Knickers and Shorts: America in the Late 1930s

Figure 1.--This is me and my mother. I was 7 years old at the time. It was New Years 1936.

My parents were from Europe and very traditionally oriented. I remember my first pair of knickers very well, but unfortunately I didn't get to wear them very long. I wore short pants all through elementary school. I also had blue and white sailor suits.

My Parents

My parents immigrated from Greece to America in 1925. Both were old fashion in the custom and culture of Europe. Mother was from Sparta and Dad was from Corinth. They emigrated to America after they were married and they brought to America their European traditions with them. Both were cosmpolitan and were married in their late thirties. My mother believed boys should be dressed in shorts until they reach their teen years. From the pictures and descriptions given to me all Greek boys wore short pants until they were about 13 or 14 years old. I never saw any knickers at all in the albums by parents kept on our Greek relatives.

My Childhood

I was born in America and raised in Fresno, California. Fresno had a large Armenian population, probably 30% were Armenian out of a population of 60,000 in the 1930s. Many of these Armenian boys wore shorts, more so than the other boys in Fresno. We lived several house away from William Soroyan's sister's house and her sons all wore shorts. The neighborhood where we lived I considered upper middle class.

My Short Pants

My mother always brought short pants for me. Mostly they were gray, navy and black and about midway to the knee. When I was in my rapid growth years, my shorts became quite short. When I was a little boy I didn'r really give it a thought. Many of my friends also wore shorts. As I got older I began to notice that my friends were getting knickers or even long pants in several cases. I estimate at age 10 (1938) about 50% of the boys in my neighborhood were wearing knickers, about about 40% were wearing shorts, and 10% were in long pants. By the timen I reached 12 (1940) only about 10% were wearing shorts, while 60% were in knickers and the balance long pants. Almost all the little boys were in shorts.

In the Winter we wore knee socks with our shorts and knickers, but in the Summer just ankle socks. It was warm where we lived so he kneesocks and long stockings that were worn elsewhere, were not as common at my school. With my dress suit which was navy I wore navy knee socks. I remember I wore some argyle socks, but basically they were gray knee socks.

Sailor Suits

I had two sailor suits, one navy blue and one all white. Several of us wore them when we were younger, say about 7 or 8 years old.


I was active in the Cub Scouts. My mother convinced the Cub Scout Master to have our Cub Pack wear short pants as part of their scout uniform. Mother was active in the PTA and was actually was convincing many of the other Mothers to have their sons wear shorts.

My Knickers

When I reached 10 years old in 1938, I was given my first pair of knickers, up until then I was in shorts. My mother opposed this transition to my manhood. However, dad thought I should start wearing knickers, the kind you buckle below your knee. Living in Fresno, California the weather was mild in the Winter and hot in the Summer, making my mother very unhappy for me to graduate to knickers. Fresno gets very hot in the Summer, many days over 100 degrees in August with no air conditioning.

Something happen to me, I started to grow and grow and within 6 to 8 months I was unable to buckle my knickers below my knee. As a matter of fact, I couldn't even get my knee through the buckle closure. Since these were the depression years, my mother just made my knickers in short pants and I remained in short pants until I started Jr. High School.

Junior High School

After I entered Junior High, I wore long pants to school. (Thank goodness as I would have been the only boy in shorts. There were, however, some boys still wearing knickers.) As soon as I came home from school, however, I had to change intor short pants. This included the only short pants suit I had, which I had to wear to church every Sunday and for other dress occasions. The war years according to my mother, prohibited us to but long pants. I guess I wore short pants until I was 14 years old and got my first long pants suit.

I felt strongly on the matter, but so did mom and she just wouldn't budge, she was old fashioned and wasn't about to changer her mind no matter how much I pleaded on the matter. My dad was helpful, but when I grew out of the knickers so quickkly--that was end of me wearing them. I must have grown almost 6 inches in only 8 months. Because the Depression was still on and my mother was thrifty, we were not going buy any knickers, that wouldn't even last a year.

I was stuck. I tried my best to convince mother to let me wear long pants, but that was is an impossible task. I got nowhere in our discussions. She kept saying, Your Uncles woreshort pants until they were 16 years old. She even had the photographs in the albums to prove it! I can still rember her saying, Boys should dress in boys clothing and you are not a man yet. Money was tight in the epression, but we were pretty well off and that was not the real issue. It was a one way argument, even dad could not convince her.

As I got older, I got all kinds of comments about my shorts. The other boys teased me quite a bit about still wearing shorts as I got older. But I was a big and strong and most really didn't didn't push it to far as they didn't want to mess with me. I got along pretty well with girls. Because of my height, they would call me high pockets.

My Short Pants Suit

Older adults would also sometimes say things. This often happened when we went to church on Sunday I would always wear my navy short pants suit. Some of the younger kids that were wearing knickers, would sometimes make some remarks. In some instances they were heard by their parents and occasionally I noticed that they were wearing shorts the next Sunday.

Elementary School

Most American elementary school boys wore knickers in the 1920s and 30s. But many younger boys wore shorts as as in the case of the boy here, some older boys too. Click above for a glimpse of another American school in the 1930s.

Christopher Wagner

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Created: April 30, 1998
Last edited: March 26, 2000