Category Archives: 1920s fashion

1920s Wool Knickers for Women

I’ve wanted (or, rather, needed) a pair of 1920s wool knickers for some time, and so my heart skipped a few beats last week when I finally found a pair. I had been hoping to find a pair with a matching jacket, and even told myself I was going to hold out for a set, but the minute I laid eyes on these I knew I had to add them to my collection.

Why all the fascination with knickers? For one thing, knickers were both the shorts and the slacks for 1920s women and girls. Except for bloomers worn in gym class and at the end of the decade, pajamas worn on the beach, knickers and the similar garment, breeches, were the only options women had for wearing pants in public.

I’ve heard lots of stories from women who were young during the 1920s of how they raided brother’s closet to daringly wear his knickers. But by the early 1920s that was not even necessary, as mass-market catalogs like Montgomery Ward carried knickers for girls and women.

The clothing above is from the 1925 Montgomery Ward catalog. On the left are breeches, and on the right is a pair of wool tweed knickers. Note that both button on the side, on both sides actually, and the front drops for convenience. Whenever I find a photo of a woman wearing knickers I always try to see the closure, but usually it is obscured as you can see in the photo above.  The presence of a front fly would indicate the woman is wearing men’s knickers.

My pair has pockets that hide the buttons of the opening.

The seam edges are secured with an overlock stitch made by an early machine of this type. Overlocking is most commonly seen on sportswear in garments before the late 1960s.

Here’s another pair from Montgomery Ward, this time from the 1930 catalog. You can see that the style is little changed from the ones made five years earlier.  Knickers were more utilitarian than fashion, but soon after 1930 women’s knickers disappeared from catalogs. In their place were shorts, slacks, and pajamas. My 1932 Sears catalog has no knickers at all for women. It does have breeches and ankle-length knicker-like pants for skiing, and even a pair of actual slacks. Times were definitely changing.

I’m still in the market for a great 1920s wool knicker suit if anyone happens upon one.

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Filed under 1920s fashion, Camping and Hiking, Collecting, Proper Clothing, Sportswear, Uncategorized, Vintage Clothing

Helen’s Photo Album, 1923

This is Helen Ambrose. In 1923 her sister, Emily, made a photo album for her with photos of their family and friends. It’s nice knowing the names of many of the people pictured, and also the places, though I came up empty when searching online for Helen.  Most of the photos that are labeled were taken in Hinsdale, Illinois or Grand Rapids, Michigan.

I bought this album for several reasons, the main one being that it shows Helen in quite a bit of her wardrobe, so that you can get a good sense of her style. We can start with her dark cotton knickers and matching sports shirt. Even better, we get a good look at her canvas shoes and hat.

She must have liked this sport ensemble, as she is wearing it in quite a few of the photos, and seemingly at different times. Here she is shown wearing it with a different hat. The object of her attention is Harold Reynders. He is a regular cast member in this year of Helen’s life.

This photo was taken on the same day at the same location, a golf club in Villa Park, Illinois. It must have been a very informal place to have allowed a woman to play in pants, or maybe they just mistook her for a boy!

There are also photos of Helen wearing her knickers with a middy blouse. Note that she has not yet bobbed her hair, even though she seems comfortable wearing pants in public. In all the photos she is wearing this same hairstyle with the coils at the sides. It gave long hair the look of being short, but it looks a bit old-fashioned for 1923.

Many of the photos are of various members of the extended Ambrose family, including these two little unnamed cousins.

And here’s the middy with a skirt. The skirt does seem a little long for a young woman in 1923, but the year before, skirts lengths did take a move toward the floor. They then began the upward journey to the knee, a length most associated with the 1920s.

Helen is wearing a suit that appears to have been made from jersey, possibly cotton. She’s seen wearing it a lot, and with good reason – she looks great in it. I love the scalloped edge of her collar, and the dark tie around her neck.

Here she is in another suit, this time with a blouse and vest. And note how the hem on this skirt is just a bit shorter than the others. Could Helen have been a teacher? She looks a bit too polished to be a schoolgirl.

The album is quite fragile, and the white ink Emily used to label the photos is fading badly. That’s Helen, Emily, and a friend, Iva. On the right in the wonderful, but unfortunately unflattering, dress is Aunt Em and a possible uncle.

This is Grandmother and Daisy. I’m guessing that Daisy is the child and not the cat, but I could be wrong. I have a strong suspicion that Grandmother never did shorten her skirts.

