*** short trousers pants : English trends

Short Pants/Trousers: England

English short pants
Figure 1.--Except for the boots, this is a typical photograph of how an English boy might have dressed in the 1940s or 50s. The photograph, however is unidentified.

Short pants were first commonly worn in England after the turn of the Century. The emensely popular Boy Scout Movement helped to popularize the new shorts, worn with kneesocks rather than the declining kneepants worn with long stockings. They were worn by most English boys through the 1950s, but began to decline in popularity in the 1960s as fewer and younger boys wore short pants suits. The Scouts dropped short pants as part of the school uniform in 1969, although Cubs continued to wear them. By the 1970s they were much less commonly worn, although many schools--especially private preparatory schools and many elementary schools still required them. The changing conventions over short trousers engendered aan extensive discussion of the suitability of shorts for boys in the English press. HBC readers should not that the common term for short pants in England is short trousers. "Knickers" has been used in the past, but is no longer used and "short pants" is never used.


Short trousers were introduced for boys in turn of the Century England. I have no definitive historical information on the origin of short pants for boys worn with knee socks leaving the knee bare. They presumably were a natural evolution from kneepants. They seem to have first appeared in England before the turn of the century. I believe that they may have originated with the British Army at tropical postings like India. They were given great popularity by Lord Baden Powell and his nascent Boy Scout Movement. The emensely popular Boy Scout Movement helped to popularize the new shorts, worn with kneesocks rather than the declining kneepants worn with long stockings. They rapidly became popular in England and accross thee channel on the Continent. They were continued to widely worn in England until well after World War II (1939-45). They were commonly worn by English boys through the 1950s, but began to decline in popularity in the 1960s as fewer and younger boys wore short pants suits. The Scouts dropped short pants as part of the school uniform in 1969, although Cubs continued to wear them. By the 1970s they were much less commonly worn, although many schools--especially private preparatory schools and many elementary schools still required them. As shorts declined in popularity as formal dress wear they became increasingly popular as warm weather casual clothing and sports wear.


Conventions for wearing short pants varied greatly widely in England over time.


English boys have worn a wide variety of short trousers. Knee pants were common n the lte-19th century. Shorts pants mostly appeared in the the 1910s and became standard in the 1920s. There are different ways to categorize the various types of shorts. Trouser suspension is variable as is the usage. Some of these different variables overlap. Initially there were not such a wide variety as children, except for the most wealthy did not have large wardrobes. Thus there might be a short pants suit worn for best and then some older shorts worn for play or casual wear. Except for the age of the trousers, there might be little difference between them. Most were wool suit pants. Affluent boys attending private schools might have white shorts worn for athletics or other sport shorts. School shorts were often flsnnl. fter World War II we begin to see terralyn-worsted shorts commonly worn for school. Courduroy shorts appeared in the 1920s and were oten worn as play or casual shorts. They were also adopted as uniform shorts at some schools. Only in the 1940s did casual or play shorts become more widely worn. Gradually grey short pants became accepted as a standard for school wear. thletic hoirts becme popular in the 1970s.



The original shorts were generally worn quite long, often faling to the middle of the knee. English boys continued to wear long, relatively baggy cut shorts until the 1960s. The continental cut shorter cut became common in the 1970s. At the same time it became less common for older boys to wear shorts.


Pockets are another matter of some importance. A British reader tells us, ""Pockets are a factor that I recall it as being extremely important when I was a boy. Proper school shorts had side pockets - just like men's long trousers. Although there were no back pockets. The front pockets meant that we could always stuff anything we came across on the way home into them. I have told you before how my Mum would often be horrified about what she turned out of our pockets once we got home - and that went for our casual shorts too in the main because they always had pockets too. I particularly recall one occaision when my Mum bought us all a shorts and shirts set without side pockets one Summer at the market. I was at a complete loss because the shorts had no pockets!. It was not just a matter of putting stuff into them - you could loop your thumbs into them and look "tough" (actually having "hands in pockets" was seen as "slovenly" and would often earn a smack). I always felt odd when I had to wear those shorts without pockets - and the same was when later we might wear our sports shorts to go home in. Sports shorts didn't have pockets either - and given that we'd have our blazers packed in our bags there was never anywhere to store anything easily and quickly. I remember that being a problem at times - but at that age it was our own choice to wear those pocketless shorts rather than out Mums' so I can't really complain about that!"


