Skip to content

An Alphabet of Feminism #11: K is for Knickerbocker

2010 December 13




“I should say that a walking suit in which one could not walk, and a winter suit which exposes the throat, head, and feet to cold and damp, was rather a failure,” said Dr. Alec [who had his own ideas about what his niece should be wearing.]

“Alec, if it is a Bloomer, I shall protest. I’ve been expecting it, but I know I cannot bear to see that pretty child sacrificed to your wild ideas of health. Tell me it isn’t a Bloomer!” and Mrs. Clara clasped her hands imploringly.

Louisa May Alcott, Eight Cousins (1875)

Nope, a knickerbocker. This is a strange word, with an uncertain trajectory from immigration to ladies’ unmentionables, and its progress will here be followed with a suitably bifurcated approach: one leg underwear and one leg outerwear. We meet in the middle.

Victorian illustration of a woman modelling a Bloomer suit, 1850s

Work it. A Bloomer from the 1850s.

The word’s first appearance is in capitalised form: Knickerbocker is the name given to ‘a descendent of the original Dutch settlers of the New Netherlands in America; hence, a New Yorker’ – the New ‘Netherlands’ becoming, of course, New ‘York’ after the English got their grubby hands on it.

The everyday appearance of the term must be attributed to Washington Irving’s 1848 History of New York, purported to have been written by one ‘Diedrich Knickerbocker’. A long chain, this name was appropriated from Irving’s pal Herman of the same name, who was in turn descended from Harmen Jansen Knickerbocker (c.1650-1720), one of the original Dutch settlers, who supposedly invented the name. Awesome.

But where are the unmentionables?

It’s Over.

These appear in the second sense of the word, a development on the first, from 1859, where it is pluralised to knickerbockers – ‘Loose-fitting breeches, gathered in at the knee; also extended to the whole costume worn with this’. Irving is once again lurking around, because this usage is said to refer to George Cruikshank’s illustrations of the same opus. Knickerbockers wear knickerbockers. Duh.

These ‘loose-fitting breeches gathered at the knee’ became, in another life, standard wear for little boys, whose breeching (the graduation to trousers) consequently became a coming-of-age moment. Short trousers, of course, facilitated easy, boisterous movement, and in Eight Cousins, quoted above, the incorrigibly fashionable Aunt Clara resents her little niece, Rose, wearing such loose-fitting bifurcated garments: ‘Dress her in that boyish way and she will act like a boy. I do hate all these inventions of strong-minded women!’

So Knickerbockers were not simply a New York trend: they were part of sartorial gender differentiation. Little girls wear restrictive petticoats to keep them ladylike; those boys who have graduated from their baby-skirts wear garments that allow them to be as boyish as necessary. It is no coincidence that, in their modern incarnation, knickerbockers are kept firmly in the domain of sportswear.

Bloomin’ ‘Eck

'Bicycle Suit' from Punch (1895)

Cartoon from Punch, 1895.

The ‘Bloomers’ Aunt Clara has such a horror of were the pet project of another Knickerbocker. In the 1850s, Miss Amelia Bloomer, from Cortland County, New York, began a crusade to popularise the ‘Bloomer suit’, not her own invention, but eventually synonymous with her name. This was an Eastern-inspired way to wear your skirt: shorter with the aid of modest, wide-legged trousers that tapered at the knee. Modesty preserved; movement uninhibited. Job done.

But despite enthusiasm from several quarters, Miss Bloomer’s overall success was limited and bloomers themselves roundly mocked in most quarters for being just too weird. In 1859, she dropped her project altogether because of the arrival of a fresh sartorial development, immediately fashionable, sexually appealing and simple – something that, she felt, did the job of fusing modesty, comfort and practicality just as well. And the name of this marvel? The crinoline.

Underneath the Bridge.

The devoted may remember that this strange hooped structure, by virtue of moving independently of its owner, facilitated the easy movement of the legs underneath. Obviously you could not sally around bareback underneath (as you had mostly done before), and thus the ubiquity of pantalettes (elongated drawers). And here comes the bifurcated garment – not yet knickers, for they are still too long to qualify for a diminutive – relegated to underwear.

These pantalettes were not simply loose cotton trousers like the bloomer (although they could be), but frequently two separate garments, one for each leg; their intent was not to cover one’s proverbial shame, but rather to keep the legs out of sight (and rather toasty too). Thus, they frequently bifurcated at the rumpal regions rather than the legs themselves, in which form they remained until the turn of the century.

