Knee Pants


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 is loose 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.

Boys in the late-18th and early-19th century began wearing the first specialized children clothes. This at first meant long pants. The next uniquely styled fashion for boys trousers was kneepants. This new style appeared for boys after mid-century. This new style along with associated more modern styles of knickers and short pants were to dominate boys' fashions for the next hymdred years. They were at first worn by younger boys, but in some periods and countries were worn by older boys, even boys of high school age. The terminology for Kneepants is somewhat difficult to develop. This is because there was no consistent term for knee pants. We have seen them described as both knee pants and short pants. Knee pants were still widely worn in the 1900s, but declined signifiacants in the 1910s as boys turned to short pants, knickers, or long pants. The ages of the boys wearing knee pants varied from country to country an over time. At this tpoint HBC only has a rough idea of the ages of boys wearing kneepants. We know that this varied chronologically. A younger boy after wearing a Little Lord Fauntleroy or sailor suit might be purchased a more mature looking kneepants suit with single or doubble-breasted styling. Many mothers, however, frequently added accessories like large floppy bows and lace or ruffled collars and cuffs. The type of trousers or pants worn by a boy in many cases had social class connotations. This has varied from country to country and over time.

Background

Boys in the late 17th and early 19th century began wearing the first specialized children clothes. Sailor suits were worn by some boys with the same bell-bottomed pantaloons that real sailors wore, but it was not the widely popular fashion that it was to become after Queen Victoria adopted it for the royal princes. One of the principal fashions for boys of the late-18th and early-19th century was the skeleton suit, worn with long pantaloons or trousers at a time with adult men when they dressed up wore knee breeches. A new style of knee-length pants appeared for boys after mid-century. This new style along with associated more modern styles of knickers and short pants were to dominate boys' fashions for the next hundred years. They were at first worn by younger boys, but in some periods and countries were worn by older boys, even boys of high school age.

Terminology

The terminology for Knee pants is somewhat difficult to develop. This is because there was no consistent term for kneepants. We have seen them described as both knee pants and short pants. The use of knickers was also not consistent. These pants were also called "stove-pipe" pants in America. We also see references to 'straight-leg' knee pants, usually differentuating them from knickers. I'm not sure when this term was first used. There were also differences between American and British usages. We have no information at this time over foreign language terms. Although contemporary usage was not consistent, we have attempted to refer to the knee-length short pants wotn in the 19th and early 20th century as kneepants. Generally speaking they differet from short pants primarily from length, although short pants in the 1920s tebnded to be quite long, except for younger boys. Another major differences is that knee pants commonly had ornamental buttons at the leg hem. This appeared in the mid-19th century and were designed to simulate knee breeches.

Origins

We do not understand the origins of knee pants. We do not know who first made them nor where. We suspect they first appeared in Britain, but we are not sure. We also do not know what the inspiration was. A Canadian reader writes, "I notice pantalettes being worn by both boys and girls in the erly 19th century. This may have been an indluence setting the presedent of boys wearing a shortened form of trousrs. The pantalettes were always worn below the knee, but above the ankels. They also were worn with an open cur and were not blouced like cloomers. It is my opinion that kneepants originated from these pantaletts." Pantalettes may have been a factor, but we do not think that they were the whole story. For example knee pants generlly have thee buttons at the leg hem which see to show a relationship to 18th century kneebreeches. We wonder if the tendency of bows to outgrow their trousers could have also been an influence. Hopefully HBC readers will have some insights here.

