Knickers were a major boys' fashion in the late 19th and early 20th century, although they were initially invented for adults. Knickers may have evolved from the knee breeches
worn in the 18th century. They were not al first specialized children's wear. They seemed at first to have been more worn as a kind of sporting or outdoor wear. Knickers are today generally associated with the 1900s-30s, but modern knickers were worn as early as the 1860s. Knickers came into their own in the 1910s, especially in Ameruica. When European boys began commonly wearing short pants and kneesocks after World War I, American bots were more likely to insist on knickers. Even so they do not seem to have been very popular with he boys. They went out of fashion in Americaafter the 1930s, but linger a little longer in Europe.
We have not been able to find a good, clear account of the origins of knickerbockers or knickers as Americans call them. We have a good idea as to the development of the terminology, but not the actual fashions. We assumed at first that they kneepants and knickers evolved from the kneebreeches that were worn in the 18th and early 19th century. This may have been the case, but we note that for several decades in the 19th century, boys mostly wore long pants, thus the relatiinship seems unclear to us. Also we made the mistake when began HBC to lump two types of garments together and call them knickers. We believe that this may be a mistake. We notice boys in the mid-19th century wearing short length pants with elasticuzed leg openings. These garments which we call bloomer knickers were commonly worn by younger boys with with tunics. They were different from the bantalettes also worn with tunics in that they were a suit made of the same material. We see them with both tunics and fancy suits of various designs like Zouave suit. Boys did not wear these bloomer knickers We think that there evolution may be related to that of bloomers. The garment that we more commonly think of as knickerbockers/knickers we begin to see much later. We have not yet worked out the chronology, which may in fact differ among countries. Our preliminary assessment is that knickers as part of men's and boy's suits began to be widely worn in the 1880s. Unlike the bloomer knickers discussed above, the knickers that appeared in the 1880s were not just worn by little boys. We see contry squires or sportsmen (hunters) wearing them, often with Norfolk jackets. In America baseball players begun wearing them. They were also popular with cyclists because the short length legs did not get caught in bycicle chains. Schools boys also began wearing them, but here we are not yet sure of the chronology.
Knickers are today generally associated with the 1900s-30s, but modern knickers were worn as early as the mid-19th century. Our information is still incomplete, but as we build it, the resulting pages will help us better understand the evolution of knickers as boys wear. We notice bloomer knickers in the the 1850s, but they were worn by well to do boys in affluent families. Most boys still wore long pants. We see them more commonly in the 1860s, but still primarily in affluet, fashionable families. The sons of Alfred Lord Tennyson, for examople, were outfitted in tunics and knickers during the 1860s. How widespread knickers were in the 1860s I do not know, but they seem to have become widespread in England by the 1870s. Knee pants appear to have been more common in America during this period. Knickers came into their own in the 1910s. The greatest change in children's clothing in the postwar period occurred when dressing boys in skirts until the age of four or five was discarded. Instead, little boys wore romper suits or short pants. School-age boys wore knickers of corduroy or wool with knee-length socks, and the change from knickers to that first pair of long pants was symbolic of the change from boy to man. Little girls wore dresses cut much like those of their mothers, straight and unfitted.
Knickers appear to have been worn in several different ways and came
in different styles. The major differences were in the length of the knickers and the prominence of the blousing affect. The earliest knickers appeared in England and were worn below the knee. Most boys preferred the below-the-knee style, especially older boys. The above-the-knee knickers were most common in the 1910s and early 1920s, whereafter the over the knee knickers were almost the only kind seen. The below-the-knee style was certainly the most popular style with boys, especially older boys. The plus fours were very popular in the 1920s and early 30s. There were also different types of closing arrangements. Knickers, unlike kneepants, were always closed at the them. The knickers themselves might blouse out--but they were always closed.
Knickers were worn with several different types of clothes. Knickers have been worn with many styles of suits. The earliest was probably the Norfolk jacket. Knickers were being worn commonly by boys with various forms of stylish suits by the 1880s, perhaps earlier. By the end of the decade quite old boys might wear knicker suits. This continued through the 1930s, although the age for wearing knicker suits gradually declined. Knicker suits were made in both single and double breasted styles. Norfolk jackets continued to be popular with knicker suits. Tunics were popular for boys' wear during much of the 19th century. While tunics changed little, the pants worn with them did change and varied from long pants, pantalettes, bloomers, and knickers. A good example of wearing knickers with tunics is the Tennyson family in the 1860s. Mrs. Tennyson had a penchant for tunics and her two sons after energing from dresses, spent much of their childhood in tunics. At first they wore them with pantalettes, but by about 7 years of age began wearing knickers. Most Fauntleroy suits were worn with knee pants or after World War I with short pants. It wa s less common to wear knicker Fauntleroy suits, probably because knickers had the cachet of being a sporting styke, not quite proper for formal party clothes like a Fauntleroy suit. The proper sailor suit was worn with long pants. As kneepants became establish wear for boys in the 1870s, most sailor suits were worn with knee pants. The same transition occured in the 1920s when sailor suits were commonly worn with short pants in Europe. In America where knickers were more common, sailor suits were commonly worn with knickers. Boys by the 1920s were dressing more casually. Suits were increasingly reserved for formal occaions. Increasingly boys, especially American boys, would wear knickers and a simple shirt, perhaps with a sweater during the colder months. This would be the common atire of American boys in the years before jeans. (Actually blue jeans were invented in the 1850s, one of the aftermaths of the California gold rush, but they were not commonly worn by urban boys until the late 1940s.) Knickers were mostly with patterened knee socks or by the 1920s with ankle socks during the summer. Boys also commonly went barefoot in the summer, especially in the country.
