United States Boys' Garments: Pants--Knee Pants

American boy knee pants
Figure 1.--This boy from Janesville, Wisconsin had his portrait taken with his faithful dog. The portrait is undated, but looks to be from the 1890s. Notice his knee pants suit and long stocking match. Rge boy looks to be about 12 years old.

American boys began wearing knee pants after the mid-19th century. We see younger boys wearing kneepants in the 1860s, oftern rather long knee pants cut at calf level. The the fashion did not become widespread for even older boys until the 1890s. Early kneepants were long, often cut at calf level. Kneepants by the 1880s began to be cut shorter at knee level. By the 1890s even older boys were wearing then. This varied, however, from family to family. Not all boys wore knee pants, although they were very common. Social class factors were involved. In the 1910s knickers began replacing kneepants, but kneepants were still worn in the early 1920s, but primary by younger school-age boys. Knee pants were commonly brought as part of a suit. They could be purchased separately. But the area of catalog space devoted to suits as compared to just the trousers suggest that knee pants were mostly purchased as suits. Wearing suits was much more common at the time than currently. Early kneepants were long, often cut at calf level. Kneepants by the 1880s began to be cut shorter and by the 90s knee level was the standard. The cut of knee pants tended to be rather form fitting. They were often referred to as straight-leg knee pants into contrast to the more baggy knickers. The age of American boys wearing knee pants varied over time. At first in the mid-19th century they were worn by younger boys. By the 1890s even older boys were wearing knee-length knee pants. This began to change again during the the 1910s when mostly younger boys wore knee pants, older boys more commonly wore knockers or long pants. In the 1910s knickers began replacing kneepants, but kneepants were still worn in the early 1920s, but primary by younger school-age boys. Knee pants were very widely worn by American boys. This varied, however, from family to family. Social class factors were involved. Some boys wore long pants even in grade school. Demofraphics was also a factor. We see more rural boys wearing long pants than in the city.

Definition

Defining knee pants is somewhat complicated. This is because they are essentially short pants. The two are divided chronologally. You see knee pants mostly in the 19th century and short pants in the 20th century, especilly after World War I. The time-line differs somewhat from country to country. You do not see the term short pants used much in the 19th and you do not see the term knee pants used much acter World war I. In between from the turn-of-th 20th century to World War I, we se terms like knee pants, short pants, and knickrs being used interchangeably. I supose that knee pants and short pants could be used interchangeably, but there were some difference. Knee pants were worn at lengths from the knee down to about the calf. By the 1890s, actual knee-length hd become standard. They also common had decorative buttons, usually three at the knee hem. They were used presumably to represent the buttons on 18th century breeches, but I have no idea why. This convention was common in both Europe and America. Short pants on the other hand varied in length from the knee up. Early short pants were the same length as knee pants, but gradually got shorter. Short pants were quite short in the 1970s and 80s. Modern short pants, however, have gotten much longer. They are always called shorts rather than short pants. Most pants cn clerly be identified as knee [ants or short pants, but during the transition from knee pants to short pants during the 1910s this is sometimes difficult.

Chronology

Knee pants appeared in the mid-19th century. They were first worn by younger boys and cut rather long, often to calf level. They gradually increased in popularity subsequently during the 19th century. They continued to be quite long and were mostly worn by yonger boys even in the 1880s. We see many boys still wearing long pants in the 1880s. This changed dramatically in the 1890s. They were wideky worn by America boys by the 1890s. Most boys wore them. More boys and we think older boys wore knee pants than in any other country. American boys began wearing knnepants after the mid-19th century. We see younger boys wearing kneepants in the 1860s, but the fashion did not become widespread for even older boys until the 1890s. A good example is an unidentified boy from Boston, Massachusetts about 1890. Another example is a Chicago boy, Robert Mason Hamilton, in 1897. Kneepants become shorter in the 1890s, commonly cut to knee lengths. Kne pants were almost universal at the turn of the 20th century. A good example is two New York City boys. Knee pants cointinued to be widekly wrn in the 1900s. A good example is Harry Lodge about 1908. Styles changed dramatically in the 1910s. We see boys mostlt wearing knickers by the 1910s, although some younger boys still wore knee pants into the early 20s.

