Boys Knee Socks

knee socks
Figure 1.--British boys wore kneesocks for play as well as for dressy occasions. Many boys worecthem yearbround, although some boys wore ankle socks or no socks at all with sandals during the summer.

Knee socks, or turn-over-top socks as our British friends refer to them, became popular in the 1920s. They were generally worn in Britain and the continent with short pants of varying length. This was a wide spread fashion, boys of all walks of life (rich, middle class, and poor) wore short pants with knee socks. Often the wealthier British boys were the first to get a long pants suit and thus no longer need knee socks. Knee socks were also worn with knickers in Europe, but by the 1920s, shorts were much more common than knickers. In America the situation was reversed. Some America boys also wore knee socks with shorts, but American boys more commonly knee socks with knickers. In America little boys often wore shorts, some with knee socks, but much less commonly in Europe. The style of wearing knee socks with a short pants suit was much more common among wealthy American families, especially for older boys.

Origins

We are not yet sure about the origins of knee socks. We have not yet found a real history of these garments. A reader writes, "Here you bring up about knee socks. My thoughts are that they probably grew out of boys rolling down their long stockings to knee length. Then manufacturers started making them specifically to be worn as knee socks. The earliest knee socks were turn-over-top socks which means socks which extended up over the knees until turned down and cuffed. They were then held in place with round elastic garters." Long stockings appeared long before knee socks so our reader could well be correct. We just do not know at this point.

Wearing Knee Socks

One thing which should be pointed out about boys and knee socks is that they keep falling down. Boys seems to begin the day (or event that he was dressed for) all spruced up and nicely groomed, but as the time goes on, the knee socks seem to be the first to droop and get disheveled from the often active the action-pact games and activities boys are likely to engage in. Many a British school boy can remember being constantly told at school to "Pull those socks up, boy!" One solution was elastic garters which were often worn with turn-over-top knee socks. Girls of course also wore knee socks, but their knee socks never seemed to droop like those of the boys. I'm not completley sure why this was. One factor certainly was that boys were more active. Another factor was that girls were a more concerned about their appearance and more likely to carefully pull their socks up periodically during the day. There are probably other factors involved, hopefully, HBC visitors can offer some guidance here.

boys knee socks
Figure 2.--American boys mostly wore kneesocks with knickers. They primarily wore paterned knee socks rather than solid color ones like British and many European boys. I'm not sure about the date of the catalog page here.

Country Trends

Knee socks were a practical choice for British and European boys who wore shorts. Boys until the 1950s commonly wore shorts all year round, regardless of the weather. Short pants were regarded as boys' clothes and not warm-weather casual clothing. As a result, boys in Britain and most other European countries often wore short pants in quite cold weather. Some complained of "cold knees." As a result the long knee socks helped keep them warm. Boys in Germany and the Scandinavian countries differed somewhat from other European countries. Boys in Germany also commonly wore shorts, often quite old boys. German mothers, however, were apparently concerned about sending boys out in short pants during the cold winter weather, even with warm woolen knee socks. As a result, long pants were more common for older boys during the winter than in Britin. Smaller boys were kept in shorts, but were dressed in long over the knee stockings to make sure they kept nice and warm. The usage of knee socks for boys clothing has varied significantly from country to country in recent years.

Chronology

HBC has first noted kneesocks being worn in the early 19th century with Highland kilts. Presumably theu were also worn earlier in the 18th century. Here they were worn by moth men and boys. When wearing Higland kilts, plaid Argyle kneesocks wee commonly worn. Another early usage was with tunic suits. Here we note an American boy in the 1850, but we believe this to be realtively rare. We note children wearing knee socks under dresses. A good example is unidentified American children in 1855. We are less sure if knee socks were worn with long pants. Knee socks do not seem much used by boys until the 1900s when Baden Powell and his Boy Scouts help to popularize them. They were nuch preferred by boys to long stockings as they did not require the bothersome hose supportes that boys had to wear to keep up long stockings. Kneesocks grew in popularity during the 1910s and were commonly worn by the 1920s. Knee socks continued to be worn in Britain and the continent through the 1960s, but generally disapperared as boys began to wear jeans and other long pants more commonly. Shorts continued to be seen in Britain through the 1970s as some traditional private schools still required short pants as part of the school uniforms and some cub groups wore them. They were little seen in America after the 1960s except as part of Scout uniforms. Knee socks after the 1970s were commonly worn in only a few countries. Many New Zealand secondary schools continued to require them as part of the winter school uniform through the 1990s. Schools in Australia and South Africa have also continued to wear them. Japanese elementary school children commonly wore shorts through the 1980s and 90s, with both knee and ankle socks--both as part of a school uniform and for casual and dress occassions.

