Thursday, November 14, 2019

A Thespian Union Suit Fan

Growing Up, Part I
        by Ron Payne, Guest Contributor

Growing up back in the 50's there were union suits in the inventory of clothing stores that served small towns and farming communities. I always shunned union suits as being too ridiculous looking when I was a youngster. But when I got into high school and was changing into gym clothes, I saw a few of the boys from the nearby farms wearing union suits without shame. They laughed at themselves and ribbed each other over their "hillbilly" long johns. But there also seemed to be an element of pride in wearing "country boy" underwear.

I grew up in Loudoun County in northern Virginia on a farm between Purcellville and Lincoln. My Dad wore two piece thermal underwear but no one I knew wore union suits. I'd only seen men in union suits on TV or in the movies and it was always associated with comical humiliation. Like John Payne in "Restless Gun" when masked men held him up and made him strip down to his union suit. He had to walk into town in his one-piece long johns while the townsfolk laughed. But I saw union suits at the clothing store in Purcellville and, of course, there were the Sears catalog ads. Any type of long underwear seemed an embarrassment to me when I was a kid. So I avoided the thermal two piece type that my father wore, not to mention union suits. Being shy, I was afraid of looking stupid and having people laugh at me.

When I went to college I got my first union suit and really liked the way it felt when I was outside on a cold day. But I never wore union suits as my standard winter underwear until I took a job at a lumber and mill works for a while in the mid 70's. From November to early March most of the workers wore some sort of long underwear, and for a few of us, union suits were the long johns of choice. I experienced a bit of that same feeling the farm boys in high school felt. Sure, I looked kind of comical when I got home from work and stripped off my layers down to my union suit. But I felt a bit of pride that I was wearing the sort of long johns that generations of working men wore as part of their rural identity.

I ran across your blog while shopping for new union suits (I keep ripping them at the elbows). I now live in Alexandria, Virginia. Retirement won't be too far off and I can probably get back to wearing union suits all winter long. Today, as a white collar professional, I don't wear union suits every day as I did then. But winter weekends still provide me with an opportunity to don my favorite long underwear. I admit I enjoy feeling part of that fraternity.


An Innocent Rube, Part II

As I said, I didn't encounter anyone wearing a union suit in real life until high school gym class. And the boys that wore them were looked up to, popular athletes, and didn't suffer any embarrassment by wearing union suits. In fact, it was a spur to good-natured kidding. I guess that was when I changed my mind about it. I think a psychiatrist would say I began to associate a union suit with a certain type of masculinity and male bonding. I wanted to wear a union suit myself but I'd made such a big deal with my Mom and Dad about refusing to wear long underwear, I couldn't bring myself to buy a union suit until I got to college.

When I was a college freshman at William and Mary, I was in a play where I wore a union suit on stage in front of an audience (there is even a picture of me in it in the Year Book!).   

I played an innocent rube from Toano, a tiny village about 11 miles from Williamsburg, Virginia. I had the lead part. In the show (an original satirical musical about William and Mary), I was a kid from a small hick town who comes to the "big city" of Williamsburg and gets on the tour bus. He gets off at Stop 13: The College of William and Mary (hence the title). The boy wanders into the Wren Building during the dedication of a new computer in the shape of the Wren Building. His curiosity leads him to fall into the computer which falls in love with him. This computer (with a female identity) makes him a senior with a major in Home Economics and tries to advance the academic career of the boy that she loves.

The scene in my union suit is where I find my dorm room. I take off my clothes to climb into my bed and meet my room mates: a hippie and a jock. When the hippie character sings his song, I end up doing the "Charleston" in my union suit. As I said, after that I was totally inoculated from embarrassment about wearing union suits! I totally made a spectacle of myself in my one-piece long underwear but in a show as a comedic character. I could finally find my way to be comfortable as a union suit wearing guy! Since I had the lead, my parents came down to see the show. So, even they saw me in a union suit.

