English Knickerbocker Suits


Figure 1.--Here we see an English boy in a knickers suit, we think in the early 20th century before World War I. The cap suggests it was probably a school uniform or school clothes. All we know about the boy is that he was from Cleveland. He looks to be about 13 years old.

Modern knickers were esentially invented by mid-19th Century country squires as they found them more practical country wear than trousers. They were called knickerbockers. Knickers were being worn by English school boys by the late-19th Century. They were extensively worn by older boys in England. The English knickers were close fitting pants that came below the knee. By the 1910s shorts were becoming more important in England, in part because of the inluence of Lord Baden Powell's Scout movement. Knickers in the early 20th century had the meaning of short trousers which I believed continued until after World War II. One reader whose father operatred a mens' wear store tells us that his father used knickers for short trousers into the 1950s. English boys by the 1920s more commonly wore shorts although some older English boys wore knickers. Most English boys, however, when they outgrew short pants wore long pants. Knickers in the 1920s and 30s were not nearly as popular in England as in America. A British reader writes, "I certainly never saw them being worn here and believe they died out even earlier - maybe the 1920s - at which point most boys were wearing short trousers. By the way the word itself - "knickers" today has the meaning of women's underwear here and would cause us to giggle as kids in the 1970s. I'm writing part of my memories based around this fact as there was an expensive ice-cream called a "knickerbocker glory" sold at seaside resorts here and this brought back some amusing memories.I believe knickers is the short form of knickerbockers but I don't know why the ice-cream was so-called,

Origins

Modern knickers were esentially invented by mid-19th Century country squires as they found them more practical country wear than trousers.

Terminology

They were called knickerbockers. Knickers in the early 20th century had the meaning of short trousers which I believed continued until after World War II. One reader whose father operatred a mens' wear store tells us that his father used knickers for short trousers into the 1950s. A British reader writes, "By the way the word itself - "knickers" today has the meaning of women's underwear here and would cause us to giggle as kids in the 1970s. I'm writing part of my memories based around this fact as there was an expensive ice-cream called a "knickerbocker glory" sold at seaside resorts here and this brought back some amusing memories.I believe knickers is the short form of knickerbockers but I don't know why the ice-cream was so-called," Another reader writes, "Like I say I only remember things from the 60s/70s and onwards. For us,us kids,it was almost a forbidden word - almost akin to a swearword.This was still true even in the 90s. I did some work in the theatre (backstage) in the 90s and worked on a pantomime.The usual audience participation thing went on.Skateboards were a big Christmas thing with kids then and the "hero" used to enter on one. Then he'd leave it at the side of the stage and ask the kids in the audience if they'd keep an eye on it for him.There is an English term for to steal or to pinch something and that is to "nick" something ( this may be just a London term - I'm not sure).Anyway the "hero" of the play wuld ask the kids to shout out "Nickers" if they saw anyone - the "Villain" of course coming on stage to "nick" his skateboard.The kids loved it - shouting out a "rude" word in front of their teachers ( we used to do matinee performances for schools ) - but some of the teachers complained. Maybe this connatation - with women's underwear - only took root in the 60s when I was growing up. I never heared shorts referrred to as knickers.

Chronology

The English knickers, almost always referred to as knickerbockers, were close or medium-fitting trousers that came below the knee. We see them in late-19th century photograp[hs and seem to have commonly been worn to school. They were also worn for country outings by young men and adults. This would have been a relatively narrow part of the population. By the 1910s shorts were becoming more important in England, in part we think because of the inluence of Lord Baden Powell's Scout movement. English boys by the 1920s more commonly wore shorts although some older English boys wore knickers. The photographic record suggests that shorts were much more prevalent. Most English boys when they outgrew short pants wore long pants. Knickers in the 1920s and 30s were not nearly as popular in England as in America or even the continent for boys. A British reader writes, "I certainly never saw them being worn here and believe they died out even earlier - maybe the 1920s - at which point most boys were wearing short trousers." Knickers were more common as smart casual wear by the affluent class.

Accompaying Clothing


Jackets

We see English boys wearing different styles of suit jackets with knickers, but single breasted suit jackets were very common. Our archive is still very limited, but single-breasted suits seem by far the most common, more common than in America where we see many boys wearing double-breasted jackets. We believe the popularity of single-breasted jackets was in part because that this was in part because it was the the style generally preferred for school uniforms. This meant primarily private schools, but styles at these schools was influential in setting popular styles. Norfolk jackers were another popular style. As far as we can tell, knickers were mostly suit pants. I don't think it was very common, as it was in America, to just buy a pair of knickers separate from a suit coat.

Vests


Hosiery

English boys mostly wore knickers with long stockings or knee socks.

Ages

We note school age boys wearing knee pants suits in the 19th century. We do not have much information on the early- and mid-19th century. Unlike America, few Daguerreotypes and Ambro-types are available from England coveringthe mid-century. But with the appearance of the CDV (1860s) we begin to photographic portaits in some numbers that allow us to assess fashion trends. Our archive is still limited, but we note boys wearing kncker suits from about 6-15 years of age. We have just begun to work on age conventions, but this is a rough estimate for the second half of the 19th-century. Many boys wore knicker suits to school. A number of private schools had them as school uniforms. While many boys wore knicker suits, knee pnts suits were much more common in America. At the turn-of-the 20th century we see more boys wearing knee pabts suits. Herec age was a factor. After Wotrld War I in the 190s, short psnts suits became standard wear for boys. We note some teenagers wearing knickers suits as akkind of transition to long pants. We note the samectrend in Italy, France, and Germany. This contrasts with America where knicker suits had become standard wear in the 1910s. We nolonger see knickers suits to any extent in Englnd after World War II, but short pants suits were still common until the 1960s.

Schoolwear

Knickers were being worn by English school boys by the late-19th Century. They were extensively worn by older boys in England, mostly boys at private schools. We nelieve this became fairly common in the 1880s..

Social Class

We are not yet sure about social class conventions. As far as we can tell, knickers were largely a middle and upper class style. We less commonly see working-class boys wearing them. Thisis, owever, still an initial impression and we are still trying gonassess this.

Construction

We have only limited information on the construction of English knickers. we notice John Montagu Slopford in 1871. His knickers had draw string closures. The boy here in the early-20th century looks to have a band rather like American boys at the time, presumably with a button closure (figure 1). Like straight-leg knee pants, we see these knicker pants being done in a range of cuts and somewhat different lengths.

Decoration

We see the pants done with embroidery matching jackets in the 1860s-70s.

Bloomer Knickers









HBC




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Created: March 6, 2004
Last edited: 1:45 PM 12/10/2011