Onesies are some of the most popular forms of baby wear and a favorite baby shower gift. There are even adult one-piece pajamas that look like large versions of these baby outfits. They have even become streetwear in the form of jumpsuits for men and women. If you are planning to buy one, however, remember that the name Onesies is not generic. It’s a trademarked name for an infant bodysuit, and the trademark is owned by Gerber Childrenswear.
Popular and Practical
A Onesies bodysuit is a soft, one-piece outfit that’s easy to put on any baby. Usually in a soft cotton fabric, it features short sleeves, a snap crotch and no legs.
Onesies became popular because they are comfortable for babies and make life easy for new parents. With no buttons, zippers or ties, they are safe for babies to wear, even while sleeping.
How did this simple garment become so popular that its name is practically a generic term for these bodysuits?
History of One-Piece Suits
Until the 18th century, most babies wore a simple cotton dress that buttoned loosely at the neck. This was standard wear for boys and girls. In fact, adults were the first to wear comfortable, one-piece suits.
In the 19th century, a clothing company in Utica, New York, began producing a one-piece suit in soft flannel it called a union suit. It was designed for women, and it was intended to replace the uncomfortable, constricting undergarments most women wore. The suit was a hit with women. It even appeared in the book Little Women, where it was called a “liberation suit.”
To capitalize on this popularity, the company soon adapted the design into a men’s version.
Working Man’s Favorite
Over time, it was dropped by women, but the comfortable, lightweight men’s union suit became the most worn undergarment for working men and rural men. Traditionally made of red flannel, union suits later appeared in white and other pale colors. Westerns and older movies frequently show male characters taking off their clothes to reveal union suits underneath.
Other manufacturers soon adopted the style for a variety of outfits. Versions of the union suit included one-piece overalls in thick fabric, which were worn by workers who needed protective clothing, like railway workers and mechanics.
During World War II, pilots wore one-piece suits known as flight suits or jump suits. Winston Churchill was fond of one-piece garments, which he wore frequently. After he was spotted wearing a protective one-piece suit during an air raid evacuation, the suit became known as a “siren suit.”
In the late 1940s, most men replaced union suit undergarments with two-piece “long johns.” At the same time, a man named Wiley Denton was working on a children’s version of the union suit.
Dr. Denton’s Sleepers
Denton worked for the Michigan Central Woolen Company, and his first design was a pair of pajamas with attached slippers. The company called it “Dr. Denton’s blanket sleeper,” even though Denton was not actually a doctor. The name was a pure marketing gimmick designed to make people think a doctor designed the sleepers.
The sleepers were an enormous success, and their success allowed Denton to establish his own company, the Dr. Denton Sleeping Garment Mills. Some people today still refer to footed pajamas as “Dr. Dentons.” The brand is so well known that the name Dr. Denton’s, originally a trademarked name, became generic.
How Trademarks Become Generic
Trademarks become “genericized” two ways. One, the trademark holder doesn’t act to protect the trademark by monitoring its use and taking legal action to stop people from using it illegally. Two, a court rules that a term has become so familiar to the public that it can no longer be considered a trademarked term.
Some words in common use that were once trademarks include aspirin, escalator, thermos and zipper. You can add Dr. Denton’s to the list.
The First Onesies
In the 1950s, a tailor named Walter Artzt invented a new version of the famous Dr. Denton design. He called it the Onesie. Sales of his baby suit soared, and Artzt established a successful company that sold Onesies and other baby items.
In 1982, the Gerber Company, which was famous for its baby food, purchased the company and renamed it Gerber Childrenswear. It also trademarked the name Onesies. Because of this, only Gerber’s items are Onesies. The rest are bodysuits, snap suits, rompers or one-pieces.
Protecting Its Trademark
Will Onesies suffer the same genericized fate as Dr. Denton’s pajamas? Gerber Childrenswear is working hard to make sure that doesn’t happen.
On its website, Gerber warns that, “Gerber Childrenswear is proud of the outstanding name recognition of the Onesies brand in the marketplace (95%) and will continue to be aggressive in protecting our trademark (U.S. federal trademark registration numbers 1,292,981, 2,549,557, and 3,488,401) in the market.”
The company has made good on this promise by warning resellers not to use the term “onesies” to advertise their infant baby outfits.
Check out more on common word and phrase trademarks.
OneZ and Etsy
In 2011, Gerber sued clothing company California Christiana Republic over its “oneZ” branded infant bodysuit. Gerber said the company’s use of this violated Gerber’s trademark. The name, although spelled differently, is clearly pronounced like the famous name. The lawsuit was settled, and the company stopped using the name.
In 2014, Etsy announced it was closing several stores on its platform that sold baby clothing. The closures were a response to a case-and-desist letter from Gerber. The letter pointed out that several sellers were using the word “Onesie” to advertise their products. Gerber has taken similar action against sellers on eBay and other online retailers.
Will Onesies Avoid Genericide?
Onesies continue to be a top seller for Gerber, even though many other companies now produce one-piece bodysuits for babies. Gerber’s insistence on protecting its trademark may protect Onesies from becoming another word lost to genericide.