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Under cover

Despite the many layers we don to keep warm in the winter, our legs tend to be neglected. As Eric Andrew-Gee writes, long johns – and our bottom half – deserve more respect

Underwear is the sort of thing that most people would rather buy for themselves, so a few years ago when I opened a Christmas present from my Aunt Caroline, I was nonplussed. At the bottom of a shiny paper bag, buried in reams of high-quality tissue paper, was a pair of long johns. Pro forma holiday cheer masked my disappointment as I grinned and thanked her. I had asked for thermal underwear the way you ask for socks – for want of inspiration. Actually receiving them was a letdown.

Today, I remember this reaction for its folly. Those long johns, along with an additional two pairs and counting, have become a staple of my winter wardrobe. If the temperature is much below freezing, I don't go outside without them.

At the end of the 19th century, Stanfield’s created a name for itself by selling full-body long underwear to those heading northwest to strike it rich in the gold rush

Wearing long johns means I am never cold. Ever. It hardly seems credible, but there it is. I learned this in the middle of a Montreal winter three years ago – the kind of winter that makes you feel like your organs might give out any minute. It turns out my legs were just cold. The long johns made Parc Avenue feel like Miami Beach.

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This discovery hit me with the force of gospel. It seemed nothing short of miraculous that such a neglected piece of clothing could so revolutionize the experience of winter. Surely the worst thing about Canada is that it's painfully cold for half the year. I was learning that it doesn't have to be.

Since the thing to do with gospel is spread it, I've become a long-john evangelist. I advocate for the things whenever I get a chance. But the missionary's life has brought another surprise: Not everyone shares my passion for long johns.

Some people even claim not to wear them!

Long johns have since evolved technically, with fabric innovation like the Expedition weight thermals, and fashionably, with appearances on runway shows presented by the likes of Dolce & Gabbana. Stanfield's

These people are usually just sadly ignorant, like I once was. Once someone is converted, they rarely lapse. The puzzle is that anyone needs to be converted in the first place. Long johns aren't a frill or an eccentricity. They should be as native to the Canadian kit as gloves and a toque.

Consider how many layers we wrap around our torsos in winter: usually three or four, one of which may be stuffed with inches of down. Hands and head are swaddled in wool. Feet get enormous kludgy boots. And our legs? One measly layer of cotton, corduroy or denim.

Old-timey Canadians knew better. The Truro, N.S. company Stanfield's grew rich selling full-body long underwear to prospectors setting off for the Klondike Gold Rush at the end of the 19th century. The heavy wool onesie was perfect for miners living rough in the Yukon – and the "Drop Seat" bum flap didn't hurt either.

In the public imagination, long johns still seem to be stuck in their droopy-crotch, waffle-pattern cotton phase – the ur-long johns that hicks and grandfathers are known to wear. But the garment has long since transcended its homely past. Today, Stanfield's sells 15 varieties of long john, says spokesperson Curtis Scaplen, including tech-y innovations like "performance microfleece" and "HeatFX" merino blends.

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There was even a high-fashion revival of long underwear about five years ago, culminating with the inclusion in the runway shows of labels like Jean Paul Gaultier and Dolce & Gabbana. This was around the time that David Beckham confided in an interview that Victoria preferred him to walk around the house in long skivvies, prompting a sales surge.

It was all a rather heady departure for the humble long john. The name is commonly thought to have been inspired by the 19th-century American boxer John L. Sullivan, who fought in tights, and gained currency among American G.I.s during the Second World War.

The amateur etymologist Michael Quinion seems even to have dated the first long john-related gripe to this period, in a Wisconsin newspaper report about life at the front: "Many a rookie has been ridiculed and laughed at the first time he swallowed his pride and donned his LONG JOHNS," the author declared. "They are the winter underwear issued by the Army, and have the disturbing effect of making a G.I. look like a scarecrow trapeze artist."

I actually rather fancy the trapeze artist look, but how they look has always been incidental to the long john's appeal. They are underwear; comfort is the whole ballgame. The war correspondent recorded a more germane complaint on this score: "They itch but good!" And so they used to, when long johns were mainly made of wool.

The pair that seduced me was the product of a more sophisticated age. In her infinite, if belatedly appreciated, wisdom, Aunt Caroline scored for me Mountain Equipment Co-op's sleek T3s. These came with a small thesaurus of space-age fashion jargon that an interview with company materials guru Kerri McKenzie did little to decode. A "gusseted crotch" makes long strides easier; the "voided grid construction" keeps fabric dry; and a "Polygiene silver ion treatment" disperses odours.

Above all, the T3s are incredibly warm. What better recommendation could there be? Wearing a pair feels like owning a luxury that's also a bare necessity. Like being armed with a secret weapon against winter. Like an epiphany and an addiction.

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McKenzie rested the long john's case. "I don't think anyone's gonna die if only their legs are really cold, but it's gonna suck!" she says. "And it's as simple as that."

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