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

By 1917 many women were also wearing some form of pants as needed for their work during World War One.  Mass market retail and sewing pattern catalogs offered a variety of overall and work pants for women.  But after the war ended, these patterns and garments quietly disappeared from catalogs.  The skirt convention seemed to have overruled practically in women’s work dress.

But in the woods, knickers and breeches had pretty much put the skirt issue to rest.  Most articles that I found on the subject between 1918 and 1930 mentioned an overskirt only as an afterthought, if it was mentioned at all.  In 1920 writer and outdoorswoman Nancy B. Katz wrote in Outers-Recreation magazine that the skirted woman in the woods was obsolete.

By 1921 some brave women were wearing knickers for other sports, especially golf.  The September 1, 1921 issue of Vogue showed a suit of knickers and matching long vest and declared, “This costume allows for greater freedom, whether for golfing or walking, than almost any other type of sports suit.”

The knicker suit was soon seen in stores ranging from Lord and Taylor to Sears Roebuck. There was even a popular brand of knickers called “The Fad of the Hour.”

So how did knickers for women leave the hiking trails to become a fad?  Many women had become somewhat accustomed to wearing some form of pants, whether in the woods, in the school gymnasium, on the job during the war, or even in the form of a bathing suit.  It may also have something to do with the 1920s idea of woman as garçonne, as dressing for women took on touches of the masculine.

In 1926 Vogue published a slightly tongue-in-cheek article titled, “They Are Stealing Our Stuff!” Author George S. Chappell lamented that feminine fashions were more masculine than not, and that “…hordes of khaki-clad [women]  hikers… throng our summer byways.”

His complaint was too little, too late.  Women were wearing knickers, not only for hiking, but for other casual occasions and for motor-car travel.

Here is a family group in front of the State Capitol in Augusta, Maine, circa 1925.  The young woman on the right is dressed more like her father than her mother.  If not for the cloche hat we might have mistaken her for a boy.

By the mid 1920s pants for women were here to stay, though it would be several more decades before women could freely wear pants on any occasion.  The knickers-wearing girls of the 1920s became the pantsuit–wearing grandmothers of the 1970s, who had learned years earlier the comfort and practicality of pants.

I hope that everyone enjoyed my presentation.  I appreciate all your comments, and especially ant additional information that may add to this story.  The history of women wearing pants is a complicated one with many contributing factors to the end result.  I’ll be continuing to investigate this fascinating story.

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

By the turn of the 20th century, knickers or breeches under a short, wide skirt became the hiking outfit most mentioned in magazine articles.  There were some exceptions, most notably an article written by outdoorswoman Annie Peck.  In 1895 Peck became the third woman to climb the Matterhorn, but she was the first to do so without wearing a skirt.  In her day Annie Peck was well-known, her adventures being widely reported.  In 1901 she wrote an article for Outing magazine detailing her climbing and hiking outfit and expressing strong views about the inappropriateness of skirts on mountains.

“…Men, we all know, climb in knickerbockers… Women, on the contrary, will declare that a skirt is no hindrance to their locomotion.  This is obviously absurd, and though a few ladies have climbed mountains like the Matterhorn in extremely scanty and abbreviated skirts, I dare assert that suitably-made knickerbockers… are not only more comfortable but more becoming… A scant skirt barely reaching the knee and showing the knickerbockers below, such as some ladies have worn, is as ungraceful a costume as could be devised; and for a woman in difficult mountaineering to waste her strength and endanger her life with a skirt is foolish in the extreme.”

But even the independent Ms. Peck had to concede to the skirt convention when on easier hikes.

“Among our own little mountains it is customary to wear a short skirt… If ladies were independent enough to adopt the plan, as some few have done, of leaving the skirt under a rock, they would generally be seen only by members of their own party… Of course in any case knickerbockers should be worn beneath.”

It seems as if women took Peck’s advice.  In a 1904 article in Outing, hiker Rena Phillips described how she had a big pocket put on the back of her jacket so when out of sight of civilization she could remove the skirt and place it in the pocket.  For the next ten years or so, the knickers and removable skirt seemed to be the most popular option, being mentioned in numerous articles and accounts.  One writer in 1913 claimed she rarely wore her hiking skirt but always carried it with her as it was useful as a rain cape.

As strong as the skirt convention was, it was being challenged by 1916.  In that year William J. Whiting wrote an article for Outing titled “Should the Woman in the Woods Wear Skirts, Bloomers, Riding Breeches, or Knickerbockers?” He argued that the wearing of skirts in the woods was a form of false modesty.

“The skirt is useless, is in fact a positive hindrance, and so by its very presence calls attention to the fact that she is a woman, and modest, or trying to be, thus defeating its object.  Anyone who has seen an emancipated woman dancing over rough trails in glee at her freedom… with no useless freak of costume to call attention to her femininity rejoices that so many now recognize that immodesty of attire is really unsuitability.”

 

Whiting went on to declare that only knickers were suitable for hiking.

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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.

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