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Where Did The Term “Bunny-Hug” Come From?

Where Did The Term “Bunny-Hug” Come From?

· 18 min. read

For those who don’t know, a “bunny hug” is a colloquial term in Saskatchewan for a hoodie. To fit the definition of a bunny hug, the hoodie must have a hood, drawstrings, a pouch, and no zipper. It’s often during the autumn and winter months.

But, where does this funny name come from?

Well, if you do a quick Google search, you’ll find Dave Diebert’s 2018 “Why Saskatchewan calls a hooded sweatshirt a 'bunny hug'” article, where Diebert says it has two origins. One was due to the over-population of rabbits in the Saskatchewan prairies, and the common fur mits that were made from them. Another was the scandalous “bunny hug” dance, which Diebert claims, originated in the 1920s.

“As for the regionalization of the term, [Tyler Cottenie, circa 2007] discovered the hooded sweatshirt first appeared in the 1959-60 fall-winter Eaton’s catalogue as a children’s fleece-lined hooded sweater, minus a front pouch. The pouch appeared the following year, and by 1964, the sweatshirts were sold for men, girls and boys. A similar garment didn’t appear in the Sears catalogue until 1976, right around the time Cottenie discovered images in U of S and Saskatoon high school yearbooks of students wearing bunny hugs.”

You will also find Leslie Young’s 2017 article, “Five Canadian words and where they came from”. In that, they reference the Dictionary of Canadianisms on Historical Principles, and “theorizes that teenagers in the 1980s, as the hooded sweatshirt became popular, invented and popularized the term. It later became a marker of Saskatchewan identity.”

Margery Fee, a UBC English professor and associate editor of the DCHP, then suggested, “that it’s unlikely the term existed before the hooded sweatshirt. ‘I can’t imagine people in Saskatchewan were wearing something that looked like that in the 1930s.’”

(As we shall see, Margery Fee is incorrect.)

I wanted to dig deeper, so I picked up two additional references: Google Ngram Viewer, which shows the usage of words in printed publications, and my old favourite source Newspapers.com.

Ngram Viewer found the earliest reference to “bunny hug” in a 1913 document titled “The Living Age”, chapter “Everybody’s Doing It!”, which states: “The Bunny Hug is the vilest, atavism, sniggering and self-conscious [of the dances]. It is the white man pretending for the sake of a fresh sensation to be black. He refuses to dine in the same restaurant or ride in the same tram-car with a negro. But he adapts his measures to the ballroom; and courses in ragtime and [offensive term for a black person] English about Suwannee River”.

Oh… ok … um… moving on…

Newspaper.com finds a better (and less racist) first result to work with, this one dating from January 26, 1901, by the San Francisco Examiner. This article discusses some different opinions of scandalous dance. Titled “For the Half and the Hug Young Collegians Blamed - More Opinions From Some People Who Dance, and Some Who Don’t, Concerning Society’s Latest Cotillion Innovation”.

January 26 1901 article by the San Francisco Examiner

The article interviews eight people who give their opinions of the dance. Walter Hall said, “We’re not ashamed of it” and that bunny-hugging with girls is “heaps of joy” and that it “pleases the girl too”. To the contrary, Everett Bee says the bent elbows involved are “deplor[able]”. Miss Allen Day says the dance is the girl’s fault because they aren’t objecting enough to being held so tightly by their partner. If they objected, the gentlemen would loosen their grip, and the uncomfortable and ugly dance wouldn’t happen.

A few big takeaways from this is that the bunny hug dance existed before 1901, and that by 1901 was already frowned upon. Just for clarification, this is the dance in question:

There were so many hilarious headlines about this dance, that I wanted to highlight a few before getting to the clothing connection.

On April 28, 1912, The Omaha Daily News reported that Prince Alexander of Teck, the youngest brother of Queen Mary, and his wife, held an extravagant dinner table competition in England. Different people decorated dinner tables, in their own ideas, and were judged on them. Mrs. Harold Pearson’s dinner table competition had invitations for boys and girls alike, inviting them to “Come and learn the bunnyhug”. Many people came to learn about this much-discussed dance, even though they were aware it was “naughty”. Within a few years, places in England began banning this dance, so I believe this is what started it all.

On May 18, 1912 The Chico Enterprise reports, “Girls ‘Fired’ for Doing ‘Bunnyhug’”:

“Philadelphia, March 25 - The Curtis Publishing Company is without the services of 16 young women who so far forgot the proprietaries and rules of that cooperation as to indulge in the ‘turkey trot’ on the third level of the Ladies Home Journal buildings. They were discovered at the noon hour engaged in this terpsichorean specialty.”