Ages

The ages of boys wearing knee socks varied from about 2-3-years of age to older teen agers. For the mkost part we note boys frowearing them to about 15 years of age. Knee sovks for school-age boys were cimmon in thevinter-War era. This varied over time and from country to country, older boys in Europe wore knee sovcs than in America. Younger teens commonly wore knee sicks in Europe. It was much less common for merican teenagers to wear knee socks. There werevboth social-class factors and regional variations in America. Often the older boys wore knee socks as part of soecialised dress sych as school uniform, youth group uniforms, ot ethnic dress of some kind. In addition to the generalized age discussion here, we are also developing country pages on pages knee sock age conventions, including pages on America, England, France, Germanjy, Italy, Japan, and other countries.

patterned knee socks
Figure 3.--These American boys wear patterned knee socks with short pants. They were more commonly worn with knickers. I think the photograph was taken in the late 1920s.

Types

Knee socks can be used as a general term. This is the common convention in America. In Britain it is used to refer to the knee socks tht only come to the knee without an actual length for a cuff. Several different types of knee socks have been worn by boys. The differences essentially converns the length. Other variations included weave and suspension. Some knee socks were long enough to extend over the knee and the extra length was used to cuff the kneesocks. A garter was used to hold them up. Others were shorter and even when pulled up only came to just below the knee. These were normally elasticised, They became popular becuse they were less expensive than turn-over-top socks. often with a welt top. Terminology varied somewhat by country. Popularity also vried by country as well as chronologically. Other knee socks include tune socks and hand-knitted socks. Tube socks were especially popular in the 1970s.

Patterns

Kneesocks came in both plain solid colors and patterns. We notice many different patterns. One popular pattern was argyles. This is one of the first patternswe noted, being worn with kilts in the 19th century. There were many other patterns, but we are not entirely sure how to describe them. This varied substantially from country to country and over time. Patterened knee socks were especially common in the United States, somewhat less common in Britain and the rest of Europe. We notice them mostly before World war II, but we see German boys wearing them after the War. There were conventions associated with patterened kneesocks. They were consudered more casual and sporty than the solid color knee socks. There were two basic types. Some were patterned along the entire leg. Others only had top patterns where the knee socks were cuffed.

school socks
Figure 4.--This English boy wears turn-over-top knee socks with his school colors at the top. Note the school sandals worn by the older boy in long pants.

Usage

Some kneesocks were made for specific uses such as school uniform or youth groups. Special school kneesocks were particularly commom in Britain. These were often done with special detailing such as colored bands at the top. In other cases they were made in destinctive colors. We also notice destinctive kneesocks for many youth groups in different countries.

School uniform

British schools requiring shorts usually also required the boys to wear knee socks as part of the uniform, although ankle socks were sometimes worn during the summer. Proper knee socks were turn-over-top socks with the school colors incorporated in stripes at the top. Some schools had a solid color top instead of color stripes. Most of the socks were grey. A few Scottish schools chose colored socks, including red, purple, and black. As the grey school socks with colors at the top were expensive, some boys would wear plain grey socks. These were particularly common at state schools which did not insist on socks with the school colors. Many of these cheaper knee socks were not turn over top socks, but came just to the knee. Active boys during the day found their socks would often fall down. Some schools insisted the boys wear garters at the top to keep them up.

Boy Scout knee socks
Figure 5.--Scouts around the world have commonly worn knee socks with the short pants uniform, evn in countries where boys did not commonly wear short pants or knee socks. Note the sneakers rather than leather shoes that american Scous began wearing in the 1970s.

