Thursday, November 14, 2019

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


  1. Scott of Scottsdale, AZ emailed: "That was a real kick reading about Ron Payne playing the part of a rube and appearing in his union suit at college. It brought back memories for me. A few years back at my college, I played the emperor in "The Emperor's New Clothes." We not only performed this play at the college over several nights but took to the stage at grade schools and middle schools. The kids loved it. The ending of this play as you probably know requires the hood-winked, self-possessed ruler to appear before his subject's in his underwear. I wore a suit of long red underwear. It brought down the house where ever we performed. My folks didn't make it to the play but saw plenty of pictures of me in that union suit. Like Ron, I've been wearing union suits ever since that memorable time. It's usually too warm in Scottsdale to wear them but I spend a great deal of time in the northwest U.S. where it is cool and rainy. Union suits keep me comfortable there. A big thanks to Ron and to you Chris for your entertaining and often times hilarious blog!"

    1. Thanks Scott. Actually, I have been planning a posting of the "The Emperor's New Clothes" to appear over the next couple of weeks. Look for it in my other blog, "Union Suit Fans in the Limelight." There is a relatively new take in the form of a musical that middle and high school kids like to perform. Red union suits seem to be the underwear of choice for the emperor. If you have any college photos of you as the emperor, send them to me and I will include in this posting... Chris

  2. I performed in the band in both the high school band and a community band. Performing in the high school band required playing for the football games and the community band had me marching in the Christmas parade. That was when I lived I Wisconsin. I loved the cooler or cold weather performances because I then got to wear my favorite long underwear or union suit to keep warm. You see, I have had a thing for long underwear since I was small and never outgrew it. Now I live in Sun City, AZ, not far from Scottsdale. As you know, we don't get many true long underwear days in this area. Although I do still wear mine quite often even if it is only indoors with the A/C on. So I share you frustrations and wait for days to just layer up and be come. Yes there are times I just need a fix and wear them in the summer down here and enjoy every minute of it.

  3. It is amazing to read of how guys got started wearing union suits. For so many guys, like Ron, they were considered something too old fashioned to wear. Beyond that, too many guys would not even think of wearing long underwear in any form, not cool enough. That is ashamed that we have gotten to the point over the years. Back in the 40's/50's moms and dads were more practical and would make sure that their boys were properly dressed in the winter, which included long underwear, particularly union suits. Even in the 60s/70s my parents insisted that I wear a union suit from the first hint of cold in the fall on through at least April. To say the least, it was embarrassing in school. But it made me stronger, and actually, some guys asked about them and a few would experiment. But, it built a good habit for me, and found that I was wearing them increasingly late into the year for the comfort, or earlier into the season. I also found that even in warmer weather that short sleeved suits are very comfortable, and just make me feel good. It would be nice to see a stronger resurgence of boys and men wearing them.

    1. Hey Michael and Doug: thanks for your comments. Always happy to hear from others who like wearing union suits like Ron and me. When you get a chance send me an email: ... Chris