Suits

Knee pants were commonly brought as part of a suit. During the years that knee pants were popular, boys commonly wore suits, even to school or for occassions that we would tiday see as casual. Knee pants could be purchased separately. But the area of catalog space devoted to suits as compared to just the trousers suggest that knee pants were mostly purchased as suits. Wearing suits was much more common at the time than currently. Knee pants were commonly worn with several different styles of suits. One of the most popular were Norfolk suits, but we see both single and double-breasted jackets as well as collar buttoning kackets. And younger boys might wear Fauntleroy jackets.

Length

Early knee pants were long, often cut at calf level. We call them knee pants only because as they became more common in the late-80s anf began to be worn by older boys, thiscwas the standard length. These longish knee pants were common in the 1860s, 70s, and into the 80s. Often they look more like out-grown long pants, perhaps some were. Knee pants by the 1890s began to be cut shorter, especially by the end of the decade. We note that the Little Lord Fauntleroy suits appearing in the mid-80s were generally knee pants suit cut just below the knee, but these were mostly youngrr, pre-school boys. Only in the 1880s do we begin to see actual knee-length knee pants, but they were not common for older boys untiol the 90s. A good example is Eddie Wilson, a New York boy in 1882. We still see, however, knee pants covering the knees. This coninued in to the early-90s. A good example is an Ohio boy in 1890. Knee pants by the mid-1890s had become almost universal, at least in urban areas. The knee level length became the standard. This continued to be the case through the 1900s intil replaced by knickers.

Cut

The cut of knee pants caried over time. In contradt to knickers, knee pants at the turn-of-the 20th century tended to be rather form fitting. They were often referred to as straight-leg knee pants into contrast to the more baggy knickers. This varied some what. We note siome with wuide legs, but this cuit tended tio be more common in the 1860s than later in the decade.

Age

The age of American boys wearing knee pants varied over time. At first in the mid-19th century, knee pants and nloomer knickers were worn by younger boys. We see either pre-school boys are early-primary children wearing them. The age of the boys wearing knee pants gradualy increased. By the 1890s most boys amd many teenagers were weazring knee pants. We see by the turn-of-the 20th century even some older teenagers were wearing lnee pants. The knee-length knee pants became standard for both boys and teenagers. We see boys of all ages wearing them. A good example is 9-year old Harvey Eldridge Hannaford. This began to change again during the the 1900s. By the end of the decade most boys were wearing knickers. Knee pants became seen as old fashioned. In the 1910s knickers essentially replaced kneepants. Knee pants fid not disappear all together. We note in the 1910s that some younger boys continued to wear knee pnts rather than knockers. We are not entirely why this age bifurcation occurred or how common it was, but we do notice catalogs ciontinued to offer knee pants suits, modtly for younger boys. During the 1910s mostly younger boys wore knee pants, older boys more commonly wore knickers or to a lesser extent long pants. Kneepants were still worn in the early-1920s, but almost entirely by younger school-age boys. This only continued a few yeats. By the mid-20s we no longer see knee pants. Younger boys wore either short pants or knickers.

Prevalence

Knee pants were very widely worn by American boys. This varied, however, from family to family. Social class factors were involved. Some boys wore long pants even in grade school. Demographics was also a factor. We see more rural boys wearing long pants than in the city.

Social Class

We notice shortened-length pants peimarily being worn by affluent families throughout most of the 19th century. This only began to change when we note boys of all social classess weaing kneepants. This had become standard by the 1890s for virtually all boys. We even note knee pants being worn in poor rural communities. A good example is an isolated Tennessee school in 1902.

Hosiery

American boys commonly wore knee pants with long stockings. Note that Kazoo Suspender waists, popular in the United Stastes during the 1910s and early 1920s, were sold in sizes up to age 18, which is a good indication that boys wore knee pants until that age. See the attached Kazoo ad, which appeared in the Ladies Home Journal (September, 1921, p. 120), which says that suspender waists for long stockings were for boys 4 to 18. The long stockings were commonly chosen to match the color of the suit. Bacl long stockings became increasingly common in the 1890s.









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Created: 6:34 PM 1/27/2007
Last updated: 11:21 AM 8/11/2012