Daisy, Daisy…

It was the strange innovation of the bicycle that, for the first time since Amelia Bloomer, re-addressed the question of external female knickerbockers, for simple safety purposes. Though the haterz still hated, there was something about this new mode of transport that (literally) mobilised a whole generation of women, storming these shocking garments through to respectability on a bicycle. It may come as small surprise to learn that these sartorial liberators came swingin’ back into fashion in the 1960s, epitomised by Yves St. Laurent’s velvet knickerbocker suit, and extending to gender-neutral clothing, and jeans for both sexes.

Meanwhile, bloomers were beating a retreat up the leg as Mary Quant advanced a new weapon: the ‘mini-skirt’. For the first time, stockings and the bifurcated undergarments worn with them were conflated, and suddenly there was a need for practical brief coverings (with a name to match) to avoid flashing in the streets and, presumably, to protect the designer tights that went over them. Knickers had arrived. The decline of stockings as status quo prompted some to herald a new ‘sexless woman’ (A Good Thing), although this may also have resulted from a vogue for pre-pubescent figures combined with ambiguous schoolgirl traditions: puffed sleeves, pinafores, Mary-Janes and little boy-shorts. A strange sort of liberation, perhaps.

K is for Knickerbocker

NEXT WEEK: L is for Lady

24 Responses leave one →
  1. Miranda permalink*
    December 13, 2010

    This is one of my favourites so far, possibly because I love Louisa May Alcott so much, but I was actually surprised to learn that ‘knickers’ at least as a term arrive so late in history – I’d always thought they were happening in the Forties at least (I’m thinking of those deliberately silly but also titillating pinup-style artworks, depicting rationing-era women suffering wardrobe malfunctions in the street, have you seen them?).

    I am also rather saddened to hear that Amelia Bloomer abandoned her crusade when the crinoline took off. I was in a primary school assembly play about her! I had to play what the teacher-penned script called “a Victorian fashion victim” and my friend played Amelia Bloomer, out to convert the fashionable ladies to the way of the baggy trousers. I vowed live on stage to abandon my “corset” (it was a vest top with some ribbons stitched on it) in favour of a bloomer suit (not that you couldn’t wear them both together, I guess…). One of the parents had made the girl who played Amelia her own bloomer costume using adult-sized (so very baggy) corduroy harem trousers.

    So it sucks that she gave up on the bloomering. Childhood hero, and all that!

    • Hodge permalink
      December 13, 2010

      Yes, well I think they were around in a sort of American Apparel style:
      …but I could really find very little information on the word’s transition to what we understand by it in any of the dictionaries I consulted.

      I know, for example that in Noel Streatfield novels (spanning 1930s-1970s) the girls who do ballet / skating / etc always fuss about whether they have matching knickers (the poorer ones don’t, so falling over etc is a problem – there’s a wonderful bit in The Circus Is Coming (1938) about how ‘when a person is wearing fawn knickers with a gingham dress, they really ought to stay one way up’).

      But then I think these are kind of romper-style garments, that do have to match your dress (did you go to a uniform school? We had to have matching knickers, but we wore them *over* regular knickers. I think they were to preserve modesty and neatness). In Dancing Shoes (as late as 1957) Rachel’s handkerchief is lost ‘up her knicker leg’, which suggests they’re a longer, ‘bloomerer’-type garment than what we would understand by the term today.

      However, issues:

      1. the word ‘knickers’ is by no means standardized: M&S call them ‘briefs’, with ‘knicker’ perhaps suggesting something a bit more lacy (or, conversely, something longer). Cf. also thong, boy-short, pant, panties, thong, g-string etc. Are these types of knicker?

      2. These are dancing examples, and children examples, and so my gut feeling is that a lot of this stuff is dependent on what you’re ‘using’ them for.

      3. There has to be something here about the availability and cost of fabric, and the use of more elasticated, synthetic fibres: cotton is cheap and easy to use, but not good for hugging the figure / much else in the underwear department. That’s why the 60s is an obvious turning point, because of tights (which *can* I believe be worn commando – cf ‘pantyhose’) and the fabrics they represent. Also, more easy to wash stuff.


      • Hodge permalink
        December 13, 2010

        And all that was just about the use of knickers between Bloomer and Quant. I shall now address your other points:

        Alcott – brilliant. Love all those American women ‘radicals’. Everyone must read all her books.