In the show, I fall for a girl. But I discover she is only interested in me so she can steal my term papers on Home Economics to pass on the her Jock boyfriend so he can pass the course and continue to play football. In bitterness I go back to the computer, which I had broken up with. In the end, I become a "computer" myself and take a job as a vice president of Colonial Williamsburg, Inc. I begin a career as an automaton executive.

So this show was not only the theatrical highlight of my college career but also the gateway to finally start wearing union suits without having to hide that it was my long underwear. I took advantage of this public "outing" as a union suit wearer to adopt wearing union suits in my off-stage life.

That pretty much inoculated me from feeling embarrassed about wearing a union suit. I bought a couple of union suits for myself, white ones. Even in the 1970's it was easy to find stores that stocked union suits. Although the Duofold brand began to gain some popularity in trendy men's stores, I preferred the basic old-fashioned type you found in work wear stores. When I briefly went off the career track with a job at the Barber and Ross Lumber and Mill Works in Leesburg, VA, I stocked up on white union suits and wore them every day. That was when union suits really became "underwear" for me, not just something I put on occasionally.
I knew I wasn't the only worker to wear union suits in the winter because when an unseasonably warm day came along, guys would take off their coats and shirts. I could tell who had on a thermal shirt and who had on the one-piece underwear. Union suits may have been the minority choice but I was definitely not alone in my long underwear proclivities. Although I was glad to go back to white collar work when I left, I did miss wearing union suits every day.

As I said, though, it was only in my job at Barber and Ross that I felt I'd really become a day after day union suit wearing guy. So now, I consider union suits a part of my identity. I guess you too, Chris, feel pretty much the same.

Another Union Suit Fan, Ron

Ron, I can't thank you enough for sharing your early life and thespian experience. I was in a couple of plays in high school but not college. However, your play at William and Mary reminded me of my first semester at Boise State University. When I walked into my empty dorm room the first day, incense was burning on one of the study desks, psychedelic posters were hanging from the walls, and a pair of ripped blue jeans were thrown over a chair. Soon enough, I met Glen, a hippie with a beard and shoulder length hair. He even drove a Volkswagen bus! I'm not kidding.

When I undressed for bed that first night though, I was not wearing a union suit but, rather, boxer shorts and a t-shirt. But within three weeks or so the weather had turned cooler and I began wearing union suits, sleeping in them at night. On winter nights, I remember, Glen wore thermal drawers and a t-shirt to bed.

Glen turned out to be a great guy, very introspective and a Beatles fan. The second semester he transferred to a different room with another “hippie.” He dropped out of college the following spring and I never saw or heard from him again. I assume he drove that VW bus down to San Francisco.

Funny how life imitates theatre. …Chris

College Daze - YesterYear

Tuesday, November 5, 2019

Closed Crotch Union Suits for Union Suit Fans

by Cory of Waterford, Maine, Guest Contributor

"Chris, I wonder how many modern day Union Suit wearers know how important the advent of "Closed Crotch" Union Suits was. Before this development, union suits were not all that practical or comfortable. Penman's Canadian Underwear Company realized early on the importance of advertising to get the word out for their "modern" underwear. In January, 1911 they even printed a pamphlet for distribution touting their union suits, "The New Idea in Comfort."

"In theory the union suit has always
been the ideal garment."

A 99 year old newspaper advertisement in the November 18, 1920 edition of the Philadelphia Evening Public Ledger featured "Harvard Mills" closed crotch underwear that promised men their Union Suits would "fit you to a T... tailored and cut by hand to fit."  Why it "Fits as if your tailor made it." The manufacturer was Winship, Boit, & Co. of Wakefield, Mass makers of "high grade underwear."

F. Kohlbeck & Sons, makers of White Cat Union Suits also wanted the world to know that they sold "closed crotch" union suits too!  "No more discomfort; no seam or opening through the crotch...closed like a pair of drawers."

Thanks, Cory. That which we take for granted one hundred years later wasn't always true. These ads sold millions of unions suits in the early to mid 1900's. Who wouldn't want one.... Chris