Onesies, bodysuits, snapsuits. Whatever you call them, if you’ve got a baby in the house then you probably have dozens of these.
Technically “onesie” is a trademarked term that’s been owned by Gerber Products Company since the early 1980s. As the Gerber Childrenswear website states, “The Onesies® trademark, or any confusingly similar variation thereof (e.g., “Onesie” or “Onezees”), may not be used as a generic descriptor or a noun; it should be used only as an adjective, when referring to the Onesies® brand by Gerber®.”
Still, despite Gerber’s “aggressive” approach to protecting their trademark, Americans tend to use the word colloquially to refer to pretty much any one-piece infant outfit. And American parents certainly continue to dress their babies in onesies ― Gerber-official ones or otherwise.
But have you ever wondered where this type of garment came from and how it became so ubiquitous? It turns out the onesie has many interesting precursors and links to historical events.
Union Suits And Blanket Sleepers
While the word onesie tends to suggest those short-sleeved, legless bodysuits, people also use it in reference to the one-piece, long-sleeved pajamas babies wear. And it was that style of garment (minus the foot fabric) that started getting popular in the late 19th century.
The “union suit” was a sort of long one-piece underwear with roots in Upstate New York during the dress reform movement, aka the rational dress movement of the Victoria era. Though earlier versions of it existed, the first union suit was reportedly patented in 1868 with the descriptor “emancipation union under flannel.” This garment offered an alternative to constricting corsets and bustiers for women though it also became a fashionable option for men and children.
The union suit was traditionally made of flannel with buttons up the front and a flap in the rear known at various times as a “drop seat,” “bum flap,” “access hatch,” “fireman’s flap” and other raunchier names. Over time, two-piece thermal undergarments (i.e. “long johns”) replaced union suits as the go-to choice for “under flannels” in the 20th century.
Still, children were rocking a one-piece clothing item at bedtime ― the blanket sleeper. In the 19th century, a Michigan textile worker named Whitley Denton reportedly invented a special “sleeping garment” for children that came to be mass-produced under the name “Dr. Denton’s blanket sleepers.” The design was initially similar to union suits, but it evolved with new developments like the invention of the zipper.
In the 1950’s, a Vienna native living in Pennsylvania named Walter Artzt changed the onesie game when he invented a one-piece sleepsuit with strategically placed snaps to make diaper changers easier. He trademarked the name, “Babygro.”
Winston Churchill’s Siren Suit
Other one-piece items of clothing rose to prominence around the union suit’s heyday. French acrobat Jules Leotard invented a special bodysuit that he wore while performing until his death in 1870. The garment was incredibly popular among gymnasts, dancers and circus performers and eventually became known by his name.
Additionally, many working-class men had been wearing one-piece coveralls also known as boilersuits during the 19th century, as the Industrial Revolution created a need for attire suitable for new types of labor ― like repairing and cleaning steam engine boilers.
In the 1930s, Winston Churchill commissioned special one-piece leisure suits, possibly inspired by the boilersuits worn by bricklayers working on his estate. He came to wear them frequently in public, including during visits to the White House during World War II.
During the war, people in England were often awakened in the night by the sound of air raid sirens warning of potential German attacks. Churchill’s loose-fitting zip-up suits actually presented a good balance between running outside to seek shelter in your pajamas or underwear and taking the time to get fully dressed.
Instead, people could just quickly put on this piece of clothing over whatever they were wearing when they heard the sirens. Thus, it became known as a “siren suit.”
Churchill wore a variety of siren suits, ranging from gray pinstripe to soft green velvet. In 2002, one of his suits sold at auction for about $40,000. His style was more reminiscent of pilot attire or other adult one-piece garments, but it seems fitting to mention in the context of baby onesie history, given the man famously said, “All babies look like me. But then, I look like all babies.”
These days, plenty of grownups are still experimenting with adult-sized onesies, especially around Halloween. Baby onesies have also become more inclusive, with smaller sizes for preemies and adaptive options for little ones with disabilities. Because clearly everyone deserves to look cute and cozy.