a more likely date.

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