New Fashion

Knee pants for boys appeared at mid-century. Initially they were worn by younger boys after breeching, but ecentually they became an almost universal style for British, European, and American boys. At first kneepants were cut at many different lenhths, from just below the knee to just above the ankles. The length of just below the knees did not become standardized until the 1870s. One would think that mid-19th Century kneepants were a natural evolution from 18th Century knee breeches. In fact, however, knee breeches went out of fashion at the turn of the century. Boys had for decaded been wearing long pants. First with skeleton suits and sailor suits and then with other outfits. The knee pants whuch appeared at mid-century were an entirely different style. Many knee pants, however, retained the buttons at the hem of the pants, used for closing knee breeches. In most cases they were on kneepants purely ornamental. A reader writes, "Why did boys begin wearing knnepants after the mid-19th century. Boys since the turn of the 19th century had been commonly wearing long pants." We do not know. Nor do we know who created this style or why it developed. Some fashions are easily explained. We know for example who created jeans and why--there was a need for inexpemsive hard wearing work trousers. In the case of kneepants we do not know. They appear to be a fashion change not a practical innovation. At least I see nothing practical about them. Most fashion books mention the style, but do not explain why they became so popular. Here we are not sure just why this new fashion caught on. Most stylistic innovations do not. It seems that they idea of having a particular style of trousers for boys appealed to parents at the time. Perhaps our readers will have some insights.


Figure 2.--Patterns and modern photography of period clothing provides valuable information on material, color, detailing, and design that is not always available through contemprary photography.

Chronology

Kneepants and knickers appeared before the mid-19th century, but it was not until the 1870s that they began to be commonly worn by 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.

Actual Pants

HBC archives modern photographs of old clothing. These photographs provide interesting details on clothing construction, materials, colors, and styling that are often not available from actual historical photographs. Details on garment construction are sometimes difficult to assess from period photography and drawings. Details from modern photographs of actual historical clothing often provide much more detailed images. The color is one important piece of information lacking in contemporary photography. Close up on the sewing and enbroidery are also often lacking in period photograpy. While they are not perhaps as interesting as actual period photography, such information is important in assessing historical clothing. These images are available from museum displays as well as historical clothing collectors.

Ages

The ages of the boys wearing knee pants varied from country to country an over time. At this tpoint HBC only has a rough idea of the ages of American boys wearing knee pants. Boys generally wore long pants in the early 19th century. Some boys by the 1850s were wearing calf-length knee pants, but only younger boys. Clothing was still quite expensive in real terms in the mid-19th century. Clothes were not generally discarded just because they had become a little small.Thus some fast growing boys might be wearing long pants than were well above the ankles. Only in the 1870s did knee pants become widespread, but still for boys only up to 10 or 12. Older boys began wearing knee pants in the 1880s and by the 1890s quite old boys were wearing them--including highschool age boys. At the turn-of-the 20th centurty knee pants were worn by boys up to about 16 to 18 years of age--although at that age many boys also wore long pants. Kneepants for older were still common in the 1900s, but began to be replaced by knickers in the 1910s.

Suits

Most of the work we have done on knee pants suits has been on the trousers themselves rather than the suits. This is because when knee pants were first introduced they were normally worn as part of a suit. Suits were very common in the 19th century. Thus mot knee pants were really suit pants and two destincr sections, one for the suits and two for the pants did not seem necessary. We have noticed as HBC developed boys in the 1890s wearing knee pants with blouses and without a suit jacket. This seems to have been particularly common in the 1890s. So we decided that in addition to te knee pants page that a knee pants suit was needed. Until we have time to work on the suit page, most of the information on knee pants will be in the trouser section.


Figure 3.--By the 1880s it was not just younger boys wearing kneepants. This photograph was probably taken in the 1890s. Quite old boys were ast the time wearing kneepants. This boy looks to be about 14, but it was common for even older boys to wear them. Note is hat sitting on the chair.

Accesories

A younger boy after wearing a Little Lord Fauntleroy or sailor suit might be purchased a more mature looking kneepants suit with single or doubble-breasted styling. Many mothers, however, frequently added accessories like large floppy bows and lace or ruffled collars and cuffs. This was especially the case for younger boys who were purchased kneepants suits. Some boys might wear these suits at a fairly young age after breecing or wearing a kilt suit. This might happen because parents (usually the father) did not like the Fauntleroy styling or as an economy measure. A proper velver Faintleroy suuit was expensive. Sme of the same affect could be achieved by simply adding a large floppy bow or even large ruffled collars and cuffs.