On June 29th, 1912, Fort Wayne Daily News reported that “The Dancing Teacher - Put a Kibosh on some of the Late Dances – The Bunny Hug and Various Kinds of Wriggles Are Called Nasty”

The dance would turn “nasty” a few months later on October 9, 1912 when, according to The Kingston Whig-Standard, “Girls Use Naughty Bunny Hug to Rob - Quaker City Beauties Ousted From Reading When Men Are ‘Squeezed’”. The article says:

“... The police escorted Julia Bradshaw and Lillian Matthews out of [Reading]. They are clever pickpockets and were arrested almost two months ago in City Park. Their plan was to pick out a victim and give him an example of a ‘bunny hug’, at the same time relieving the over-pleased victim of his wallet.”

On October 11, 1912, The Evening Review stated that Gotham (New York City) would be putting in a ban against “immoral dances” like the turkey-trot and the bunny-hug. Similar bannings would occur in Paris on January 19, 1920, Kenosha County in Wisconsin on April 13, 1924 and Quebec on December 23, 1924. The reasoning for these bannings is that the dance took on a revival during the Roaring Twenties when flapper girls started wearing shorter and shorter skirts. I think it’s hilarious that over 20 years after its inception, people were still offended by the dance.

As for the clothing connection, it took until October 16, 1921, The News-Journal out of Mansfield, Ohio to finally get a breakthrough. The B.S. Kahn Co, “Makers of Kute Klothes for Kiddies” (which is a very unfortunate acronym), is selling several warm pieces of clothing, including infant’s knitted suites, a carriage robe and a quilted bunny-hug. It has the caption:

“Slip Snookums in and button him up in a warm Bunny-Hug — all that’s exposed is his nose, mind you – Bunny-Hugs of Silk and curly Elderdown.”

Advertisement for children's clothing in 1921, which includes a bunny-hug

At this point, we had two separate bunny hugs making headlines. One was the immoral dance, and the other was children’s clothing. There would be others too, a football player with the name Bunny-Hug and a boxer. However, the dance and the clothing are the ones we’ll focus on.

On April 16, 1923, a comic was printed in The Fort Wayne Sentinel making a joke about a young woman who could "bunny-hug" all night long with all the men in the ballroom but couldn’t wash dishes at home.

Comic about girl dancing all night, but unable to do wash dishes at home

On May 21, 1923, our very own Regina’s The Morning Leader published a poem making a similar statement:

“The Girl With a Sole

She can Marathon at dancin’ until ev’ry records wrecked
She can bunny-hug or shimmy; not one measure she’ll neglect;
In the fierce, wild competition she’s a leader in the strife,
But she’s never washed the dishes for her mother in her life.”

The Girl With a Sole, in the Regina Leader Post, May 21, 1923

On October 14, 1924, Panoma, California’s The Pomona Progress Bulletin ran an advert for another infant’s clothing called the bunny-hug. The ad reads:

“Johnson’s Baby Goods Dept.
Dainty Pillows
Comforts, Robes, etc.
Be sure to see our money-saving values in things for Baby - especially in Shirts, Sox, Boottees, Dresses and Bunnyhugs. You’ll enjoy outfitting your Layettes here.”

Baby clothing that is called a bunnyhug

On June 18, 1926, The Pomona Progress Bulletin ran another advert promoting Johnson’s bunnyhugs, and on December 18 The Seattle Star ran a little advert with a possible double entendre, “Some fur coats are made from rabbit skins. Give your wife one for Christmas and get a bunny-hug.”

Sioux City Journal ran an interesting piece on August 22, 1927, stating that the “originator of the Bunnyhug got his inspiration from the zoo”. He got the idea while watching dancers on the floor. The article, unfortunately, does not say who the creator was, what zoo, when this occurred, or why people were dancing at the zoo. The reason for this article is that the Sugarfoot Stomp was starting to get popular and was replacing the vile Bunnyhug.

From this point on, articles about the dance begin to fade, with a few still going on about this nearly 30-year-old dance still being done by deviants and daredevils. But, for the most part, bunnyhugs are strictly children’s clothes, as per advertisements on November 8, 1929, December 19, 1929 and January 1, 1930 editions of The News-Journal.