        Bloomer – I know. But I think she probably got tired of all the ridicule. An interesting cognate is the Aesthetic movement in Britain: Jane Morris et al were shocking for not wearing corsets, and favouring practicality.

        • Miranda permalink*
          December 13, 2010

          OMG Noel Streatfield. I read those!

          I am starting to think we should write some posts on children’s literature. We clearly have the ammo in our nerd arsenal. Have you read “Jack and Jill”? That’s one of Alcott’s particularly sentimental ones, with What Katy Did-style tragic accidents and typhoid-induced woes.

          If memory serves, the Anne of Green Gables series contains a scandal or two where either Anne or her daughter Rilla sneakily discards stockings (not knickers, but to the modern reader it might as well be from the furious reaction this generates) and goes bare-legged to church. The middle classes of the locality are SHOCKED.

          (This whole comment is slightly post-irrelevant, but I had to squeak aloud my book nostalgia.)

          • Hodge permalink
            December 13, 2010

            Dunno if you’ve seen it yet, but N is gonna be almost entirely sourced from Noel Streatfield :)

            Not read Jack and Jill, actually – I’ve also got a novel Alcott wrote for adults that I’ve never read, called ‘Work’, which sounds pretty rich for feminist analysis. The sentimentality issue is a really interesting one actually – I’m wondering whether there’s anything to be said about sentimental fiction in its original eighteenth century form, before the word came to mean ‘mawkish and saccharine’, than whom no better than Samuel Richardson. Who in turn seems to have influenced pretty much every female author from the 1750s up until the Victorians. But no men. Or, at least, not really.

          • Miranda permalink*
            December 13, 2010

            I have this which is her attempt at a sensational gothic-esque novel. It was never published in her lifetime, and instead made it onto bookshop shelves in 1995!

            THERE NEEDS TO BE A LOUISA MAY ALCOTT POST. Maybe as part of the series of posts I am trying to do on the theme of “the undiscovered library”? I’m still tooling around with a post on Grant Allen and his bicycling (if rather racist) New Women!

      • Hodge permalink
        December 13, 2010

        Yup. Should address the whole issue of her popular persona as this straight laced oppressive obey-your-husband type too.

  2. Pet Jeffery permalink
    December 14, 2010

    I don’t know whether this is too obvious to mention, but the point of knickers matching the skirt is that it is possible to expose one’s underwear without it being obvious that it is underwear.

  3. Pet Jeffery permalink
    December 14, 2010

    And, if we’re talking children’s fiction, may I insert a word in favour of my favourite Jane Turpin?

    • Hodge permalink
      December 15, 2010

      Oh, interesting! Not read those. Am I to assume the name is an ironic reference to Dick Turpin, the highwayman?

      • Pet Jeffery permalink
        December 15, 2010

        It’s not clear whether Evadne Price intended a reference to Dick Turpin… but Jane Turpin is a lawless character. Dick Turpin is certainly a very familiar name to English people, but I have a feeling that Evadne Price may have been an Australian by birth. Would that make a difference?

        The stories are very amoral. And the message the stories give to readers is that girls can be strong, independently minded and assertive. It would be astonishing to discover that Evadne Price wasn’t quite a radical feminist. I know little of her life, but have the idea that she drove an ambulance during the First World War.

  4. Pet Jeffery permalink
    December 15, 2010

    As far as I can think, terms derived from knickerbocker continue as the received names for three forms of underwear. (I used “received”, here, in the sense of “received pronunciation”.) The three comprise the largely decorative camiknickers and French knickers, plus the severely functional gym knickers. A curious contrast.

    Personally, I use “knickers” to mean any form of underwear that encases that part of the body. But the correct word can seem to assume crazy importance. In the 1970s, I was camping with a friend. She told me that she needed to buy a new pair of knickers, as a matter of urgency. I forget why, but our conversation lingers in my mind. I pointed out that there was an old fashioned draper’s shop in the large nearby village, and they were bound to sell them there. A dialogue ensued, somewhat as follows:

    “But I can’t buy them there!”

    “Why ever not?”

    “Because I’d have to ask for them, and i don’t know what they’re called.”


    “No, I can’t say that!”


    “No, that’s not right, either.”

    I think the word for which we were fishing may have been “briefs”, but neither of us could place it.

    Sometimes I call them “Stevies” (after Stevie Nicks [Knicks]) but maybe that’s just me.

