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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 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.

 

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