Pants, Drawers, Briefs and Knickers Fashion
During the Regency era women began wearing
lower undergarments. From the 1820s onwards drawers were made of more feminine cotton lawn
fabric and laced at the waist. Knickers were quite baggy, which accommodated
the split through the crotch, so that despite the opening, the bagginess
afforded some modesty when sized correctly.In her book 'Knickers, An Intimate Appraisal', Rosemary Hawthorne
records that before 1789 and the French Revolution, long skirts, a petticoat or
two, a corset and linen chemise was all the underwear a woman thought desirable or
necessary. As the end of the 18th century approached finer lighter fabrics of
lawn, sheer silks and batiste replaced heavier brocade and thicker materials.
Thus women began covering their lower regions, simply because it was warmer to
wear some undergarments in the cool north European climate.Prior to the Regency era, quilted petticoats along with a
had often been an attractive and visible part of a woman's dress. The
fabric used in the skirt was also heavier and the layering meant that the lower
half of the body was kept quite warm, furthermore, the heavier cloth used ensured
skirts did not billow up.
The Empire fashions at the turn of the
were often little more than sheer nightgowns. The practical solution to
the discomfort of lighter clothing was to simply adopt the warm undergarment
called pantaloons which were already worn by men.Women's pantaloons were made of light stockinet in a flesh toned nude
colour and reached to just below the knee, or even all the way to the ankles.
This is why Empire women often appear to be wearing no underwear when seen in
paintings of the era. The flesh tone pantaloons acted in just the same way as they do today when a woman wears a flesh toned bra and briefs under
white or pastel trousers and top.
Right - Regency Drawers 1815-30
Young women and children were wearing
pantalettes under their dresses by 1820. The drawers were loose and made of
two leg sections held together with a tie at the waist. Each pantalette leg
was decorated with frills at its bottom edge.
The term knickers comes from the book written
by Washington Irving in 1809 and called History of New York. He used the
pen name Diedrick Knickerbocker. Herr Knickerbocker was supposedly
descended from the original Dutch settlers in New York and was lampooned by
the well-known caricaturist George Cruikshank. You can see from illustrations in the
book that the Knickerbocker men were dressed in loose breeches, strapped or tied at
From the 1820s onward the breeches were known as
knickerbockers and were often used for sports activities. Women borrowed the knickerbockers
to wear under their new draughty hooped cage crinolines. Drawers and
knickers fashion soon came to mean the same undergarment.
Queen Victoria's standards of propriety were so stringent that
she soon ensured that the fashion for knickers became a staple of every
Victorian woman's wardrobe. In her
younger days she was a leader of fashion, for example her hairstyle was much copied.
Other styles she favoured such as tartan fabrics in clothing were also followed.
Such was her long term influence on Victorian knickers
that by the dawn of the Edwardian era in 1901 only the poorest women went
without underwear simply due to the extra cost.Right - Early/Mid Victorian Drawers
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In the 1840s Victorian drawers were plain and reached well below the knees.
In the 1850s they became more embellished so that by
1868 decoration on knickers was usual. Often
the lower leg edges of Victorian knickers were trimmed with lace and had 5 or 6 tucks above it.
Left - French cambric and broderie anglaise lace Victorian drawers of 1867 and still open
legged.By 1876 the drawer
legs of knickers merged to become closed. That is, the open nature of the crotch was
closed and an opening of about four inches closed by a few buttons existed instead
at the side hip.A revolution had occurred - Victorian drawer legs were no longer
separate - they were now fashionable knickers. Fabrics used were changing too and silk, as well as flannel was
popular choice for knickers.
By the late 1870s knickers were accepted and widely worn by
women; although as an item of underwear they were never referred to in polite
conversation. It was almost as if they did not exist. Often the
knickerbockers were made from brilliant scarlet flannel. These fabrics
such as smooth fine flannel, and alpaca wool had nainsook linings that could be
detached for washing. This style of knickers was fashionable underwear until the turn of the
when suddenly the style lacked daintiness.
From 1877 onwards the popular Victorian drawers had new competition from
Just as today women wear panties, knickers, thongs, briefs, g-strings,
boy-shorts, bodies etc., so
women sought the perfect underwear for their sense of self in Victorian times. The
undergarment competition came in the form of a new underwear item called combinations.Combinations were first developed as a Victorian undergarment in 1877. They were
initially made from linen, silk, merino, calico, cambric or nainsook in flesh
pink tones or cream colours. The combinations were made more popular as a style in the late
1880s by Dr Jaeger and his
underwear versions were made of fine wool.Right - Combinations 1893.
