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

So with much encouragement, people across the US took up camping, hiking, and out-dooring, a general term of the time that encompassed many outdoor activities .  It became clear early on that some concessions concerning dress had to be made, especially for women.  One of the first American guides to outdooring was published in 1869.  Adventures in the Wilderness; or, Camp Life in the Adirondacks, by William Murray, gives a suggestion to women from the author’s wife.  Wear “a short walking dress, with Turkish drawers fastened with a band tightly at the ankle.”

These Turkish drawers were very much like the bloomers that had been advocated by women’s rights activists a few years prior and which had found a place as the bottom half of fashionable bathing costumes.  Mrs. Murray argued that the Turkish drawers were more practical than petticoats.

Despite the advice of Mrs. Murray, most sources of the 1860s through the 1880s don’t mention the wearing of bloomers in place of petticoats.  What was suggested was a light-weight flannel dress with a wide enough skirt hem to allow for a good stride.  In 1884 Harper’s Bazar suggested that “a flannel dress should be included, by all means and it should be made as short and as light in weight as possible, so that it will be suited for mountain climbing and walks through woods where there are more briers than paths.”

By short the writer meant just a few inches shorter than what was fashionable and accepted.  Even in the woods, style was important.  In 1885, Outing, a magazine devoted to the outdoor life, reminded their female readers that “A great deal of your pleasure depends on having comfortable and pretty clothes, nay, even stylish, for the camping-out dress has a style and grace that can be made very effective and becoming.”

The practice of wearing knickerbockers under the hiking skirt coincided with the bicycle craze of the 1890s.  The caricature of a woman in huge bloomers riding her wheel is well-known, but the wearing of exposed knickers on the street was just too extreme a style for most women.  The “skirt convention” as it is called by dress historian Patricia Campbell Warner, was not easily overcome, and despite all the articles and cartoons of the period, it appears that very few women actually wore bloomer bicycle suits.  This conclusion is based on the scarcity of surviving suits and the lack of photographic evidence.

Instead, women bicycle riders began wearing knickerbockers or breeches under a skirt that came to the wearer’s boot tops.  This mode of dress also appealed to women hikers.  Looking back in 1902, a writer for Good Housekeeping magazine stated, “One of the principal reasons camping and tramping are so popular to-day is because women are becoming more discriminating in the matter of dress.  The bicycle taught us the comforts of the short skirt, having cut off trains for one sport, the next step was to evolve fashions where in we might enjoy all of nature.”

In the mid 1890s many articles that addressed the question of what to wear in the woods actually recommended a biking ensemble.  From Harper’s Bazar: “For the [skirt] itself, nothing could be better than a bicycle suit of stout serviceable cloth, the skirt to reach no nearer the ground than the tops of ordinary walking boots.  Under this should be worn bloomers or knickerbockers, just as in bicycling.  Petticoats are as much to be avoided here as when on the wheel.”

Tomorrow:  The hiking skirt becomes obsolete.

7 Comments

Filed under Camping and Hiking, Proper Clothing, Sportswear, Uncategorized

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

  1. Flannel dresses? One wonders how hot they were. Oye!

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    • I was amazed at all the clothes that the articles suggested. There was not a lot of mention of underclothes, but the few references always said that wool was best, under a lined wool dress. Add to that two pairs of wool stockings and probably a petticoat!

      Most of the articles were written by women who were hiking in the northern US or in the Rockies, so I guess it was rather chilly, especially in the fall.

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      • My goodness – wool! And thank you for mentioning undergarments.. Had wondered myself whether they were wearing restricting corsets underneath. Some of the fashion drawings seemed to indicate that silhouette. Would definitely have restricted swift movement, keeping body heat down.

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  2. I have almost identical photos from my family taken on the rocks- the Cactoctain Mountains (near Camp David)a short distance from our home-and at Pen Mar Park- hats gloves…never saw any bloomers either . Also Godys FashionPlates from the 1860’s-then nothing there after!? as Lizzie would de determine – perhaps “regional”? The en look as uncomfortable as the ladies! Starched collars and vests ! On the Applacian Trail? Talk about propriety ! Was this just an American fad?

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    • After around 1880 I only looked at American sources, but photos I have seen that were taken in Europe at the same time show clothes similar to what was being worn in the US. I think that many of the existing photos, like two of the ones in this post where the dress is rather fancy, were taken on day outings, not camping trips. But they do show how impractical dress in the wilderness was sometimes!

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