English boys began to commonly wear short trousers in the early 20th century. Most boys wore shorts with knee socks. Many European boys wore them with long stockings, but this was not very common in Britain. We mostly see British boyswearing kneesocks until after World War II. Ankle socks gradually became more common, but kneesocks were widely worn through the 1960s. By the 1970s knee socks became increasingly associated with schoolwear.


British boys have worn short trousers with a wide range of footwea. Heavy booy-like shoes were common in the early 20th century. After World War I (1914-18), low-cut shoes and sandals became more common. Sandals were very common in primary schools through the 1960s. Boys began wearing trainers with shorts in the 1970s. A few boys wore Doc Martens, but this was not very common. Neither parents or schools approved.


A word about terminology and the use of the term "knickers" in England. A British contributor to HBC writes that he has only ever come across this usage to mean short trousers for boys as technical terminology within the clothing trade. HBC think this is because 'knickers' was more common in the early decades of the century. Our British colleague insists that for the general U.K. population, he doubts if even 1 percent of lay people would recognise this meaning of the word--which is usually used to mean ladies' underwear. Another British contributor believes that the word knickers who somewhay more widely used. He has seen some department store clothing brochures from the 1930s and 1940s. These brochures would have been destributed to customers. In these brochures, boys' short trouser suits are refereed to as 'knicker suits.' So this terminology was not just confined to the trade. When one British contributor first came across the word used in a tailor's catalogue he was quite amazed, and certainly as a schoolboy he would have thought this a ridiculous and very embarrassing usage to describe what he wore. In British English in those unliberated days it was actually quite a 'rude' word, rather 'unmentionable' and likely to cause small boys, at least, to dissolve in embarrassed giggles. The word 'knickers'" could always raise a laugh with a music hall audience. HBC points out that personal experiences can be quite varied. The time period is probably the main factor here. HBC notes that almost all contributions have used the term 'trousers' and not 'knickers'. This has been especially true in the 1980s and 90s, but apparently has been the case at least since the 1950s, probably even eralier. Other variables such as region and social class/economic situation can also affect one's specific expereiences. This is probably more true in England than America, particularly as class differences are concerned. HBC points out to futher muddy the waters that the term "short pants" as used in America is also not used in England because "pants" means men's and boy's underwear. However, "short pants" is commonly used in former British colonies such as Australia and New Zealand.


Short pants began to be widely worn by English boys after World War I. Previously knee pants were standard. The knee pants mostly look dark, but we are not sure bout the colors. The colors of those shorts were a relatively narrow range. Eventually grey became associate with suit trousers and with school wear. We are mot sure why, perhaps because they do not show the irt as well as many other colors. Play shorts appeared in a relatively narrow range of colors. British readers from the 1940s and 50s mention mention lovat green, beige, and blue. (An American reader recalls the sames colors in addition to brown.) A British reader writes, "As far as short trousers wereconcerned, boys could wear grey, green or beige willy-nilly as the fancy took them. The green and beige etc. shorts were for casual wear but school shorts were always grey. It was up for parents to choose what colour shorts their sons wore out of school, but school uniform shorts in gretv were almost a national standard." Another reader writes, " My cousin wore lovat green and beige shorts practically all the time, in fact he hardly ever wore grey shorts. The only grey shorts he ever had were for school and as part of a short trouser suit that he wore for Sunday best." A much wider range of colors began appearing in the 1960s, especially for younger boys who might wear bright colors.

Contributing Factors

Short trousers were very widely worn by English boys in the first half of the 20th century. It is not all together clear why shorts became so widely worn in England and other European countries. Here we believe a range of pratical, cultural, and economic factors may have been involved. Fashion at times seems capricious, but it is often connected with other more understandavle fctors. We have seen several factors suggested, but we are not entirely sure how important these various factors were. We welcome reader insights here as we develop this subject.


Pants were a garment that boys exclisively wore since they first appeared in theWest (17th century). The first exception was pantalettes (19th century). At the turn of the 20th century we still do not see girls wearing pants, including shorts. Even for school gym, girls mostly wore bloomer or romper pants rather than shorts. This did not begin to change until after World War I in the 1920s. And even then we rarely see girls wearing pants. An early example is an unidentified girl wearing shorts on her summer vacation (about 1930). The only exceotion was school gym where we do begin to see girls beginning to change from bloomers to shorts. This continued to be unusual for some time. We gradually begin to see a few girls weating pants, mostly shorts. And the ones we do see are wearing them for casual play occassions, usually during the summer. Girls did not wear shorts to school until the late-20th century, and then only in primary school. Virtually all school with uniforms insisted on dresses or skirts.