This photo was not labeled, and I don’t think it is Helen. It does illustrate an interesting tidbit I read in an article in a 1975 American Heritage magazine:

“There was an enormous number of surplus sailor hats at the end of WWI, and soon “Army & Navy” stores were swamped with them. They made good fishing hats, tennis hats, and headgear for general lounging; but pretty girls also discovered that something about a sailor hat, perched atop vagrant curls and hovering over big blue eyes, was irresistible.”

In this case the entire ensemble was appropriated.

Finally, there are some swimming photos, taken at Reed’s Lake, which I think is near Grand Rapids. The bathing suits are great, but it’s their caps that I covet.

And check out the boathouse. A lake near me has one such boathouse remaining from this era, and it is now a historic landmark.

I really don’t want to get into the business of collecting photo albums, but sometimes I come across one that illustrates the times so well that I can’t resist. It’s really a shame that this has been separated from family members who would treasure the contents, but we can honor Helen’s life by letting her teach us about her life and fashions in 1923.

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Filed under 1920s fashion, Sportswear, Uncategorized, Vintage Photographs

1920 Sports Sweater

This sweater is a real survivor. It’s almost 100 years old, and it has managed to escape the scourge of vintage knits – the moth. I see a lot of these sweaters in old photos from 1915 through 1922 or so, but they are very rarely actually found on the vintage market. Several years ago I let one get away, and I vowed to buy the next one I found that was not held together by a few threads.

It took a while, but finally this beauty came my way. It had everything I was looking for – a great color with contrast, excellent condition, and it was made for a woman (front laps right over left). And who could resist those pockets?

This style was made for both men and women, as shown in this illustration from the 1921 Bradley Knits catalog. The only thing my sweater is missing is a label, but it could have been made by Bradley. Or maybe not, as there were many producers of wool knitwear during this time period.

The details are so nice, and add to my love of the cardigan. This sweet little pocket flap really makes me happy.

The buttonholes seem to be made by hand, using the matching wool yarn. I’m not sure why my colors are all over the place. The sweater is not this purple.

Besides the green stripes, notice the knit-in stripes of red.

And finally, a reminder that the overlock machine was not invented in the 1970s. The overlock was commonly used on sportswear, even earlier than this sweater.

 

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Filed under 1920s fashion, Collecting, Proper Clothing, Sportswear, Winter Sports

1920s Gingham Romper

About a year ago I went on a rant over how some vintage clothing sellers and buyers have changed the vocabulary of certain garments in order to made them seem more versatile. In particular I was irritated about the use of the word “romper” when the object in question was obviously a gym suit or a bathing suit. I even went so far as to say that women did not wear rompers, that the romper is a garment for a baby or a toddler.

I never like being wrong, but when I am it pleases me that my fellow fashion history lovers care enough to set me straight.  After posting the rant I got an email from Lynne (otherwise known as the best online researcher I know) that contained a 1920s sewing pattern for a woman that was clearly labeled a romper. She also sent along a photo of a very similar garment she has in her own collection.

Properly corrected, I then set off to find an example for my collection.  Last week I finally was able to add the one seen above. There is no doubt this is a garment for an adult, and it is also apparent that this is an outer garment, not lingerie.

Notice that there are snap closures on both shoulders and another on the front of the neck.  This made it easy for the wearer to put on the romper by stepping into it and pulling it up.

The tie belt sits on the top of the hips, giving a proper 1920s silhouette.

The inside legs and the crotch are shaped with the use of a wide gusset. There is elastic in the legs, but it is old, crunchy, and it no longer stretches. I’ll not replace it, but if this ever goes on display some new elastic can be inserted along side the old.

The shoulders have those handy little lingerie strap holders that prevented that embarrassing bra strap slip-up.

I’m quite sure this romper was made at home rather than purchased. The construction is very good, but there are a few places where alterations were made while the garment was being made. There is also quite a bit of hand-stitching.

I tried to locate the photos Lynne sent to me, but failed. I did find an example of a Butterick sewing pattern for a romper in a post at Witness2Fashion. It was included in a feature of costume party patterns. I located another, very similar one from McCall Patterns. 

So rompers definitely were a thing for women, at least in the 1920s and 1930s. Still, I don’t agree with calling a gym suit a romper, no matter how much the garment is similar. In fact, my romper here looks to be a direct descendant of my circa 1915 gym suit.

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Filed under 1920s fashion, Collecting, Curiosities, Gymnasium, Sportswear, Summer Sports