Winston Churchill style icon? Siren Suits – the precursor to Onesies.

It was only 2 or 3 years ago where much of the world, or at least those perhaps lacking in sartorial elegance, was obsessed with an item of clothing known as a Onesie.  Usually made for people who want a comfortable, cosy evening on the sofa or perhaps for those not going out on a quiet weekend.

Hard as it might be to believe, these outfits of teddy bears, bunny rabbits, stormtroopers and the rest were all influenced by none other than wartime Prime Minister, Sir Winston Churchill.

In the late 19th century, at the height of the Victorian steam era, a new item of clothing appeared in the workplace for men who worked in heavy industry. Coal-fired boilers were powering industry all over Britain and the Empire but they needed regular cleaning and inspecting to maximise their output and for simple reasons of safety. This was a dirty job, and the men who undertook such maintenance adopted a long-sleeved, high-necked one-piece protective garment to stop grime and dust from entering. This all-in-one overall became known, therefore, as a ‘boiler suit’. Almost like a 19th century space suit without the astronaut helmet.

Soon their use spread not just to steam trains but by the 1930’s to racing drivers, factory workers, mechanics, sportsmen, flyers, motorcyclists… and bricklayers. They were in some circles fashionable, depending on who was wearing them.   This was what was behind Churchills inspiration for what he called a Romper Suit though which most others labelled as Siren Suits.

Churchill of course amongst his many other talents played his part with the invention of military tanks and floating Mulberry Harbours.

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Churchill in one of his more military-like Siren Suit with General Montgomery (Monty)

The ‘siren suit’, which bears resemblance to the infamous ‘onesie’, is a practical one-piece item of clothing originally designed by Sir Winston Churchill during the Second World War to be quickly slipped over his clothes in the event of an air raid. The great statesman had a variety of siren suits, which he referred to as ‘romper suits,’ including sombre, military style suits, as well as more extravagant pin-striped and velvet versions.

With the endorsement of Churchill, the wartime appeal of the siren suit spreads far and wide and they were particularly popular with women keen to protect their modesty.   The air raid sirens would sound out and if you were gambling on sleeping in your house rather than a sheet then you could jump out of bed and into your siren suit, zip it up and be running to safety in seconds.

Of course, his were a cut above, being tailor-made by his very distinguished shirtmaker Turnbull & Asser in a variety of colours and materials, including pinstripe, blue serge and, perhaps most famously, green velvet. Turnbull & Asser were often called upon to repair the garments, which Churchill wore them when off-duty and during the Battle of Britain, in Washington for his visit with Roosevelt, planning D-Day with Eisenhower and at the Yalta Conference with Stalin. The repairs, though, were never due to hostile action – it was cigars that took their toll.

Only three original Churchill siren suits are known to still exist, including the famous green velvet one, which is in the Turnbull & Asser collection. Velvet is hardly a practical material for manual work or suitable for formal meetings, so perhaps this leisure version – a sort of one-piece smoking jacket – can be seen as the ancestor of what became the ‘onesie’.  Either way, these suits have inspired work, leisure and fashion wear for over 80 years.

You can see some Churchills surviving Siren suits on my Ye Olde England Tours Churchill Walking Tour and War Rooms tour where we can visit his Turnbull and Asser or to his home at Chartwell House.

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About Stephen Liddell

I am a writer and traveller with a penchant for history and getting off the beaten track. With several books to my name including a #1 seller, I also write environmental, travel and history articles for magazines as well as freelance work. Recently I've appeared on BBC Radio and Bloomberg TV and am waiting on the filming of a ghost story on British TV. I run my own private UK tours company (Ye Olde England Tours) with small, private and totally customisable guided tours run by myself!
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