Scout uniforms

European Scouts commonly wore shorts and knee socks through the 1970s. The British went to long pants in 1979, but Cubs commonly wore shorts and grey knee socks through the 1980s. The colors worn on the continent varied as scout associations in many countries adopted different uniform styles, often there were even different associations and uniforms within a single country. European Scout and Cub groups vasried. Most now give much less attention to uniform than previously and shorts and knee socks are relatively rare, but occasionally still seen in some countries. American Scouts did not wear shorts and kneesocks as widely as in Europe, but olive knee socks were worn with knickers until the 1940s. Shorts became more common for Scouts after the 1950s and were usually worn with matching knee socks. Cubs wore blue knee socks with yellow bands when they wore the short pants uniform. American Cubs, however, wore shorts less commonly than the Cubs. American Scouts made a major uniform change in 198?, exchanging regular green knee socks for althletic knee-length socks. The Scouts now wear green socks with red tops and the Cubs blue socks with yellow tops. Scouts continue to be more likely to wear the short pants uniform and knee socks than the Cubs who more commonly wear jeans with their regulation Cub shirts.

Colors

Kneesocks were done in a wide range of colors. Grey was probably the most common color, especially in Britain. We also note black and white kneesocks in addition to many different colors.

Plain grey

European knee socks were most commonly plain grey. Without patterns or colored bands at the top. European countries did not as commonly have school uniforms as in Britain so the school kneesocks with the colored bands were rare on the Continent. As mentioned above plain grey kneesocks were also common in Britain, commonly worn for casual wear, at many state schools, and for cubs.

white knee socks
Figure 6.--This French boy wears white knee socks with a school smock. Note the characteristic beret.

White socks

British and American boys in the years after World War I did not wear white knee socks with short pants, except for very small boys. White knee socks were regarded as girls socks in America. (White athletic ankle socks, however, were quite acceptable to boys. There were some exception to this as artistocratic British boys being raised at home often wore white ankle and knee socks, frequently with strap shoes--sometimes with kilts rather than short pants. White knee socks, however, were considered very juvenile or for girls in England as in America. This was somewhat less true on the continent. White knee socks appear to have been particularly popular in France. French mothers dressed boys of various age in white knee socks. French catholic schools often had white kneesocks as part of the uniform. The Hitler Youth in Germany used white kneesocks for the boys' uniform. White knee socks were also worn by French boys as part of the uniform at Catholic colleges, private secondary schools.

Weave

Many kneesocks were made with flat weave or weaves in which there is no noticeable pattern. The most common type of weave is probably a cable weave. This was especially common in the United States, but usually on the kneesocks worn by girls.

Flat weave


Cable knit

Knee socks sold in America since the 1950s have been available in a cable knit pattern, a style with cable patterns running vertically up the sock. Cable knit kneesocks became available in many different colors. This cable knit kneesocks were usually worn by girls or small boys. The cable knit knee socks were not made in the turn-over-top style more commonly worn by boys.

Support/Decrorative Trim

Here we have two partially related topics: support and decorative trim. As moms and children shifted from long stockings to kneesocks in the early 20th century, especially after World war II, they encountered a problem-how to hold the socks up. Long stockings were held up with garter and suspender waists or other devices that could be hidden by pants and skirts. This was not possible with kneesocks. Here we have several interconnected topics. Parents varied as to how concerned they were with the oroblem of socks falling down. School authorities seemed more concerned. Many boys were not concerned at all. We note the support devices such as garters. There were estastic bands especially made for this purpose. Some mothers adopted make-shift arrangements such as rubber bands. Another option was elasticized tops. If garters were used they were often hidden by cuffing the kneesocks. Some garters had decorations likes tabs. This was common with Scouting and less so with schools. We note some decorative devices, especially with hand knitted socks. We are not sure if they had some support function or were purely decorative.

Personal Memories

American boy: The 1970s








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Created: July 18, 1998
Last updated: 11:07 PM 7/12/2013