Knickers – Precursor to Slacks for Women

After all the talk about knickers in yesterday’s post and comments I thought I’d show a few photographic examples from the 1920s.

Knicker is short for knickerbocker, which is a word that became associated with New York after the publication of Washington Irving’s History of New York.  An old-fashioned character in the book was named Knickerbocker, and the name became sort of a synonym for the old breeches-wearing Dutchmen of New York.  At some point the knee breeches themselves became known as knickerbockers.

Women, and especially school girls, had been wearing bloomers for sports since the nineteenth century, but knickers are not the same as bloomers.  Bloomers were very full and were usually contained at the below the knee hem by elastic.  Knickers were much slimmer and were fastened at the knee by a button closure.

Knickers were commonly worn by boys before they graduated into long pants.  By the early 1920s women were also wearing them for hiking and camping.  I guess it makes sense that girls who were adopting the style of le  Garçon, would literally take to wearing his pants.

In most of these photos you can see that young women often wore their knickers with knee socks.  The socks had a decorative band at the top which was worn over the band of the knickers.

A middy was often worn over the knickers, sometimes along with a cardigan.

This woman looks to be a bit old to be wearing a middy, but when camping necessity must have put a lot of odd ensembles out there.

This looks to be a sweater with a middy collar.

A “mannish” shirt and tie were also worn with knickers.

This woman’s pants look more like riding breeches than true knickers due to the narrowness at the knees.  But check out her boots!

This woman appears to be wearing shorts, but I thought her outfit was pretty interesting.  It looks like writing on the shirt, and what an odd choice of shoes for a hike.

Everything you read about women wearing pants in the 1920s mentions that women wore them only in the most outdoorsy of occasions, but here is a photo showing a woman wearing them in front of the Capitol building in Augusta, Maine.  What a fashion rebel!

24 Comments

Filed under Collecting, Curiosities, Proper Clothing, Vintage Clothing

24 responses to “Knickers – Precursor to Slacks for Women

  1. Incredibly interesting as always, thank you Lizzie.
    Most fashion styles make a comeback, what about knickers for women?

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  2. Thank you for the distinction between knickers and bloomers. I’m never sure when elastic suitable for clothing became widely available — I ought to look it up!
    Incidentally, among the words that mean very different things in England and America are “knickers,” “pants,” “vests,” and “suspenders.” In the U.S., they don’t refer to undergarments. (Well, “knickers” was a name for ladies’ undies in both countries in the 1920s. But only in the UK did men say to an angry woman, “Don’t get your knickers in a twist.” As far as I know.) Another avenue for research….

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    • Mim

      Yes, I used to work on a British knitting magazine and got an email from an American lady asking for a pattern for ‘knitted knickers’. She got very annoyed when I directed her to a site specialising in lingerie patterns, and I didn’t have a clue what she was looking for…

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    • Your comment made me go look at some early 1920s catalogs. In them the terms bloomers, drawers, and knickers were all used for women’s underpants. But, all the bloomers had elastic, and all the knickers had legs gathered into a band. I’m not sure what distinguished drawers!

      My guess is that as underpants got smaller at the end of the 1920s, the new, sleeker models were called panties. For some reason, the name stuck in Britain.

      Around here it is pretty common to hear someone say, “Don’t get your panties in a bunch!”

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  3. i think they were vrery daring! i have photos of my GrAunt and sisters wearing them iposed along side of their Stutz auto…with bobed hair-no less!..in the mid 70’s i remember them showing up in rtw by a sportswear designer(can’t remember who)..hey were very popular…and looked great! Thank you for the Knickerbocker history-as always! If you can find the book “the Best Families” some great old photos of society fashion in it from those periods..i also have photos of the sailor collar blouses and worn with knickers circa 19010’s..let’s hope someone brings them back..especiallly for Fall

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  4. Love your explanation & piccies, Lizzie – thank you!
    Also adding my vote to bring them back, particularly if we get to wear similar boots!
    del

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  5. Ah, I love these photos! And you made me go back and look at the several photos I have on my computer of my maternal grandmother, Edna, wearing knickers in the 1920s. She didn’t wear a middy blouse in any of the photos, but in one she is wearing her knickers with striped socks and a bow tie! I also have a photo of her and a male friend standing on railroad tracks–both wearing knickers. I really love these photos.

