When you think of the union suit, or one-piece long underwear, you probably think of cowboys in a Western film, or maybe Santa Claus. However, the popularity of the garment was the result of a push by feminists in the 1800s. The union suit was an answer to the restrictive dress of the time. A properly-dressed woman would numerous undergarments, long skirts, corsets, and in some periods also carried around hoops and bustles to make her skirt stand out fashionably. The union suit simplified that dress in several ways.
According to Patricia Cunningham, author of Reforming Women’s Fashion, 1850-1920: Politics, Health, and Art, one of the first union suits was patented in 1868, and called the “emancipation union under flannel.” The garment combined a knit flannel shirt and pants into one piece. The long pants extended to the ankle, nixing the need for long stockings and garters, and later versions would have rows of buttons at the waist to help suspend several layers of skirts, discouraging the use of heavy petticoats that often weighed upwards of 15 pounds. Most importantly, it “emancipated” women from the pinching confines of the corset.
While it sounded like a much more comfortable option than metal crinolines and tight corsets, not many “ordinary” women rushed to buy the undergarment. Instead, it was mostly found in feminists’ wardrobes. During the first wave of the dress reform movement, which was led by prominent suffragists and women’s rights leaders like Amelia Bloomer, Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Lydia Sayer Hasbrouck in the northeast, the union suit was part of a packaged deal that would free women from frivolous fashions and make them more equal to men. Some of these activists not only championed comfortable underwear, but they also wanted to change clothing norms as a whole, which included removing bulky bustles, shortening skirts to the ankles and wearing them over pantaloons, often referred to as “bloomers.”
Union suits took some time to become universal, but eventually both men and women saw them as more comfortable, convenient, and affordable than previous underwear. Read how the union suit came about and became ubiquitous at Smithsonian.
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