During this time, in the 1930s, the clothing company Champion released a new, innovative product. They created the first sweat-shirt with a hood attached to it. This product hit the market in 1934, but it wouldn’t get the nickname “hoodie” until around the 1990s.

On June 24, 1940, in The Daily News out of New York had an advertisement by McCreery for an adult, sweat-shirt cardigan. It reads:

“Buy a Bunny-hug
Sweat-shirt cardigan with a 3-letter monogram
Only $1.25
Bunnyhug is just the casual thing to wear over slacks. Your own initials on it in any color. Red, yellow, blue, white, coral.”

An advertisement for a bunnyhug jacket for highschool students

The Santa Fe New Mexican wrote on January 9, 1950, about the return of 1920s fashion, “With shorter skirts predicted next spring, with the bunny-hug coats and short evening dresses of the current mode, the flapper cycle is nearly complete.”

In 1960, several pieces of clothing were called “bunnyhugs”, such as glove leather shoes or “cuddle capelets” for children to wear, both printed in The Los Angeles Times. 

A jacket for girls, ages 6-12, called a bunnyhug

Shoes that are called bunnyhugs

The Lubbock Avalanche-Journal out of Lubbock, Texas ran an advertising campaign on July 31, 1960 for girls in high school and college promoting a variety of clothing. One of these items was an “Orlon Bunnyhug in gold” for $10.95. It's in the bottom right corner of the advertisment.

Clothing for young women, with an item called a bunnyhug

The Sun Chronicle out of Roy, Utah had an advertisement on October 15, 1970, promoting something similar to the current type of bunny-hug. It reads:

“the bunnyhug…
Once a dance, now a dazzling bunny soft brushed acetate/nylon fleece jumpsuit, zip-front, tasseled, and belted in a golden braid to wear for at-home entertaining.”

A fashionable 1970s bunnyhug advertisment

It took some time, but the next time I was able to encounter the term “bunnyhug” was in a Saskatoon Star-Phoenix advertisement, dated May 3, 1978:

100% acrylic. Hooded, kangaroo pockets. Pop-over style, with drawstrings waist, and hood. White, yellow, navy, red. Sizes S, M, L.
$5.99 each”

An advertisement for an acrylic bunnyhug

While researching the origin of the term, I read a few articles that stated the term “bunnyhug” was another name for the kangaroo sweatshirt. Newspaper.com doesn't help much here because people actually used to wear kangaroo fur shirts and jackets, so the transition from an actual kangaroo shirt to a shirt simply called a “kangaroo” is tricky. However, in the late 1970s, there were hooded, “kangaroo sweatshirts” advertised in both The Leader-Post and the Star Phoenix. This was many years after a “bunnyhug” clothing was already on the market, and the two clothing types were very similar.

On October 25, 1989, there was even this advertisement in The Leader-Post showing a young man in a sweatshirt with a hood, calling it a “hooded kangaroo”, which is very similar to that of a modern bunnyhug.

A hooded kangaroo sweatshirt

But, four days earlier, my buddy Will Chuban wrote a piece in The Leader-Post called "Cold Comfort", which was about how to dress for the winter. He said the following:

“... The next step is a kangaroo-type (alias bunnyhug or a hooded sweater) jacket and, finally, a 'shell' or windbreaker.”

This article shows that by the late 1980s, a kangaroo sweatshirt had the same meaning as a bunnyhug in the colloquial sense.

So, how did the name originate? With all that said, I'll take a shot at it:

Early in the twentieth century, a popular dance called the bunnyhug emerged. It was so controversial that over decades of suppression, the name cemented itself into society. About thirty years later, as the dance was fading out, a cozy type of children’s clothing came out called a “bunnyhug”. This name might have derived from the dance, and/or because the clothing was fuzzy like a bunny. As the years went on, a bunnyhug meant many different things, including shirts, shoes, and sweaters. Then in the 1970s, a kangaroo-style sweatshirt appears on the market. Because the colloquial term for the past forty years for cozy shirts was “bunnyhug”, this became a bunnyhug too… and it remained that way ever since.

As for why it stuck in Saskatchewan and not elsewhere, I don't know. Maybe it's because of Saskatchewan's tendency to be last to change trends, or maybe we just thought it was a fun name to use.

But, I would love to hear your thoughts on this article, and my theory. Where do you think the term bunnyhug came from? And why do you think it stuck in Saskatchewan but not elsewhere? Let me know in the comments below.

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Where Did The Term Bunny-Hug Come From?Where Did The Term Bunny-Hug Come From?

Categories: Canada, History, Saskatchewan

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