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 upperclass ladies who rode their horses side-saddle, wore silk underwear.

      In the 1700s, some silk dresses worn by middle and upperclass 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 upperclass 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,and the divide, 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 homemade, or sold in dozens, so that more ladies wore them. Amelia Bloomer began extolling Ladies Rights by giving talks, which included advocating sensible dress,hence the nickname given to knickers 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 upperclass ladies went into overdrive, with all different sizes and capacities. They were wool, leather, chamois leather, silk, aertex, flannel,etc and they had tucks 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,unless they made them from old bags, 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.