The onesie has brought Britain one step nearer fainéant infantilism than the slanket. The slanket, a portmanteau of sleeved and blanket, reached a height of popularity in 2009. It looked like a monk’s habit, except it fastened at the back, like a hospital gown.
The slanket’s purpose was cosiness while watching television, which people in Britain, apart from us, dear reader, do for more than four hours a day. I admit that during the recent wintry weather I put on my tweed overcoat one evening at home. Unlike the overcoat, the slanket was not intended to be worn in the street.
The onesie has been worn in public by some rich celebrities. I’d expect it to be worn publicly by the sort of people who go out in shellsuits or more recently trackie bottoms. An intermediate stage was to wear it in the car, a species of private space, but one step to the supermarket. Soon, not only in China, supermarkets became uneasy about customers shopping in ‘pyjamas’.
The triumph of the onesie is the name. It is really no more than a jumpsuit. Jumpsuits were fine for parachutists when they were adopted in 1948. They received no helpful publicity in the first decade of the millennium, however, from the orange jumpsuits of Guantanamo Bay. The complication of one-piece connotations, however, is revealed by the siren suit. This was introduced in 1939, with an eye to the comfort of women in air-raid shelters. But then Churchill favoured it, calling his baby-blue siren suit ‘my rompers’ (a word going back to 1902, when Churchill was 27, of American origin, like Churchill’s mother). Fitzroy Maclean in Eastern Approaches (1949) described Churchill’s garment as a boiler suit, a word that came into use in the 1920s.
The onesie exerts an appeal that the boiler suit never had. When the word onesie came into use in the 1980s it referred to a one-piece garment for infants, whose legs were often left uncovered. It was, as the alarming phrase had it, snap-crotch, being fastened between the legs with poppers, or press-studs.
Some who once played hopscotch may remember a ritual declaration at the first square, ‘Welcome onesie.’ All other onesies are to my mind unwelcome.
This article first appeared in the print edition of The Spectator magazine, dated 2 February 2013