First introduced during the 1920s, plus fours were a variation on the traditional knee pants called knickers, which had been worn by men, boys, and, occasionally, women, since the late 1800s. Plus fours received their name because they were made four inches longer than ordinary knickers. While they still fastened with a tight band at the knee, the extra fabric of the plus four bloused over the band, giving a relaxed, baggy look. Plus fours were an extravagant, careless style that fit right in with the looser fashions and lifestyles of the 1920s. They also offered more freedom of movement than previous knickers, which made them extremely popular with sportsmen, especially golfers.
During World War I (1914–18) certain British officers wore loose riding breeches, or pants, which bloused out over the tops of their boots. The dashing look their baggy pants gave them caused the fashion to spread when the war ended. Soon a new type of knee pants was created that imitated the casual, dashing look of the soldier by adding four inches to the usual length of knickers. These came to be called plus fours and were soon popular all over Britain. The stylish Edward VIII (1894–1972), then the Prince of Wales, brought the fashion to the United States on a visit in 1924. Within a very short time plus fours had replaced regular shorter knickers, which were soon considered old fashioned. Plus twos, which used less fabric than plus fours, and plus sixes, which used more, were also introduced but did not become as popular as the plus fours.
The sport of golf had been played for centuries, but the 1920s saw the creation of golf fashion. Golfers not only wished to play well but to appear dashing and stylish. They quickly adopted the new plus fours, which were not only in high style but also had extra length that gave athletes more room to move than previous knickers. The fashionable golfer of the 1920s wore plus fours with argyle knee socks and a pullover sweater. (Argyle is a traditional knitted pattern with large interlocking diamonds in various colors that gave a flashy look to the sportsman.)
The popularity of plus fours declined in the mid-1930s, when walking shorts were introduced. However, they have never quite disappeared from the fashion scene, particularly among golfers. The early 1980s saw a revival of plus fours on such famous golfers as American Payne Stewart (1957–1999), who wore them throughout his career.
Laver, James. Costume and Fashion: A Concise History. New York: Thames and Hudson, 2002.
Yarwood, Doreen. Fashion in the Western World: 1500–1900. New York: Drama Book Publishers, 1992.
[ See also Volume 4, 1900–18: Knickers ]