The all in one undergarment called combinations, and shown left, consisted of a camisole bodice attached to drawers. Its
design eliminated the need for a
chemise and the latter versions of combinations were frillier and prettier garments that merged
into lingerie, making them more exotic in their appearance. By 1892 other variations
made of silk or fine muslin were the preferred fabrics.
By 1895 knicker legs became very wide and decorated with frills
at the knee. In general the width of the knicker leg was about 20 inches around the knee
with a 10 inch lace frill. The knickers were easily accommodated under the
wide petticoats and equally full wide skirts of the 1890s era.
In the early
Edwardian era the frilled fancy
knickers were often worn over the combinations.By 1905 the majority of fashions for using other fabrics been replaced
by undergarments made solely from the finest lawn or cambric.
Left - Early Cami-Knickers.
Knicker styles have generally conformed to the silhouette line of an era, so that by
as the silhouette slimmed to a column, these closer fitting knickers called the
Directoire style soon
became the norm.
Combinations became less usual, but were still worn and available for many years
beyond the Edwardian era. Some example of combination styles available in both 1939 and 1958 are shown
further below. By the 1930s
the combinations were akin to tights they could be so close fitting.
In the flapper era the latest knicker fashion was to wear either the new skirt knickers also known to us as French
knickers (but then often open legged) or the closer body skimming fitting Directoire
knickers.Right - French Skirt Knickers Image from a 1920 Copy of Everywoman's.The
volume of undergarment types available in this transitional era of dress is
positively baffling as new forms of underwear were devised to accommodate the
shorter and more fitted lines of clothing.
A button and loop or tie fastening added here and there to hold the hem of a
chemise underskirt together soon created the chemi-knickers in 1917 and these
evolved into new style cami-knickers. Women passionate about equality in this
era were just as passionate about abandoning old fashioned underwear styles for
new innovative lines and with even newer sounding names.Right - Flapper's Cami-Knickers 1928.Closed Directoire knickers with flap poppers were attached to a camisole and
then called cami-bockers. How undergarments fastened usually helped define their
retail selling name, but the leg volume of the knickers often made the
This 1939 open seat vest (C) had a back opening and was
all-in-one with legs from thigh to knee. They appear to be called vests in the
advert and defined by having either closed or open seats (as in astronaut/airman
fighter parachutists suits), yet they still seem to be in effect modern ladies combinations.
The decades change and so do the undergarment names but their
underlying purposes of comfort, warmth and fashion remain constant.Right - 1939 Open Seat Vest and Closed Seat Vests.
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100 Years of Combinations
By 1958 combinations looked like the blue slip garment far right.
Rayon had been the fabric for underwear in the nineteen twenties and thirties, then for
the fifties, sixties and seventies nylon (polyamide) gained a new grip on
lingerie After that natural and luxury man made fabrics gained a following
This chemise combination was in a modern easy care nylon and described as a soft
nylon tricot (knit jersey) which was basically a long chemise with panty legs
attached, but in a briefer form than pieces of previous decades.
Left - Combination Chemise - Sears Catalogue 1958.
One could also suggest that the 1980s teddy right is also in this
category and was indeed an updated version, but exceptionally brief compared
to the combinations of a 100 years earlier in 1877.
A Modern Combination
1980s Lingerie Teddy - 1982
The teddy, as an all in one body garment and not the
cuddly toy, became a
hugely desirable item of underwear and used in many a bedroom scene in Dallas or Dynasty TV
soap opera shows. Teddies were usually made of silk or satin, and in mass produced
terms silky polyesters and crêpe-de-chine fabrics. They offered little or no
bra or tummy control support, but were luxury lingerie items. The body beneath
was supposed to be already perfectly sculpted from 'feel the burn' gym workouts.The Teddies almost always fastened beneath the
legs with press studs or hooks and bars.
Right - This plus size version of a 1980s lingerie teddy was from the Winter 1982 J C Penney Catalogue.
Changes in outer clothes and in underwear had begun prior to
World War 1. The 1914-18 war simply accelerated and developed new ideas as war
always does. The number of layers of clothes on the body was gradually
being reduced as the 20th century progressed. War work had
emphasised the fact that for an active life, women needed more freedom of
movement and so gradually as freer movement became an ideal under clothing began
to match it.
Female undergarments began to contract. By
brassiere gained mass popularity and thinner lighter weight fabrics used for
knickers and a simple camisole top that could button to the knickers meant that
often this was all a woman wore beneath a lined garment. This was all in
complete contrast to the body of heavy underclothes worn only 50 years
Top clothing changed to the extent that the skin itself became
fabric. Previously much of the body had been covered, but nude limbs now
acted almost like a fabric, even more so once it became fashionable to enhance
skin with a suntan thus bringing the ability to change even the hue of flesh as
climatic conditions allowed. As the top outer garments were by then little more than a single layer dress or suit, the underwear needed to feel
smoother for comfort. A scratchy wool top garment was more likely to irritate
and chafe the skin beneath with fewer layers of undergarments.Left - The ultimate in chic undies - smoother underwear for smoother top
clothes. Catalogue Underwear of 1949. Knit Rayon Briefs (D), Knit Rayon Bloomers
(Elasticated Leg Directoire Knickers - E) and Knit Rayon Panties (C).The smoother fabric that proved ideal at this point was
artificial silk made from rayon. It was known then as art silk.Simply put, artificial silk was made from a complex process of putting wood
cellulose chips into chemicals for several days until that created a viscous
solution. The solution then called viscose was thick enough to be extruded into a wet bath of
more chemicals and it solidified on contact with the chemical bath. It
left behind an artificially regenerated man made fibre that set on contact with
the chemicals. Further treatments helped create a whole range of fibre
variations as the century progressed. Artificial silk was affordable and
available to all classes. A similar, but improved product called Cupro is
available to us today.
Right - 1920s Knickers.
The name of knickers changed in the 1920s. In 1924 knickers
became known as panties and by 1930 they were called panty briefs.
underwear became smoother in line and this was an essential necessity under the new slinkier bias cut
garments of the 1930s. The length of knickers varied with the fashions.By 1927
they reached far above the knee, but so then did the top skirts! Once skirts
were longer, knickers ended just above the knee again. By 1934 panties were
tailored to fit the body contours giving a very smooth line and a style we would
recognise today. Silk and merino was a desirable mix for absorbent underwear.
Art silk remained popular, but in the 1940s and 1950s many
pants were either made of cotton which could be boiled, or made of silk
and kept to be worn for
special occasions.Nylon (polyamide) was also a major player in the development of modern
underwear. It was heavily promoted as easy launder since it dried far faster
than rayon or cotton products. Ironing was often unnecessary or minimal with a
cool iron. Cotton items, broderie anglaise lace products for example were scratchy by
comparison and need heavy ironing after lots of dampening down.Cotton items like knit jersey aertex interlock white cotton knickers or silk and
merino mix knickers were
comfortable in a Bridget Jones manner, but by the sixties considered rather old
fashioned. However often they were the only natural fabric alternatives.
New pants were in Charmtrique (left) and Charmode (right).Above Right & Left - Catalogue Underwear of 1949. Knit Rayon Briefs, Knit Rayon
Bloomers and Knit Rayon Panties.Sears Catalogue made a great case for their specially made panties made to new
Charmode specifications. The advert went to great length to explain that only
fine knit fabrics were used and that both the nylon and rayon construction they
used was run proof and strong. The pants were wear-tested to prove the finer fit,
and manufacturers claimed sizes were as accurate as dress sizes. This makes one wonder if
the pants fit before this era was a fulsome as a
The advert above went on to explain that the Charmode pants were designed to fit
smoothly with or without a girdle and that the new cut of what was then a short
leg gave a pair of pants with less bulk and easy fit.The advertisement
for panties made from 100% du Pont
Nylon and available by catalogue heavily promoted the better characteristics of
One of the characteristics of nylon is that its fibres are hydrophobic, this has
the undesirable effect of repelling perspiration, make the wearer feel
uncomfortable in warm conditions. Perspiration that cannot be wicked away by the
fabric oxidises and causes odours. This underwear really did need daily washing.
But manufacturers were quick to point out of the benefits too, as the catalogue
promotion advertisement above shows, panty garments could be made very
close fitting to the body and help create smoother lines beneath clothes.
The Mad Men look we all love today was based around good under foundation
garments such as these shown. The pointed bra, the panty leg roll-on and the
nylon lace bouffant net petticoat were the hidden part of the well groomed woman of
the early 60s. Women typically wore pants like these fancy nylon tricot briefs.
In 1958 these stockings cost 94cents and the pink panties cost $1.47. The fabulous
net lace tiered bouffant petticoat cost $4.47, the Dacron (polyester) with Pima
cotton and nylon bra was $2.83 and the nylon power net, acetate and
girdle $4.77. At this time Lycra and Spandex were still in the laboratory, but
hit the big time in mass manufacture in the mid sixties. The big fibre of the
sixties had been nylon closely followed by Acrylic or Orlon in knitwear.
A big selling point of nylon had been the pastel colours especially bright
white, its drip dry nature and quick drying plus the bonus of a close stretch
fit in the right fabric construction like the stretch lace pants below.
By the 1960s totally nylon knickers were usual, and the all nylon
gusset was in due course replaced by a double gusset and often a different
fabric such as cotton or cotton jersey for greater hygiene and comfort.
But the pretty lace fabrics that stretched and moulded to the body were novel
when compared to utilitarian styles of the second
world war rationing era.
The blue lace panties left were called briefs when they reached the waist and
when cut lower they were mostly referred to as hip huggers. Later as they
became cut even lower they were often called bikini panties.
Nylon stretchy lace was used to make elongated pants that almost reached the
knee. They were known as Long Johns, Demi Johns, winter warmers or pettipants.
The just above knee pants
were a practical solution in winter to keep legs warmer. They were also made in
plain ribbed nylon knit fabric and trimmed with contrast lace. Floral print
versions were also de rigueur in a decade known for flower power.Right - Stretch Lace Pettipants - c1970s.
By the 1970s
cotton gussets were added to nylon briefs for comfort and better hygiene. In this era various permutations on
the bikini bottom took panties lower and lower down the hipline and higher and
higher up the thigh. These were hipsters or hipster briefs and they featured leg variations from straight cut to high cut became
usual.Below Left - High waist green nylon panty briefs with applied lace c1969.
Below Right - Late 1960s alternatives were these 'modern' hip huggers shown in
an adverts from c1967-8.
Hipster styles of panties became fashionable in floral printed
fabrics, bold colours and flesh toned knickers were the new must have.
By the 1980s, eco conscious superfine cotton jersey knickers were
back in fashion, but so were slinky silk or polyester satin or crepe de chine
French knickers dripping in lace. Below Winter 1982 J C Penney Catalogue - Basic Panty Briefs.
1980s Lingerie Camisoles and French Knickers
The teddy an all-in-one body garment shown further up in the combinations
section was a popular piece of lingerie alongside the revival of separate
camisoles and lace embellished French Knickers.
Right - 1982 Teddy.
Designer knickers, which were very functional pieces in wash and
wear materials, became usual with designer brand
names suddenly getting attention. Sloggi and Calvin Klein were popular
panty brief names
of the 1980s to the extent of letting show the designer woven waistband. CK
underwear became a known brand name worldwide as it was constantly advertised on
the highly visible waistlines of men and women everywhere.
Briefer and Briefer Panties
By this time a wide range of pant styles getting briefer and
briefer had arrived. The cut of the leg once considered highline was now
renamed low cut to accommodate an even more highly cut leg as shown left.
Left - Typical Late 20th
Century Pant Styles.The world today is only too familiar with waxing and G strings,
once totally the
province of strippers. Now it became a norm for many consumers in the 1990s particularly younger
females who favoured low rise trousers and aped the starlets of erotic films. Previous to that, such styles were
often kept for the privacy of the bedroom rather than everyday wear.Right - A Red Thong for 2010 by Matalan.
The brief was no longer a brief, it was a patch of fabric.Skimpy bits of fabric called tangas, thongs and strings merely covered private
parts or sometimes barely covered the area and so made it necessary for extreme techniques of
A G-string has a string, whilst a thong has a small bit of fabric an inch or so
wide coming to a y shape at the waistband. Thongs can be made of silk, nylon,
leather, cotton etc and also be adorned with diamante, lace or embroidery.
The string parts of G-strings can be made of decorative pieces such as
rhinestone belts and are often designed to be seen when worn. The initial
acceptance of thongs was credited to the disappearance of visible panty lines
when worn under trousers. In the early noughties they were worn under low trousers to be visible,
but the look became passé as ladylike style and
Mad Men fashion returned.
South American women favoured these styles long before they gained mass
acceptance in Europe. Their popularity among young western women
may be due to the fact that many simply cannot recall how similar these often
visible G-strings appear to older women who compare them in their mind to the never to be seen elastic sanitary
belts. This was of course long before sanitary wear had wing wraps, were adhesive backed, or were
replaced by tampon varieties.
Famous Lingerie Brands
Famous makers of attractive underwear still include Janet Reger,
Agent Provocateur, Rigby and Peller, La Senza, La Perla, Marks and Spencer,
Gossard, Charnos, Lejaby, Victoria's Secret, Playtex, Warners, Triumph and Berlei.
Pants can be pretty and are then thought of as lingerie, but they are also
designed to be functional. This pair of white briefs are knickers with a
difference - the fabric has no hems and has no hemmed fabric edge but one that
does not unravel nor show a ridge or visible panty line (VPL) beneath slinky
fitting top garments.Right - White Perfect No Visible Panty Line Low Rise Shorts Marks & Spencer.
Right - Marks & Spencer Boy Shorts - Underwear for the Twentens.
Knickers and their styles have always been a subject for fun and
amusement in seaside postcards, cartoons and the butt of jokes about women who
have let themselves go or lost interest in sex.
Pink vintage style lingerie £18/£8 Available From September 2010 Marks &
This has been emphasised even more in the past 20 years as some
styles of knickers have moved through stages that have reduced the amount of
fabric needed to make an item so small it can appear to consist of nothing more
than a bit of strapping reminiscent of a 1950's sanitary belt.
In the UK in 2003 Marks and Spencer the clothing store had
coverage on one third of the British lingerie market. This made it then the first
stop in Britain when a consumer sought underwear, with the average woman buying 8
pairs of knickers a year and the store selling 60 pairs a minute. In the UK
Marks and Spencer then was selling 25 million pairs of knickers every year, with
4.8 million women confessing to owning a pair of large Bridget Jones style pants
or full briefs as Marks describes them.
Marks and Spencer's underwear
(pants) is one of the
things UK ex-pats miss most when living abroad. No doubt they will be relieved
that Marks & Spencer now ship goods internationally as well as within UK.
Their top purchasing countries abroad include The United States, Australia,
Canada, France, Germany, New Zealand and Spain.
shop for your knickers online easily.
The knicker elastic M&S use has to survive 1000 washes.
The admiring glances they get - well that's up to you.... maybe not so many
after 1000 washes....
Mrs Amelia Bloomer
And finally if you came to this page seeking information about bloomers then you
need to know more about Mrs Amelia Bloomer 1818-94. Mrs Bloomer promoted the
wearing Bloomers and bloomer suits and this is detailed more in my page on
Victorian Rational Dress.
You can also
see other versions of Victorian and Edwardian bloomer fashion history on the early swimwear page.
Page Added June 2005.
Updated July 2010. Ref P781.
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between Paniers, crinolines, bustles, bras and corsets and the affect this
has on the outer silhouette of female costume
My How to Recognise Undergarments in Fashion History e-book has 12 chapters about the changes in under foundations in costume history found in
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articles on early corsetry, C18th Paniers and the sack dress, stays to corsets,
crinoline styles from 1830s to 1860s, bustle styles of 1870s & 1883/5,
Edwardian corsetry, bras and girdles
before and after 1950, and a new chapter on drawers, pantaloons, knickers to
panties. A look at Rational Dress Reform, the contribution of Mrs. Bloomer and Dr. Jaeger
to the resultant
cycling and swimming dress.
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For specific eras about shape and body manipulation click below:-
Footnote:-This page was partially based on content I
updated from a dissertation I first wrote in 1979. The
dissertation a Comparative Study Between the Rôles of the Edwardian Hostess
and the Edwardian Seamstress looked at the symbolism behind Edwardian dress
and the rôles of women in Edwardian society. In particular it examined the rôle
and high lifestyle of Edwardian society hostesses compared with the degrading
working conditions and impoverished lifestyle of the seamstresses that made
clothes for hostesses.
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