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The History of the Onesie

Striped Onesie

A striped onesie. Photo Credit

What is a Onesie? 

If you have children, or if you’ve ever been to a baby shower, you probably know what a onesie is. It’s a versatile piece of clothing that can be used in layers to keep baby warm, as easy-to-change outerwear, or even as a one-piece outfit unto itself. But did you know that the term “onesie” is actually a trademarked name, even though everyone uses it as if it were a generic term? Did you know that the onesie was in part popularized by Winston Churchill? If that makes you wonder, read on to learn about the surprising history of the baby onesie, something you may not have considered before. 

Pyjamas, Union Suits, Boiler Suits, Bodysuits and Siren Suits

To understand the history of the onesie for babies, we must first understand the history of the onesie in general. The cute bit of cloth with a wide neckline didn’t just pop up from thin air one day. It came from a history of clothing meant for adults. 

Pajamas (called pyjamas in Great Britain) first appeared in the 17th century. We’re interested to know what people wore to bed before this time, but that’s a topic for another article. By the 1880’s, one-piece pajamas were available, and in the 1930’s, silk one-piece pajamas were considered elegant evening wear. 

The one-piece wasn’t only for sleeping, however. Flannel long-johns called Union suits kept soldiers warm during the Civil War, and were a popular undergarment among cowboys. In the Victorian Era, when steam ran the world, railway workers who repaired and cleaned the boilers of steam engines wore one-piece coveralls called boiler suits to protect them from soot and from extraneous clothing snagging on the opening of the boiler, which was just large enough to admit a person. Gymnasts, dancers and circus performers enjoyed new freedom after French trapeze artist Jules Leotard created a bodysuit that fit the needs of the physically active. (Bet you can guess what it became known as.) Pilots during WWI needed to stay warm in their open-air cockpits, and a jumpsuit or flight suit was just the thing they needed. These one-piece suits were made of leather and were later replaced with electrically heated suits to allow pilots to fly at higher altitudes. 

Men in Boiler Suits

Men in boiler suits. Photo Credit

During WWII, England was besieged by German air raids, which often occurred at night. Air raid sirens would sound, warning residents to leave their homes and seek refuge in air raid shelters, which were usually outside their homes, and were sometimes far away. People faced the choice between running to safety in their pajamas, nightgowns, or underwear, or staying in harm’s way while they got dressed. Winston Churchill had another idea.

Possibly inspired by the bricklayers who were working on his estate, Churchill commissioned his shirt-makers to create for him a series of one piece suits that he called “rompers.” What is a romper? To Churchill, it was a legitimate fashion statement, and he wore rompers in various fabrics to important meetings with heads of state all throughout the 1940’s and 50’s. 

Eventually Churchill’s rompers became known as siren suits, a handy garment to pull on over your pyjamas in the event that you have to run outside in the middle of the night to answer the call of the air raid siren. The suits were then marketed to women as fashionable and to children as comfortable and warm. The foundations of the onesie have now been put into place, and its birth is not far off. 

Child Rompers
Comfortable and warm. Photo Credit

From Dresses to Rompers to Onesies: The Baby Clothing Revolution

In the 18th Century, children were viewed and dressed as “little adults,” pushed toward adulthood in an attempt to battle the high mortality rate and to get them into factories sooner. Then Queen Victoria, a fan of Rousseau’s ideas of children as individuals who should be raised differently than small adults, began to dress her children in sailor suits and kilts. Her nation and then the world began to follow her example, and soon everyone was dressing both boys and girls in dresses to imitate the royal family. The dresses started getting more elaborate and frilly, less practical and kid-friendly. Think of traditional christening gowns, but shorter. The counter to this was the boy’s romper, which was a one-piece garment something like a suit jacket connected to a pair of shorts made of the same material. The romper largely replaced dresses for boys by the 1920’s. 

Then came the Great War, the Great Depression, and rationing during World War II. Mothers in Great Britain used government-issued coupons to purchase siren suits for their families, and repurposed too-small suits into other pieces of clothing. Then, in the 1950’s, a Vienna native named Walter Artzt revolutionized children’s fashion and the lives of those who cared for them, especially those who changed their diapers. Mr. Artzt, then living in the US, invented a one-piece sleep romper with a snap front designed to make diaper changes easier. He called it the Babygro, and it was a smash hit.

From there, the onesie climbed in popularity and commonality. The 1972 book 2010: Living in the Future bolstered the onesie’s popularity by claiming that, in the future, everyone would wear one-piece jumpsuits made of comfortable, lightweight material.  Today’s onesies are a baby bodysuit hybrid of the Babygro and the toddler romper. The snaps between the legs allow easy access to baby’s diaper, and the overlapped neckline allows the onesie to slip over a baby’s overly large head, or to slide down the body in the event of a blowout. (Yuck!)

Baby Onesie Bottom
Makes diaper changes easier? Yes, please! Photo Credit

The variety of colors and prints available on a onesie is nearly unlimited. When all babies wore dresses, the traditional color was white. Then pink and blue came into prominence, but not in the way you might imagine. Pink was thought of as masculine and appropriate for boys, while blue was considered feminine and better for girls. The colors had switched genders by the 1940’s, and in the 1960’s and 70’s unisex colors became popular. When it became possible to predict the sex of a baby before it was born, gendered baby products again ruled the market. 

In 1982, Gerber trademarked the name “Onesies.” Since then, the term for baby bodysuits has passed into the common vernacular for most people, despite Gerber’s attempts to defend their trademark. Technically, though, only Gerber brand Onesies are true onesies. Others are bodysuits, snapsuits, rompers or one-pieces. Unless you’re selling handmade bodysuits online, though, you’re probably safe to continue calling them all onesies, brand-names notwithstanding.

Colorful Onesies
So many colors, so little time! Photo Credit

Today there are onesies in all colors, custom onesies with specified phrases or names on them,and onesie extenders to make favorite onesies last longer. Romper pajamas come in fleece to keep babies warm in winter, while cotton romper sleepers keep them cool in the summer. Baby romper suits come with zippers or snaps, with long sleeves or short sleeves. There are onesies with frilly sleeves, sleeveless onesies, and baby bodysuits with little skirts attached or ruffles on the buns. Onesies and pajama rompers can be a fashion statement all their own. And they aren’t just for babies any more.   

Onesies for the Whole Family  

In 1998 a company called JumpinJammerz made footed pajamas in adult sizes as a gimmick for a rock band. These onesie pajamas took off and now onesies for men and women are widely available for purchase anywhere from Amazon to Walmart. Rompers have also come into style as a casual look for women, though they aren’t as widespread as the pajama version are. Meanwhile, baby rompers and unique baby onesies are everywhere. There are even onesies with built-in baby monitors!  

Adult Onesie Pajamas
Adult onesie pajamas for staying comfy all year round. Photo Credit

Whether they’re keeping people warm or helping babies look cool, onesies certainly have a more storied history than you probably imagined. Perhaps you’ll think of Winston Churchill the next time you dress your little one in a warm baby romper!

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