Knickerbockers for Women: From Under the Hiking Skirts to the Fad of the Hour – Part I

I may have mentioned here that I talked myself into submitting a paper for possible presentation at my regional Costume Society of America symposium.  It sounded like a good idea at the time, though I wasn’t even sure the paper would be accepted.  Well, it was, and so I’ve spent way too much time over the past few months on the research and writing (and rewriting, and rewriting…) of it.  But the symposium is this weekend, and I think I’m all ready, with a fancy PowerPoint and a new skirt fresh off the sewing machine.

I wish I could take all of you with me, but since I can’t, I’m doing the next best thing.  I’ll be posting the paper here over the next four days, without the fancy PowerPoint, but with the same photos with annotations.  I hope you enjoy it.

Knickerbockers for Women: From Under the Hiking Skirts to the Fad of the Hour – Part I

By the mid 1920s women hikers were openly taking to the trails wearing their knickerbockers and breeches, while the first women hikers, just two generations before them had to make do in the woods wearing skirts that dragged the ground.

There are many factors that led to women wearing pants as a matter of course, and one of them is how the popularity of hiking and camping led women to adopt an increasingly practical way of dressing for the woods.

Hiking as a pastime began in Europe.  As early as the 18th century rich English travelers had been traveling to Switzerland for a bit of mountain rambling.  Hiking tourism really took off with the formation of the Alpine Club in England in 1857, and with the first Cook’s tour to the Alps in 1863.  By the 1880s walking, hiking, and rambling were common forms of exercise for both the men and women of Britain and the Continent.

In the US the situation was different, with hiking not really being an attractive activity until late in the 19th century.  As the US was settled westward, long distance walking accompanied by camping at night was not a choice, but a necessity.  The wilderness was to be conquered, not enjoyed.  In the mid 19th century many Americans were too close to the pioneer experience to have a positive view of the wilderness.

But even as American pioneers were continuing to move into wilderness areas, people in the settled East were taking a more romantic view of nature, perhaps being influenced by European writers and travelers.  At the same time improvements in transportation, especially the railroad, made getting to wilderness areas much easier.

As improved technology gave Americans more free time, the idea of vacations became popular with even the middle and working classes.  Magazine articles and books began recommending an outdoor vacation as a cheaper and healthier alternative to resorts and beach holidays.

The healthy effects of long walks out-of-doors were recommended by Harper’s Bazar magazine as early as 1867. Throughout the rest of the 19th century Harper’s Bazar was an advocate for outdoor walking and hiking.  An article in 1885 stated, “The more of out-door life we have, the better it is for us, morally, mentally, and physically.”

Tomorrow: What women hikers wore in the 19th century.



Filed under Camping and Hiking, Proper Clothing, Sportswear

21 responses to “Knickerbockers for Women: From Under the Hiking Skirts to the Fad of the Hour – Part I

  1. Lizzie, this is a grand first part – thank you for thinking of us. And
    CONGRATULATIONS on having it accepted for presentation!
    Are the presentations open to everyone, or just members? If everyone, please give details.


  2. First part soooo interesting, can’t wait for the next.
    Congrats on your paper, nothing focuses the mind like a deadline
    and an audience!


  3. Ms. Lizzie – fabulous so far. Great intro – looking forward to more. And congratulations!


  4. What a great idea to share your paper here!


  5. What a great gift to us! Thank you, Lizzie–I am looking forward to reading Part 2.


  6. Fantastic stuff ! Congrats and looking forward to the rest!


  7. I love the historical background you provide. Thanks for explaining the difference in attitudes toward hiking in Europe and the US—of course the women in the US (and Canada) weren’t as taken with wilderness experiences as were the ladies in Europe. They were too busy just surviving! Can’t wait for Part 11…


  8. Lynne

    Congratulations on having your proposed talk accepted. I have one question and I am sorry if I missed the explanation, but where did the term knickerbockers come from?


  9. Enjoyed your presentation very much! Learned a lot. You have to wonder if pioneer women really wore long skirts all the time. Filthy and impractical. I’m betting when no one was around the homestead they came up with lots of better ideas.


  10. Pingback: Currently Reading – Suiting Everyone: The Democratization of Clothing in America | The Vintage Traveler

  11. Pingback: Victorian Money Means Coins ~ Research Behind Prudence (Behind the Magic) - Gail Carriger

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