HBC at this time has very little information on the material used for knickers. Knuckers that came with a suit would of course be made of tyhe same material as the jacket. This might be flannel, a wool worsted, or a variety of other fabrics. In America corduroy knickers were especially popular for school.
Knickers were usually dark colors. In Ameica brown was a particularly common color. This was certainly true of the knickers that came with suits which were generally dark, sibsued colors. HBC has noted that brown was a common color of the knickers worn by American boys. HBC has noted Ameican boys wearing white knickers during the summer, commonly with a sports jacket. This was rather a sporty costume worn by boys from affluent families. Most mothers, of course, wouldn't think of white knickers for their sons. The darker colors were much more practical for active boys as theybwould not show the dirt so obviously as white knickers.
We are not entirely sure how boys held up their knickers. Answering this question is complicated by the fact that many boys wear suit jacketts in HBC's image archive and because knickers were often sold as suits, store catalogs do not show how they were suspended. We thought that suspenders were important. And clearly some boys did wear suspenders. We note advertisements for suspenders. A good example is President Suspenders in 1901. Many school portraits show boys wearing suspenders with both knee pants and knickers. A good example is an unidentified school in the 1900s. We note, however, that suspenders are not all that common in school portraits during the 1910s, 1920s, and 1930s when knickers were the most common. We note in the 1910s that boys did not wear suspenders with blouses. We suspect that these younger boys may have worn knickers that buttoned on to union suits or inderwaists. Shirts became more common even for younger boys in the 1920s. And we see fewer boys wearing suspenders. We suspect that during the 1920s that belts were becoming increasingly common for boys wearing knickers. Younger boys wearing shorts commonly wore button-pn shorts, but we do not see very many examples of button-on knickers. By the 1940s when knickers went out of style, boys were increasinglu wearing belts.
Knickers appear to have been cloesd at the knee with a buckle and strap arrangement. Most photographs seem to show knicker suits with above-the-knee knickers. It is not always apparent just where the knickers were buckled. One reader tells us that they were mostly buckled above the knee. He writes, "You can tell this because the blousing comes only TO the kneecap and NOT BELOW, so the knickers would be buckled just above the knee. I think below-the-knee knickers (which look more like plus fours) are mostly a later development in boy's trousers--at least for boys only 12 years old.
We know that some knickers were buckled above the knee because we see a few boys wearing knickers with bare knees and knee socks. It would be interesting to have a cloes up of the buckling arrangement, but unfortunately the material in most cases falls over the buckle and strap so its a little difficult to see. We note in the 1930s a new construction appeared in the United States, knickers with elastic knit. These were below the knee knickers.
Knickers do not appear to have been very popular to the boys that wore them. There were a variety of reasons for this. They seemed rather ungainly and really not very pratical. They were somewhat of a compromise between long and short pants, but gad none of the advantages of either--especially below the knee knickers. They were not really cooler than short pants in warm weather and boys had trouble with their long underwear and stocking. The principal reason that they were unpopular, however, was that most boys wanted to dress more grwn up. Most boys appear to have coveted long pants. Many adults looking back recall finally putting away their knickers as an important step in growing up.
Knickers appear to have been worn more widely in America than many other countries. This was in part because fewer boys wore short pants than in European countries. Knickers were, however, widely worn in Europe. While trends varied from country to country, in the inter-war years, most American boys wore knickers. In Europe, knickers were mostly for older boys while younger boys wore short pants. This was a common practice in France. Some European boys who normally wore short pants, wore knickers during the colder winter months, this was the case in Germany. Knickers appear to have been less common in England than in many other countries. The trends each country also varied substantially over time.
Hosiery worn with knickers has varied widely. Knickers were mostly worn by American boys with long over-the-knee stockings. This continued until the 1920s when kneesiocks became more common. Often during the summer boys would go barefoot or wear knickers with ankle socks. In Europe where knickers were more of a style for older boys or for winter wear they were more commonly worn with knee socks. Some European boys, however by the 1940s were also wearing them with ankle socks.
Knickers as boys' clothes are difficult to evaluate. HBC sees no real advantage to them. Kneepants for instance had the advantage that they lasted longer boys. The knees are usually the first part of a boy's pair of pants to wear out, in contrast to men's pants wear the seat often wears out first. As kneepants did not have knees, this meant that they lasted longer. This was an important consideration for families with limited money considering the realtively high cost of clothing at the time. Short pants had this advantage, but had the added advantage of being more comfortable in hot weather. Knickers on the otherhand had none of the advantages of eaither kneepants or short pants as far as boys are concerbed.
First long pants:
Knickers and Shorts: America--1930s
Carlton, Frances. E-mail, April 23, 2003.
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