Long johns have never really been cool as such, but in recent years they have started to develop a certain kitsch cult like status in recent years. Long johns are long thermal underwear in with two parts, a top and bottoms, however, a lot of people confuse long johns with the union suits, which are all in one thermal suits.
The production of long johns can be traced back to Matlock in Derbyshire in the late 19th Century where they are believed to have originated. Long johns were first manufactured at John Smedley’s Lea Mills, although they are thought to have been named after boxer John Sullivan, who was reputed to wear a similar outfit to long johns when he fought in the ring. John Lawrence Sullivan, AKA Boston Strong Boy, is generally recognised as the last heavyweight champion of bare knuckle boxing under the London Prize Ring rules. He was also the first heavyweight champion of gloved boxing, a title he held for some 11 years, between 1881 and 1892. However, perhaps the best stat about the long johns’ supposed namesake is that he’d already won 450 fights before challenging anyone from the whole of America to fight him for the once princely sum of $500.
While John L. Sullivan is widely credited as the namesake of the thermal underwear, there is no conclusive evidence to support this. In fact, an adjustable set of thermal underwear is attributed to Stanfield’s Ltd of Nova Scotia. Frank Stanfield patented the underwear in 1915, but earlier in 1898, Frank and his brother John developed Stanfield’s Unshrikable Underwear, so who knows, maybe that had some part to play in the name long johns.
Obviously, thermal underwear predates all of this by a significant margin. For example, the union suit dates back to the mid 19th Century as an alternative to constrictive under garments for women during the United States of America’s clothing reform movement. The first patent for the union suit was placed in 1868, but it didn’t take long for the underwear to become popular with men also. Perhaps the funniest aspect of the union suit is the buttoned up rear flap at the back, which went by the name "access hatch", amongst many others.
Long johns and other thermal underwear, like the union suit, have been made out of a large number of different materials over the years. In the United States this has ranged from cotton and linen originally to cotton-polyester blends and polypropylene in more modern garments. In Europe, manufacturers favoured wool blends for their long johns, but again more synthetic materials like polyester have also been incorporated into the production process as advancements have been made.
Long johns are regarded with some comedic derision in modern underwear terms. They are the butt of many jokes and are predominantly thought of as being old fashioned and countrified. However, in winter sports circles and colder climes, long johns and their modern day thermal underwear alternatives are still quite popular. When you’re cold, it doesn’t seem to matter what you’ve got on under your clothes to keep you warm. Additionally, it could also be argued that long johns have developed to a certain kitsch appeal that has grown out of the very comedy and rural charms that had initially provided derision for them.