Your Cute, Summer Onesie Has An Apocalyptic Origin Story

Photo: Courtesy of Nordstrom.
With festival season in full swing, onesies are once again a wardrobe staple. The loose, one-piece garment and its shorter counterpart, the romper, have been popular for decades (with their cousins, the jumpsuit and catsuit enjoying their own sporadic bursts of popularity). But, unlike the utilitarian jumpsuit, which first came into use by pilots and mechanics in the 1910s, or the union suit (long flannel underwear favored by cowboys, Civil War soldiers, and this writer's dad), the onesie’s origins are a bit more colorful. Despite its Coachella-ready, boho vibe, the onesie as we know it today was born several decades ago, in the shadow of war.

During much of the 1940s, Great Britain was in crisis. Axis forces systematically attacked British supply ships, leading to shortages of gas, food, clothing, and other commodities. But, the British still needed to continue supplying goods to Allied troops fighting in Europe. The urgent need to conserve resources led the British government to enact a strict rationing system in 1939.

Each citizen received a ration book filled with coupons that, when presented in the correct numbers, could “buy” them gas, food, and, starting in 1941, clothing. But, the amount of clothing coupons dwindled each year, falling from 66 in 1941 to 24 in 1945 (for perspective, keep in mind that in 1945, a man’s overcoat “cost” 18 coupons). Women bemoaned the lack of lace and stockings, but came up with ingenious ways to keep up appearances despite lack of fabric. Gravy powder was used to draw “stocking” lines on the back of bare legs, parachutes were sewn into everything from underwear to wedding dresses, curtains became trousers and blouses, and the ultra-frugal "Make Do and Mend" ethos took hold.

At the same time, Brits lived under the threat of Nazi bombing campaigns. Thousands of bomb shelters were built across the nation and citywide air raid drills became a part of life in most British towns. Many a night's silence was broken by the wail of air raid sirens, ushering citizens down into bomb shelters, where they waited for the “all clear” to sound. As soon as you heard the siren, you knew you’d better jump out of bed and run for your life, no matter how cold it was outside, or how scanty your nightgown may be. 

So, to help people cover up in a hurry (while using a modicum of fabric), the “siren suit" was born. Originally popularized as a leisure suit back in the 1930s by iconic leader Winston Churchill, the hooded, one-piece garment came with a belt, zipper, large pockets, and provided warmth and modesty — quickly — when the siren sounded.
Photo: Courtesy of Let Me Fashion.
They were a hit amongst women in particular.  Mothers lusted after them for their high-quality material — the thick tartan wool of a too-small siren suit could be easily transformed into a smart new set of trousers for a growing child. With typical rationing-era ingenuity, they began sewing up their own designs, creating infinitely more fashionable variations than Churchill’s drab version. Churchill himself was devoted to the siren suit and wore his all the time, even after the war, leading to some truly comical photo ops that found the British Bulldog himself, kitted out in a fetching, bottle-green siren suit alongside Stalin, Eisenhower, and other heads of state.

Eventually, the war ended, the dust cleared, and rationing became a distant memory. The siren suit remained — though its popularity lessened as its necessity did. Its fearsome origins were forgotten as it transitioned back to its loungewear roots. The '60s and '70s saw designers put a luxe spin on the one-piece suit — Pucci's version in silk paisley version proved especially popular with haute hippies of the era. Eventually, the one-piece left behind the memory of its past, leaving us with the whimsical, body-conscious garment we know and love today. Next time we slip one on, we'll be grateful it's worn by fashion choice and not necessity — and of course, we can only wish to wear ours as well as Churchill.
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