Definitions of Pants: Bloomers, Knickers, and Trousers

Several years ago I presented a paper to my regional Costume Society of America on my research on women hikers and their wearing of knickerbockers (knickers). Sometimes when a person (in this case, me) gets too wrapped up in her own topic, she forgets that others might not be as well acquainted with terms that denote a specific item. In this case, I was asked the question, “What’s the difference between knickers and bloomers?”

Later experience has taught me that for some reason, people tend to equate nineteenth and early twentieth century pants for women with bloomers. And the truth is, that most women who were wearing pants of any type before 1920 were wearing bloomers. They were the accepted garment for women’s sports and exercise attire. Some women were wearing them for bicycling. And for a brief moment in the mid nineteenth century, women dress reformers wore long bloomers beneath shorter dresses and coats.

The difference between knickerbockers and bloomers is chiefly in the volume of the fabric making up the legs. Bloomers are very full, while knickers are more fitted. Also, knickers end just below the knee and are finished with a buttoning band. Bloomers can range from above the knee to the ankle, and are often gathered at the hem with elastic.

But what about trousers, pants that fall straight from the hips to the ankles? While not common, yes, women in the nineteenth century did sometimes wear trousers, which was considered to be a male garment. I’ve seen quite a few photos of women on farms and ranches wearing trousers while doing work. The great photo above shows three women hikers wearing trousers.

But what about a woman in the nineteenth century who lived her life in trousers?

Photo courtesy of Swann Auction Galleries

Photo courtesy of Swann Auction Galleries

Yes, there were some. Above is the famous Mary Edwards Walker, physician and fashion rebel. This photo of her sold in February for $9375.  I came across it while reading the latest issue of a well-known magazine for antiques lovers. What made me stop and think was the caption of the photo which twice pointed out that Dr. Walker was wearing bloomers in the photo. I hope you can tell from my descriptions of bloomers, knickers, and trousers that she is actually wearing trousers, not bloomers.

Should the writer of the article known the difference between trousers and bloomers? Does it matter?

The Swann’s auction site describes Walker’s garment as ” pantaloons or bloomers.”  Pantaloons seems to be a fairly accurate term, though many people associate the word with Little Bo Peep.  Personally, I would describe the garment as trousers, though Walker herself referred to them as pants.

Unafraid of controversy, in 1897 she wrote, “I am the original new woman . . . Why, before Lucy Stone, Mrs. Bloomer, Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony were—before they were, I am. In the early ’40’s, when they began their work in dress reform, I was already wearing pants . . . I have made it possible for the bicycle girl to wear the abbreviated skirt, and I have prepared the way for the girl in knickerbockers.” Swanns Catalog

When accused of wearing men’s clothing, Walker famously replied that she was wearing her own clothes, not those of a man.




Filed under Viewpoint, Vintage Photographs

9 responses to “Definitions of Pants: Bloomers, Knickers, and Trousers

  1. Love that last quote!

    Liked by 2 people

  2. Jacq Staubs

    LOVE IT 2!


  3. And to give it an international perspective, “pants” are undies (particularly in the UK, but also for me because my mother’s family were from the UK so used that word for underwear), “knickers” are undies, and “bloomers” are also undies. Trousers at least are an outer garment!

    Liked by 1 person

    • Jacq Staubs

      Yes – that is my understanding as well! Perhaps that is where the old chestnut “She wears the pants in this family” In reference to men/their underwear?


  4. “Before they were, I am.”
    My goodness, what a stirring quote, almost deistic!

    And yes, words matter!

    Words are impactful, have changed the course of history, have revealed the internal machinations of great minds, have stirred the righteous to do good, and wrongly used, can mislead masses of people and bring a once great nation to its knees.


    • Jacq Staubs

      Defining the word “righteous” ? If that is self appointed “righteousness ” ? Define the word hypocrisy. That usually come / goes with it’s sister/brother “righteous. That is almost always without appointment. We are currently experiencing a lot of both. Words are very important. I couldn’t agree more! Too bad the “righteous” and the hypocrites do jot know the difference. I thought the subject matter was bloomers?! No reply is necessary.


  5. Nann

    Knickers are also referred to as “plus fours.” I looked that up a while ago. Wikipedia says, “Plus fours are breeches or trousers that extend 4 inches (10 cm) below the knee (and thus four inches longer than traditional knickerbockers, hence the name). Knickerbockers have been traditionally associated with sporting attire since the 1860s. Plus fours were introduced in the 1920s and became popular among sportsmen–particularly golfers and game shooters–as they allowed more freedom of movement than knickerbockers.” The article also states that there are plus twos, plus sixes, and plus eights.

    If you haven’t already, how about a history of pedal pushers and Capri pants?


  6. Important to get the word right!
    “Drawers” is also an olden-days name for bloomer-type undies. When I was a child (in the 70’s in Australia), older people still used that word.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.