Social Connotations

The type of trousers or pants worn by a boy in many cases had social class connotations. This has varied from country to country and over time. In America, for example, boys from more affluent families in the 19th century were more likely to wear kneepants and in the 20th century short pants and to an older age. A similar pattern has been noted in other countries, but this has not always been the case. HBC plans to pursue this issue. But at this time we will simply link the recollections of a man who rembers his experiences in the 19th century and disccusses the social conotations.

Popularity

Kneepants and knickers, or a least knee-lengthpants withblouced leg hems, appeared at about the same time. We note both being worn uin the 1850s, but by the 1860s, kneepants were clearly more common. We are not sure why this was, but guess that straight-leg kneepants were easier to see than blouse-leg pants. This continued until the early 20th century when more and more boys began wearing knickers. We are not sure as to how boys in tghe 1910s and 20s viewed the two styles. Although knickers were not a new style, clearly boys began seeing knickers as a more modern style. Interestingly some parents, especially in Europe, continued for some time to see kneepants as more appropriate for formal dresswear. Wesuspect that a major factor was that kneesocks rather than longstockings requiring a stocking supporter could be worn with knickers.

Countries

Boys in the America and Europe commonly wore knee pants in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. This was the dominant style of pants for boys in most Western countries for most of the late 19th century and the early 20th century. We have archived thousands of images from many different coutries. Many were American boys. They were very common in America in the late 19th century. More boys and we think older boys wore knee pants than in any other country. A good example is a chicago boy, Robert Mason Hamilton, in 1897. We have not yet developed many country pages on kneepants, but this is one of the many projects underway at HBC. They were commonly worn in many other countries.We note a Canadian boy in 1885.

Length

Although the term "knee pants" was very common. Many of these pants were not actually knee length. In fact we see kneepants being worn at many different lengrhs from above the knee to just a little above the ankle. Early knee pants that were worn in the 1860s tended to be much longer than knee length, often calf length. This long cut continued to be common in the 1870s and was still widely seen in the 1880s. Only in the 1880s, especially by the late-80s do we see shorter cuts. Boys by the 1890s were wearing actual knee-length pants. Even so, we see boys wearing long-length kneepants in the 1890s.A good example is a chicago boy, Robert Mason Hamilton, in 1897. Here age does not seem to have been a factor, at least not directly. Rather it was simply fashion. One factor in the age variability seems to have been moters. Many mothers bought boys pants in a size larger than they actualy wee. This allowed the boy to get more wear out of them. And other mothers continued to have boys wear pants that were still good even though he may have grown out of them height wise. Boys continued wearing knee-length knee pants into the 1900s, but then we see note boys wearing knickers. There were differences from country to country as to this general pattern. European boys, for example, began wearing knickers earlier than in America, but not as commonly.

Hosiery

Knee pants were woren with a variety of hosiery. This varied over time and from country to country. We primarily note American boys wearing knee pants with long stockings. This was common even in the summer. A good example is a chicago boy, Robert Mason Hamilton, in 1897. Although by the 1910s we note younger boys wearing three-quarter socks with knee pants, especially during the summer. American boys also commonly went barefoot in the summer, especially in the South and rural areas. The same seems to have been the case in Canada. An example here is the Bartle broothers around the turn-of-the-20th century. The situation was somewhat different in Europe. We see mang French boys wearing three-quater socks. Younger American boys after the turn-of-the-20th century might also wear three-quater socks. German boys also wore three-quater socks with kneepants, especially during the summer. Long stockings were more impoetant during the winter. We note British boys wearing kneesocks with knee pants.

Unidentified Images

HBC receives many images from readers with no identifying information. We can usually identify the country, especially if the entire image is available, including the back. Even without this, the clothing styles, child's physical characteristics, background, type of photograph, or other indicators allow us to identify the country or to approxinmately date the image. We have acquired some images that we have had difficulty identifying. We will archive these images here and welcome any insights HBC readers are able to contribute.







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Created: March 17, 1999
Last edited: 7:17 PM 10/27/2011