Knee Pants: Chronology

Figure 1.--Childrens fashions were shown in this image from a January 1867 fashion magazine. The boys pants were cut at knee length. Notice the pinafore one of the girl's wear. The boy's outfit was described as being "for a boy from 6 to 8 years of age, as it isloose and easy, and does not preclude any climbing propensities--a prominent characteristic among school-boys. The material of the entire suit is dark gray tweed cloth; the basque of the jacket is cut out in squares and bound with black braid; the knickerbockers have two rows of braid at the outside of the legs; the hat is gray felt with a pigeon's wing in front of it; the form is that known as the Hungarian; the boots are Polish and serve admirably to keep the stockings clean and the legs and feet warm besides have a more pleasing effect with a knickerboker suit than with short boots.

Knee pants and knickers appeared before the mid-19th century, but it was not until the 1870s that they began to be commonly worn by boys, especially school-age boys. Initialy they were for younger boys that had just been breeched, but by the turn of the 20th century quite old boys were wearing them. Chronmological trends, however, varied somewhat country by country. Kneepants were still widely worn in the 1900s, but declined signifiacants in the 1910s as boys turned to short pants, knickers, or long pants.

Mid-19th Century

The open-cut straight leg knee pants were intially the most common style of shortened-length pants for boys. Some closed with buttons like knee breeches. Most simply were open-leg knee pants. Many had ornamental buttons as if they closed like knee breeches. The buttons show that they probably evolved from 18th century knee breeches. It is unclear, however, just who first thought that knee pants were suitable for boys who in the early 19th century had been wearing long trousers. Knee pants were at first worn primarily by younger boys who had just emerged from dresses. I know of no mid 19th century image showing older boys in knee pants. In addition knee pants were generally worn with plain clothes at mid-century. The lace collars and large bows did not appear until the 1880s. Early knee pants could be quite long. Most were worn at calf length and we see many boys wearing them at almost ankle length. A good example is American boy, John Van Horn, in 1859. In many ways the suit jackets worn by boys in the 1860s-70s, because of their plainess seem much more modern than the more elaborate outfits of the 1880s. Many of the sailor suits worn in the 1850s and 60s were worn with long pants and only gradually in the 1870s did knee pants become more common with sailor suits. When the knee pants fashion first appeared after mid-century, they were worn primarily by little boys. Knee pants had become an important style by the 1860s, but had not yet replaced long pants. A good example is John Schwensusen, we think in the late-1860s.

Figure 2.--This boy in a tintype photograph probably taken in the 1870s wears a very plain suit, narrow collar, and small bow.

The Late 19th Century

Boys in the 1870s began to increasingly wear kneepants rather than long pants. Older boys did not wear kneepants until the 1880s and even more comminly in the 1890s. Toward the end of the 19th century, especially in the 1880s and 1890s, it became common for quite old boys to wear kneepants. By the turn of the century and the 1910s boys in their late teens wore knee pants suits. The style during the 1910s turned toward knickers and knee pants were not commonly seen on older boys by the 1920s. Some formal styles for little boys, however, continued to consist of knee pants in the 1920s--again with the ornamental three buttoms at the knee. Knee pants varied in a variety of ways. Some knee pants were at knee length. Others were cut well below the knee, looking some what like narrow-cut knickers. I'm not quite sure how the length of knee pants varied over time, but it is one of the factors that we will look into on this page. The suit jackets worn with keepants varied. Styles include Norfolk, single breasted, double breasted, and others. Often a younger boy bought a suit jacket for the first time, might continue wearing a Fautleroy-style lace or ruffled collars with his new suit.

Figure 3.--American boys in the 1900s still commonly wore kneepants suits. This photograph was taken in Chicago during 1908. Notice the white gloves he is wearing.

The Early 20th Century

Knee pants were still commonly worn in the early 20th century. They were still quite common in America during the 1900s. Photographs of American schools in the 1900s show most of the boys wearing kneepants and long stockings, except in rural areas where overalls were common. A good example here is the Meredith village school in 1901. Knickers were more common in Europe. By the 1910s kneepants had begun decling in popualrity, especiall for older boys who more commonly wore knickerrs. Kneepants were still worn in the early 1920s, but only by younger boys. More common were knickers and short pants. Some younger boys wore long pants in America, but most American boys wore knickers and European boys shorts by the 1920s. They continued to be worn with long stockings. Kneepantswere common in France, the United States and several other countries. Short pants worn with kneesocks appeared at the turn of the century and rapidly began to replace kneepants in France. In America knickers proved more popular than shorts and were the primary replacemet style.


Note that the term knickers or knickerbockers is variously used. The British can use it to mean short pants. Fashion columnists in the 19th Century used it to mean any type of kneepants. In HBC knickers is used to mean knee-length pants (cut above or below the knee) that are bloused-to various degrees.

Clothing Catalogs

Some of the best information about clothing trends is available from clothing catalogs. Clothing merchandizers are a good reflection of popular trends as to succeed finacially, they have to offer the styles and and fashions that consumers demand. Thus an assessment of mast marketers like Sears and Mongromery Wards can offer importnat insignts as to not only what fashions were being worn in specific years, but also thd age of the children and other interesting details like material, color, and detailing.


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Created: March 17, 1999
Last edited: 6:03 AM 3/23/2009