The long and the short of essential winter underwear

Let’s talk about underwear. The winter kind. The long kind.

The undercover agents of the clothing industry. The clandestine coverups, the secret skin, the unsung heroes of the holy battle against -20 C. Topical timing, is it not?

You’ve got your wool, your thermal, your onesie, your two piece, and even something called Thermoflyte Tights. Not sure about that last one. It sounds a little too Shakespearian to me, but I say, hey, whatever warms the cockles of your heart.

And boy, do we need a little warmth these freaky frigid days of February. So, hands up – how many of you dug out your long johns and actually wore them in, say, the past two weeks?

OK, wow, that’s a lot. I had no idea. Right, now just the men …

Thing is, who knows what lurks beneath those nice winter wardrobes that people wear these days. And better yet – why do we call them long johns?

I was wondering the same thing, so, being pathologically curious, along with clinically frozen these days, I took the liberty of engaging in many interesting minutes deep in the entrancing topic of long underwear.

I’m not sure how you spend your evenings, but this might have been the highlight of my week. Pathetic, I know.

So it turns out that long underwear was first introduced way back in the chilly 1600s in (where else?) chilly old England.

The first ones were made of straw left over from the roofs of their cottages and … OK, so I was just checking to see if you were paying attention to this fascinating history lesson.

Actually, the underwear was just a boring bunch of cotton, but the point is, really, why long johns? The long part is pretty obvious, even to me, but my extensive research (Wikipedia) shows that the toasty garments were “probably” named after a heavy-weight boxer (or “knife fighter”) named John L. Sullivan, who always fought (or knifed?) wearing one-piece long underwear.

(The boxing arenas in those days were probably very cold, what with the thatched roofs and everything.) There was no credible information on who invented the long john onesie trap door, however.

But whatever the provenance of the long john happens to be, we chronically cold Canucks are silently thanking our lucky, albeit frozen, stars.

But there is a caveat surrounding the sporting of John’s long underclothing, however: heatstroke. And if that isn’t irony, I don’t know what is.

Long-john induced heatstroke is something I am painfully and personally all too familiar with. Back in the Pentatonic Era, I had a job in an office, and in the middle of a severe cold stretch, I took to wearing my two-piece red thermal long johns.

Thing is, these were a necessary and welcome accoutrement to and from work, but not at, as it were. Eight to 10 hours in an aggressively heated office wearing long underwear is a recipe for chronic heat prostration.

No wonder I kept hitting my forehead on my desk. And also, passing out in an office is not that productive. Not to mention professional.

So you have to be a bit careful when it comes to overdosing on long johns. Which for some reason, reminds me of a long john joke I found during my extensive underwear research:

So these tired and dirty soldiers had been in the field for two weeks without a break, when the sergeant announces: “Good news and bad news, men! The good news is today we’re going to change underwear.”

The troops cheer wildly.

“Now the bad news,” Sarge says. “Smith, you change with Jones, Murphy, you change with Andrews …”

Harley Hay is a Red Deer writer and filmmaker.

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