History Of The Union Suit - Bitter Threads

History Of The Union Suit

What Is A Union Suit?

The Union Suit, essentially one-piece underwear, ingeniously merges the shirt and trousers, serving the dual purpose of providing warmth underneath clothing or functioning as sleepwear. Frequently dubbed as the adult 'onesie', this garment has quite a history.

What Are Union Suit Pajamas?

Low maintenance and high comfort, Union Suit Pajamas are undoubtedly the crown jewels of winter nightwear. These pajamas don't hike up during sleep, providing consistent warmth from the neck down to the ankles. The morning routine gets simpler as you only need to slip into a skirt or jeans over the suit to get ready for the day. Moreover, the charm of the MOONees™ lies in their absence of fasteners, enhancing the comfort level during sleep. The absence of any metallic zipper heads or plastic buttons means zero disturbances during your tranquil slumber.

What Is The Origin Of The Union Suit?

One's immediate visualization of the Union Suit usually includes a solitary cowboy adorned in a red Union Suit with a back flap, either chasing after his horse or being pursued by masked gunmen, amidst a landscape dotted with a ramshackle outhouse and tumbleweeds. He wears that red union suit for months until tattered, it fall in pieces from his body.

So, it came as an enormous surprise when I discovered that a woman had designed the Union Suit for FEMINISTS. I imagine it is a feeling akin to finding out your granny was a fighter jet pilot during WWII or that your favorite pair of high heel shoes was actually designed to help refugees from war hide their valuables and escape persecution. You get what I'm saying, right?

What Did Victorian Women Wear?

In the late 1800s upper and middle class women fashionable dress included corsets and other restrictive undergarments. 

victorian era hoop skirt, corset and bustle

Upper class women's fashion dictated coverage of their bodies with long trailing skirts that covered those very sexy ankles, bustles to keeps those skirts from dragging on the ground, layers of petticoats and steel rods that were heavy and limited physical activities so that men had to help women at every turn. Tight-lacing was practiced and believed to cause internal organ damage.

What Was The Rational Dress Movement?

Women activists fed up with this sort of dressing looked to reform women's fashion. They began by introducing bloomers to allow the shortening of trailing skirts (that picked up disgusting trash from sidewalks) but the fear of women becoming too much like men meant that women who wore bloomers in public were harassed. Trousers did become acceptable to wear but only during physical activities. 

The punishing nature of women's underwear was where reformers also looked for relief. As part of the Rational Dress Movement, the Union Suit was one of the first reform undergarments patented in 1868. It was promoted as the "Emancipation Union Under Flannel" and was designed to free women from their restrictive clothing.

women's underwear in the late 1800s
The Jenness-Miller Magazine Dress, Vol II, Jan-Feb, probably 1888. Page 181. “Rational Dress” Underwear for Women.

The Emancipation Suit by Susan Taylor was a top and drawers joined together at the waist and endorsed by the New England Women's Club who were proponents of undergarment reform. 

The Emancipation Union Suit: A Revolutionary Garment

The Emancipation Union Suit, also known as the "emancipation dress" or "freedom dress," emerged during the late 19th and early 20th centuries. This one-piece garment, similar to a jumpsuit, replaced various undergarments such as chemises and drawers. Made from lightweight, breathable fabric, it was significantly less constraining than traditional undergarments, liberating women from the discomfort and health hazards associated with tight corsets and heavy petticoats.

The Emancipation Union Suit also symbolized broader societal changes during this period, including the burgeoning women's suffrage movement. Advocates for women's rights supported dress reform, viewing restrictive attire as emblematic of female oppression. Adopting the Emancipation Union Suit was a tangible demonstration of support for these reform movements and a testament to women's yearning for increased personal freedom. 

Several alternative dress systems arose in the late 1800s using some form of the Union Suit as an undergarment.

Though the Emancipation Union Suit faced backlash from those who felt it threatened traditional gender norms, it played a crucial role in ushering in further changes in women's fashion. As societal roles and statuses for women evolved, so did their clothing. The early 20th century saw the introduction of practical attire like shorter skirts and looser blouses, along with the invention of the bra as an alternative to tight, uncomfortable Victorian-era corsets.

Summing up, the Emancipation Union Suit was pivotal to the women's dress reform movement. It challenged existing norms and represented a stride towards greater comfort, practicality, and personal freedom in women's attire.

The unique design of the Union Suit, with no separation between the shirt and pants, enabled superior heat retention than any other type of clothing. This feature was soon adopted by men, leading to the popular depiction of cowboys in red Union Suits


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