Debate Over Shorts

The changing popularity in the 1960s of short trousers, as the British call them, occassioned considerable discussion in both English magazines and newspapers concerning the merits of shorts. Much of this debate was conducted by serious parents and editorial writers. HBC is suspicious that about some of these letters. This is especially true of letters that mention having the short trousers altered. These were probably not written by actual parents and a serious contribution to the debate, despite the fact that they appeared in a serious magazine like Parents.

Keep Teenage Boys in Shorts

I am in full agreement with the parents who believe in the suitability of short trousers for young teenage boys. Apart from being a more healthy form of dress, decent boys are not tempted to mix with gangs dressed as young adults and get into trouble. My two schoolboy sons, aged 13 1/2 and 14 3/4, both wear shorts. I have the shorts especially cut, reasonably brief for smartness, and they wear them with short stockings or ankle socks. They both agree that this gives them more freedom of movement and comfort, and I entend to keep them in short trousers until they are 16.

Mrs. F.L., Cardiff, Parents Magazine, November, 1962, p. 18.

Editorial discussion

We have been interested to read the corway (see page 18 for the latest letter) on long or short trousers for teenage boys. Frankly I think this is a matter on which parents should not inflict their beliefs on their children, nor make their boys dress differentlyfrom all their pals. Our boy goes to a public school [HBC bote: public school in England means elite private school] where shorts are the uniform and he likes them very much and so it seems do all the boys, even up to the age of 18. But I doubt whether any of them choose to go out with their parents at weekend or half term in shorts.

Shorts for boys of 13 are excellent for games, climbing, cycling expeditions, and school, if that is he uniform, but if they wish to wear long trousers or tight jeans for leisure, visits, journeys, or parties, surely this is a matter of respecting a boy's personal dignity, rather than whether or not parents like to see their son in shorts. Because we permit a boy the choice of long or short trousers it does not follow that we are therefore bound to permit outlandish clothing which offends us; we don't, for instance, have to allow scarlet snake-skin jeans and high-heel leather boots! To give license with controls in the right and sensdible way to bring up children, particularly when they reach adolescense.

Don't try to stop your boys from growing up; you can't.

Brenda Lewis, The Editor, Parents Magazine, November, 1962, p. 33.

Changing Attitudes

After Lord Baden Powell adopted short trousers for wear by the Boy Scouts in the 1900s, shorts quickly became the standard dress of the English boy, for Scouts, school, dresswear, and for play. This standard persisted until well after World War II (1939-45). English boys began to changee their attitudes in the 1960s and by the end of the decade the Scouts and some schools changed their uniforms. While some schools persistd in requiring shorts, by the 1990s even Wolf Cubs and preparatory schools were mostly allowing boys to wear longs. The question arises, why did shorts become so popular in England and why did the attitdes of boys and parents begin to change in the 1960s.

Personal experiences

Some reports about the experiences of boys with short pants in various countries include the following:
The 1900s: Stephen Tennant
The 1940s: Alexander Mosley
The 1940s: Snipets
The 1940s-50s: A wartime childhood
The 1940s-50s
The 1950s
The 1950s: A council and secondary modern
The 1950s: Working-class family
The 1950s: A secondary modern
The 1950s-60s: A Polish father
The 1950s-60s: John
The 1950s-60s: Grey flannels
The 1950s-60s: Grammar school and scouts
The 1960s
The 1960s: Michael and his school uniform
The 1970s
The 1970s
The 1970-80s: Scotland
The 1970-80s: Formal clothes for church
The 1970s: Stephen
The 1970-80s: My short pants suit and buying school shorts
The 1970s and early 80s: Matthew
The 1980s
The 1990s: Andy


Navigate the Boys' Historical Clothing Web Site:
[Return to the Main short pants country page]
[Return to the Main English trouser type page ]
[Return to the Main short pants page]
[Introduction] [Activities] [Biographies] [Chronology] [Clothing styles] [Countries] [Literary]
[Bibliographies] [Contributions] [FAQs] [Glossaries] [Images] [Links] [Registration] [Tools]
[Boys' Clothing Home]

Created: April 21, 2000
Last updated: 7:24 AM 7/1/2021