Friday, April 20, 2018

More Grant Wood, Artist and Union Suit Fan 

Shortly after my last posting, April 4, 2018, featuring the union suit artwork of Grant Wood, my good friend, Sam from northern lower Michigan emailed me to say:

"check out the following  {Grant Wood - 100 paintings - WikiArt.organd look for SAVAGE IOWA." 

So I did, and what I found brought a smile to my face. It seems that ole Grant Wood created a drawing in 1923 featuring three Indians, a Pioneer Woman, a Clothesline, and four Long-handled Union Suits.

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Grant Wood, Untitled, from suite "Savage Iowa" (Clothesline), 1923, pencil and wash on paper, Smithsonian American Art Museum, Washington, D.C.

Gift of Park Rinard, 1995.86.3 

Just imagine the pioneer woman on the mid-western plains of Nebraska or Kansas or Iowa hanging out her husband's long underwear on the clothesline to dry. Since his union suits are dark colored in this depiction they are probably red ones. The long johns, brightly colored against the drab, barren plain, must have easily caught the eyes of the Indians.

One uses a tree branch to steal one of the union suits right from under the unsuspecting wife's nose.

Another has already pulled a union suit from the clothes line, has draped the arms of the underwear over his shoulders, and is looking down on the unusual garment. He must have thought, "What on earth is this?!" Perhaps he already had ascertained that it is something to be worn. Possibly he had previously seen the farmer run to the outhouse early one morning in just his long underwear or perhaps working in the fields sans shirt.

And the more observant viewers have already glimpsed four feathers of a third Indian hiding behind a bush carefully pulling another of the man's union suits out of the clothes basket for closer inspection.

Do you suppose the Indians pulled on the long underwear, properly buttoning them up? If worn continuously, did they figure out the reason for the rear drop seat? Or, did they discard the union suits at the first opportunity determining that the effort of putting them on just wasn't worth all the trouble? Did the woman discover the thievery and chase the Indians away causing them to drop her husband's union suits in their haste. Or did she faint dead-away? Did the husband return from his fields just in time to rescue his wife and his underwear?

The great thing about art is that as you study the work, the more you see thereby allowing you to conjure up circumstances that the artist may or may not have intended. For many, placing oneself within the picture helps the piece come alive.

At the very least, it can be surmised that evidence from at least three works of art featuring union suits by the renown American artist, Grant Wood, indicates that he most certainly was a twentieth century Union Suit Fan!

Added April 22, 2018:
This note from my "go-to-guy," Sam of northern lower Michigan, a man who can barely tolerate red union suits.

"Chris, you did a good job with “savage Iowa” and now some thoughts from the east. I am sure if the only thing that got me though an Iowa winter was a loin cloth and a blanket I believe I would be tempted to snare me a wool union suit to get me out of the wind, rain and snow.

Now I say wool because of your thinking that the suits in Wood’s drawing might be red. The red dyes of the late eighteen hundreds would not be absorbed in a vegetable fabric only an animal based therefore some manufactures of woolen garments, as a gimmick to show that they were making the real thing, dyed their long underwear red. That practice soon died out as you can tell by looking in any old catalog (check those Canadian catalogs) although Duofold for a long period made “Sun Valley Reds” for a select market.
The first time in my 78 years I came in contact with red union suits was in the mid 1970s when L.L.Bean added them to their stock. This was also when Duofold started moving to the S, M, L, XL sizing of their product. Obviously, the idea got wheels. DAMIT!

Getting back to Grant Wood and his proposed “The Bath” and his search for a red union suit, they were just not readily available, and his proposed idea was dropped because as  I have found on the net that the idea caused some discussions that Mr. Wood had an unnatural interest in men’s undergarments and maybe his manhood was in question. ...Sam"

Thanks, pal. As always, Sam knows what he is talking about and his commentary makes a good argument. In my world I am going to continue to think of that underwear on Wood's clothesline as red, my favorite color of union suits! Besides, what about all those western movies and television shows I love. The cowboys are nearly always wearing red union suits! And, we all know Hollywood takes great pride in accuracy right down to a guy's underwear ....Chris

Wednesday, April 4, 2018

Grant Wood, Union Suit Fan
Spencer Hastings, Guest Contributor

Chris, The Springfield Art Museum located in Springfield, Missouri presently has an art exhibit which I believe would be of interest to the followers of your Union Suit blog. The museum has recently obtained two more lithographs by artist, Grant Wood (1891-1942). It now owns all 19 of his works of this art form. Wood is most famous for his iconic painting, American Gothic. As background, Wood was born and reared in the state of Iowa and became world renowned in the mid-1930's for his depiction primarily of mid-western farming life and American values. His paintings and lithographs were termed “regionalism” and became very popular during the Great Depression.

A lithograph is a printing process that uses a flat stone or a metal plate on which image areas are depicted using an oily or greasy substance allowing ink to adhere. The quality is very good and has the advantage of selling more cheaply than original oils. Wood and other lithograph artists sold their works for about $5.00 each in the 1930's as members of the Associated American Artists. Regular folks could purchase these works at a reasonable price and own art by a famous artist of their time. The current Springfield Museum exhibit features themes of this period and examines the role and popularity of American printmaking.