    • Hodge permalink
      December 15, 2010

      It’s funny how lots of people have an aversion to the word, too. Cf. ‘panties’, which I’ve always felt to be the most hideous word ever, perhaps because of the way it feels a bit patronising, and, by extension, extremely Wrong. I don’t know many people who happily use the word ‘knickers’ either, although this may just be because most conversations I have don’t contain extended reference to underwear! On the other hand, a lot of women I know talk about ‘pants’, sans ‘-ies’ which has a sort of unassuming and gender-neutral feel to it, but then, of course, means something quite different in America…

      • Pet Jeffery permalink
        December 15, 2010

        The “ies” of “panties” has the air of a diminutive. That may be a big part of why “pants” (as a word) feels more comfortable.

        We’ve already considered diminutives several times, haven’t we? And women choosing to end their names with an “ie”… although I don’t remember under which word you subsumed that, Hodge.

        • Hodge permalink
          December 18, 2010

          Well, ‘knicker’ is itself a diminutive, as I mentioned in the post. I guess they all just keep getting smaller and smaller.

          -ie should be under Doll, I think :)

  5. Pet Jeffery permalink
    December 15, 2010

    The word “knickerbocker” was used almost in full to form the name the retail chain Knickerbox. They used to have branches in large railway stations, but (I think) have ceased to trade.

  6. Pet Jeffery permalink
    December 15, 2010

    Returning to the theme of knickerbockers and dress reform… the subject of practical women’s wear, and its links to feminism is an interesting one. I recall, in the 1970s, a significant number of feminists adopted dungarees. The practicality of these garments was doubtful, as the wearer needed to undress substantially every time she visited the toilet. Dress reform isn’t always everything it’s cracked up to be.

    • Hodge permalink
      December 15, 2010

      I suppose dungarees have are extended versions of jeans, which were first worn as a kind of appropriation of American work-wear; and, in fact, dungarees are presumably themselves originally work-wear of an ‘overalls’ nature…? In that case, they would serve a practical purpose to prevent paint getting all over your shirt, bib-style, which is taken by extension to mean ‘comfort-focused workwear’, when in fact it means ‘useful for painters’. Or something.

      • Pet Jeffery permalink
        December 16, 2010

        Yes, dungarees have the look of being useful to painters, but I wonder how well they protect shirts from paint splashes. The shirt sleeves (at least) would surely be entirely unprotected. Perhaps I should research this by digging out the old top I’ve worn for painting and decorating, look at the distribution of paint splashes, and see whether they’re concentrated in the bib area.

  7. Pet Jeffery permalink
    December 15, 2010

    I think that the name knickerbocker glory for an ice cream treat draws upon the idea that the New York Dutch were stout. But, as Susie Orbach told us, fat is a feminist issue.

  8. Pet Jeffery permalink
    December 16, 2010

    I notice that the two entries in the alphabet to have attracted most comments (so far) are “crinoline” and “knickerbocker”. They are also the two entries that directly address clothing… Hmmmm…

    • Hodge permalink
      December 18, 2010

      Heh, well they are all from you, Miranda and me…

  9. Pet Jeffery permalink
    December 19, 2010

    Maybe the other readers of this alphabet are too high-minded to bother about clothes.

    Yeah, right…

  10. Pet Jeffery permalink
    December 23, 2010

    “Knickers”, as a word, seems to have an odd status. It’s not the sort of word that might be bleeped on television, or fall foul of automatic Internet censorship. (On the latter, I once referred to “Never Mind the Buzzcocks” on a site which had such censorship installed. It appeared as “Never Mind the Buzzthingies”, seeming to me simultaneously twee and obscene.) But “knickers” appears to belong (or have belonged) to a lower order of naughty words. Consider this couplet from George Formby’s “Chinese Laundry Blues”:

    Now Mr. Wu, he’s got a naughty eye that flickers,
    You ought to see it wobble when he’s ironing ladies’ blouses.

    I also think of an Alan Bennett sketch in which he’s trying to send a telegram including “Norwich”… carefully explaining that it stands for (k)nickers off ready when I come home”… and then “yes, I know that knickers doesn’t start with an N…” A major delight of the sketch is hearing Alan Bennett, with his rather prissy voice, repeating the word “knickers”… a word that would seem more at home in a Carry On film. Were Alan Bennett a woman, I’d think of his voice as suggesting a maiden aunt… but I can’t identify of a sufficiently close male equivalent.

Leave a Reply

Note: You can use basic XHTML in your comments. Your email address will never be published.

Subscribe to this comment feed via RSS