    I had a pair of knickers in the early 1980s. They were fashionable at my school briefly as part of a “preppy” look; I wore mine with sweaters and argyle socks.

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    • According to some sites I’ve read, the early 80s knicker fad was triggered by a photo of Princess Diana. It looks like she is wearing trousers (but could be knickers) with thick socks and wellies over them. Makes sense.

      I love how some of the 1920s women took the knicker look to masculine extremes!

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  6. Figuring out how pants moved from the gym and the campground to the Capitol building and the dinner party is one of my favorite topics! Thanks so much for these photos.

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  7. Christina

    Elastic was developed for clothing in the mid 19th century. As for the term “knickers” being used as an undergarment in the 1920’s in Britain, I have never come across a reference so I would love to know if there is one. In Britain as in North America, knickers were worn by women as outer garments during the 1920’s and later for outdoor pursuits and for athletics and gym wear. There is reference to silk knickers as underwear in Britain in 1940. I think cami-knickers were a precursor to knickers because of the style which had elastcated legs although I haven’t come across a reference that substantiates that theory.

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    • It would be interesting to see how the word “knickers” has been used on both sides of the Atlantic. From my own limited searches through mass marketing catalogs, in the late 1920s knickers was no longer used for undies, bloomers was still being used, and two newer terms – step-ins and panties – were being used. I can remember my grandmother referring to panties as bloomers and as step-ins.

      I thought cami-knickers were a combination camisole and drawers.

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      • Yes, cami-knickers were just as you say, a combination garment.

        In the 19th century, “drawers” was the name for an undergarment with legs, worn primarily by women but also by men as a lining to trousers. Contrary to popular imagination, the legs of drawers were straight, with no banding at the knee at all – if anything, at the end of the century they tended to have flared-out lace as did the petticoats of the period. They were pretty much an optional garment until the introduction of the hoop in 1856, when it suddenly became important to have something to hide your body if your skirt flipped up!

        “Bloomers” were the Turkish-trouser-inspired nether garment worn by the Rational Dress reformers in the 1850s and named after Amelia Bloomer, who was famous for them (although she wasn’t the one who introduced them). They were very full and closed to a band at the ankle, and were worn under a knee-length-skirted dress or tunic. They were talked about a great deal more than they were actually worn. They disappear from view in the 1860s, and then reappear in the 1890s with the cycling craze, when they suddenly became an indispensable part of sportswear. The 1890s version only reached the knee, of course.

        With the revival of shortened “bloomers” for sportswear, by the turn of the century they seem to have been put to multiple uses (about which you then know more than I do) – gym clothes, etc. – as well as adapting the form of drawers to a gathered-leg style and giving them the bloomer name, including in swimwear.

        The term “knickers” has a complicated evolution as well. The early 19th-century author Washington Irving invented a popular backstory about Dutch settlers named Knickerbocker in New York who held onto 17th-century baggy knee breeches long after they had gone out of fashion. When baggy knee breeches became a fashion for boys in the late 1850s, they were dubbed knickerbockers, and the name stuck and was soon abbreviated to knickers – and the style was adopted by grown men as well for hiking and hunting. As with bloomers, when cycling came into fashion in the 1890s men’s knickers were suddenly everywhere, and some bloomers were referred to as “ladies’ knickers” too. With “knickers” on everyone’s mind, so to speak, the term seems to have been applied rather quickly to the similar, existing undergarment.

        Sorry that got so long! I am always fascinated by the evolution of garments and terminology.

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  8. vastlycurious.com

    Love these old photos and the history ! I guess you know that knickers are now being shown again in the stores too?

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  9. Alisha

    Interesting Post!

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