The particular lithograph that may be of interest to your readers is entitled “Midnight Alarm.” This 1939 Lithograph On Paper features a young man, possibly a farmer, carefully descending a flight of stairs in the middle of the night barefoot and wearing only his union suit. His face is a “mask of concern” as his tense feet carefully grope their way downward. The young man holds a hastily lit lantern as he attempts to discern the unfamiliar noise that woke him from a deep sleep. The lamp's bright illumination contrasts masterfully a sense of the young man's alertness and dramatic fear of the unknown. Wood's attention to detail is remarkable right down to the young man's eyebrows and the cuffs and buttons on his union suit.

The man’s facial features point to the use of a model, quite possibly twenty year old John Arthur Mooney. Mooney was a photographer living in Charles City, Iowa at the time. He and Wood were contemporaries who were acquainted with each other. A photograph of young Mooney shows that he had the same eyes, ears, high forehead, cheek bones, and curly hair as the man in the lithograph. These physical traits are so similar as to be more than conjecture. Mooney was an avid art collector as well as a popular photographer. He eventually owned two of Wood’s lithographs, “Honorary Degree” and “Tree Planting Group,” inscribed “To Arthur Mooney” and signed “Grant Wood.” Most certainly at the time both the artist and model wore union suits as a matter of course.

The resemblance is so similar that the model must have been John Mooney. 

Several art critics have examined “Midnight Alarm” as one would expect. One overly simplistic review sees “humor” in his 1939 lithograph. “Wood found amusement with the idea of long underwear. The face of the man descending the stairs seems alert and ready to act as his ominous shadow follows him down the staircase. However, there is a sense of vulnerability about the man as Wood has chosen to comically depict him in his long underwear.”

Vulnerability, yes. Comically, perhaps not so much. The critic's opinion is unmerited if one remembers the time period in which this lithograph was developed. Men typically slept in their long underwear or night shirts. Although union suits today are considered comical to many, in mid-twentieth century America one-piece long underwear was worn by most men and boys especially in rural areas. Farm houses had no central heat, many had no electricity or indoor plumbing. This was the era on which Wood's work was demonstrative. Union suits were an essential part of Americans' wardrobe and not considered humorous.

Few works of art depict long underwear as intimately as Wood's lithograph, "Midnight Alarm." It is noteworthy that he planned another work featuring a union suit. This according to his sister, Nan Wood Graham. The 1939 lithograph has a relationship to a painting Wood considered and had even titled, “The Bath -1880.” This oil was to feature a man clad only in long, red flannel underwear preparing to take a bath. Miss Graham was quoted as saying many years later that “Wood made a considerable effort to locate an authentic pair of red long underwear for the work.” It is not known whether he actually made purchase of that red flannel underwear.

Wood advertised for a subject in Iowa and other mid-west newspapers during this time. He identified a young Cedar Rapids model to pose in the red union suit. However, his name is lost to history. John Mooney was possibly another model considered for “The Bath – 1880.” 

Unfortunately, according to his sister, Wood abandoned the proposed painting. He became angered by local press coverage that suggested the planned work was “a publicity stunt.” Wood may have been even more dismayed of possible newspaper reports, accurately or not, revealing that he had an unusual interest in men’s underwear, an interest unremarkable in today's world.   ... Spencer Hastings.

Spencer, I thank you for this insight into Grant Wood's lithograph, “Midnight Alarm,” and for bringing it to my attention. This lithograph is sure to be of interest to Union Suit Fans. I appreciate you taking the time to share. 

Coincidentally, the same week I heard from you, I received an email featuring additional "Union Suit" art by none other than Grant Wood. Although not as prominent as the farmer descending the stairs in his Long Underwear, it never-the-less depicts a Union Suit. In this instance, President Herbert Hoover's Union Suit hangs from a boyhood farm house clothesline. Not surprising, Hoover was from Iowa as was Wood. No doubt, both men wore one-piece, button-down Long Johns. Perhaps Wood did have an interest in men's underwear, why not?

Joe of New York City emailed, “On display today at the Whitney in downtown Manhattan is a Grant Wood exhibit: Best known for AMERICAN GOTHIC, he also painted the above titled “THE BIRTHPLACE OF HERBERT HOOVER, WEST BRANCH, IOWA. 

And why am I sending this? Well, cropped a bit, look at what is on the President’s clothesline!  Keep ‘em buttoned, Joe.”

Yep, sure enough, there is Hoover's Union Suit. Thanks, Joe! ...Chris

You can read all about the presidential Union Suits of John F. Kennedy and Calvin Coolidge in my posting, “Presidential Underwear,” May 26, 2016. In another posting, “Presidential Underwear, Abe Lincoln's Union Suit?” dated July 27, 2016, I discuss the improbability of Lincoln and his sons wearing Union Suits back in the mid-1800's.

American Gothic 
by Grant Wood, 1930
Art Institute of Chicago

Hey, Fellas:  as you can see by this and other guest contributor postings, I am always encouraging fans of union suits to email me stories, photographs, anecdotes, and life experiences in their one-piece Long Underwear. Let me hear from you today!  Email to: