Popular among late-nineteenth-century English country gentlemen, early-twentieth-century sportsmen, and young American boys of both centuries, knickers are short pants that are characterized by a band that fastens tightly at the knee, similar to the breeches of the fifteenth through eighteenth centuries. Usually made of a sturdy fabric like wool or corduroy, knickers have been dressed up with jackets to form knicker suits, and dressed down as the playing uniform for early baseball players. Though they are still worn occasionally into the twenty-first century as an artistic fashion statement or chic sportswear, knickers disappeared from everyday fashion during the 1930s.
From the fifteenth through the eighteenth centuries, knee breeches or pants were common daily wear for men. They were replaced during the 1800s by long trousers, which then became the standard accepted male attire. However, many men found that when working or playing sports outside, the new long pants became wet and dirty, especially in wet climates, like that of Great Britain. Many of these men chose to wear a kind of knee pants with a band that fastened just above the knee. To cover the leg below the knee, they wore long woolen socks or leather or canvas leg wraps called puttees. Though the earliest versions of these short pants closed just below the knee, by the early 1900s they usually fastened just above the knee.
One group of men who wore this style of trousers was the Dutch immigrants who settled in the state of New York during the 1600s. These New York Dutch were given the name "Knickerbockers," which was a variation of the name of a prominent Dutch family. Soon their distinctive knee pants were called knickerbockers as well, and the name was commonly shortened to knickers. In the mid-1800s one of the first baseball teams formed in New York. They called themselves the Knickerbockers, and the stylish and practical knickers were part of their uniform.
Though many men and even some women wore knickers for work or sporting activities at the turn of the century, by the 1910s they were most commonly identified with small boys' clothing, especially in the United States. While toddlers of both sexes were usually dressed in skirts, young American boys of four and five began to wear the knee-length knickers with long knee socks. The transition from knickers to long pants was seen as a milestone, when a boy became a man.
Laver, James. Costume and Fashion: A Concise History. 4th ed. London, England: Thames and Hudson, 2002.
Yarwood, Doreen. The Encyclopedia of World Costume. New York: Charles Scribner's Sons, 1978.