A Brief History of Knickers – Janet Stain – 27th January 2020

      Janet is a his­tor­ian on Victorian cos­tumes and under­wear, and gives talks Nationally.

      Besides having been a guide at Eyam Hall and Renishaw Hall for many years, she sal­vages second hand underwear, medical equip­ment, spec­tacles. etc, and sends 40 con­tainer loads to the Gambia. (To donate or help phone 0114 230 2916)

      Todays talk con­cen­trated on knick­ers, with many samples from down the ages, amply exhib­ited.

      Before the 1500s, women were generally knick­er­less, but Catherine de Medici intro­duced under­wear from Italy to France in the 1500s, and there is ref­er­ence to under­wear in Elizabethan times. Some upper-class ladies who rode their horses side-saddle, wore silk under­wear.

      In the 1700s, some silk dresses worn by middle and upper-class ladies were up to 8 wide, so knick­ers were born to keep them warm. These ori­gin­ally came in two sep­ar­ate legs down to the knee or ankle, (hence the name - a pair of knick­ers) and christened draw­ers as they were drawnon.

      After the French Revolution, silk dresses went out of fash­ion. Costumes changed to a closer fit­ting Greek peas­ant look, with more white trans­par­ent muslin and open necks, pink stock­ings and no pet­ti­coat. Shoes were flat san­dals, and knick­ers, worn by these middle and upper-class ladies, were now joined into one piece, with a divide for access to the WC, and referred to as ‘pan­talettes’. They had a big space at the back for their bottoms, to prevent them riding up when they sat down. This fea­ture, con­tin­ued until the 1920s.

      Josephine Bonaparte exempli­fied this fash­ion at court in the early 1800s.

      The poor, how­ever, were still knick­er­less, but Muslim women, in full gear, adopted knickers, because if they got wet, their clothes would cling to them, and reveal their body shape.

      In the mid 1800s, ladies owned many pairs, which were numbered, labelled to avoid loss during laun­der­ing, and used in rotation. They cost 3s 6d to 5s 6d for a pair and were adorned with frills and ribbon. For example, made in twill, they were adorned with black ribbon whilst in mourn­ing, which lasted for 2 years for ladies.

       In the 1850s the SINGER Co. brought out the sewing machine. This reduced the price of knick­ers which were either home-made, or sold in dozens, so that more ladies wore them. Amelia Bloomer began extolling Ladies Rights by giving talks, which included advoc­at­ing sens­ible dress, Bloomers.

       Crinoline hoops were in fash­ion, encour­aging the use of knick­ers, to keep warm. There was the risk of a trip with this design, revealing all!!

       Dancing the Polka, cro­quet, and sport, such as golf, was now becom­ing pop­u­lar with women, which tended to reveal a sen­su­ous ankle or two, so boots were worn for decorum. Even climb­ing the Eiger was pos­sible for ladies, with a sur­repti­tious change of clothes, before actu­allyclimb­ing.

        Queen Victorias knick­ers (includ­ing tartan ones) some­times come up for sale. A recent dis­cov­ery, numbered VR7, was sold with VR12, a night dress, for £4500. They can sell for as much as £25000 in the USA.

       There were no public toi­lets in Victorian times for women. You kept off the beer and mead if you were out for any length of time!Otherwise!

       With the devel­op­ment of chem­ical dyes, knick­ers became col­our­ful. Red flan­nel was pop­u­lar.

       In the late 1800s, knicker design for work­ing women and middle and upper-class ladies went into over­drive, with all dif­fer­ent sizes and capa­cit­ies. They were wool, leather, chamois leather, silk, aertex, flan­nel, and flaps with holes at the front for sus­pend­ers tocon­nect to cor­sets, and with stock­ings con­nec­ted to the lower end.Lingerie, as it was referred to, became pretty, although silk was deemed dec­ad­ent, and several pairs of knick­ers were worn at once to keep warm.

       60% of all girls went into ser­vice and had to prove that they could mend knick­ers, before get­ting a job.       The poor were still knick­er­less, or acquired them from the rag and bone man or pawn­broker.

       Around the 1900s, few pic­tures appeared in cata­logues, and they were sold in a corner of a shop, not easily seen, as the whole sub­ject was not openly discussed, and was taboo for men.

       From the 1920s, with the varieties of mater­ials avail­able, knick­ers became uni­ver­sally used, and demand enabled a pleth­ora of new designs, sizes and shapes, to be man­u­fac­tured for any occa­sion. With for­eign fash­ion influ­ence making knickers shorter, skimpier, thin­ner, flightier, flesh col­oured, and with man-made fab­rics, such as rayon and nylon, the range was extens­ive. Janet showed us lots of dif­fer­ent ones, with an insight into who wore them and their nick­names.

       During WW2, para­chute mater­ial was used for their man­u­fac­ture, and could be bought with 4 coupons. Elastic was in short supply, so but­tons had to be well attached, or embarrassment ensued.

        (An aside John Smedleys, near Cromford, made under­wear, to start their busi­ness.)

       Paper knick­ers intro­duced in the 1960s, never became pop­u­lar, as they didnt last long and disinteg­rated when soak­ing wet, although they are used in hos­pit­als today.

       Janet, finally, showed us her com­mis­sioned pic­ture of a row of knick­ers, in ever decreas­ing size, from big draw­ers in the 1700s, to todays skimpy ones. The dif­fer­ences, she pro­claimed, was the out­come of global warm­ing!

        An excel­lent insight into the subject, expertly and con­fid­ently delivered, enjoyed by all.