A Short History of Knickers: Queen Victoria’s Crotchless Panties

So, a couple of years ago a pair of Queen Victoria’s bloomers went up for auction. They had a fifty plus inch waist and had her initials and a crown embroidered on them (in case she left them on the bench when she changed for swimming lessons and couldn’t remember which ones were hers afterwards).

A picture of such

Also, they didn’t join up between the legs.

No one’s did. When you’re wearing a chemise, a corset, a bodice, stockings, multiple petticoats, a dress and various other layers of clothing, in the days before the invention of elastic and your bloomers had to be tied on to your waist (under your corset), your toilet choices were stripping naked or not stripping at all.

Before the 1800s polite women went completely commando; only prostitutes bothered with pants (presumably because their legs got colder?). Then came pantaletters, aka “two tubes tied on with string”, which tended to come undone and fall off one leg at a time. As the crinoline comes in split leg drawers becomes more popular, mostly because of the drafts, but then the crinoline flattens at the front and moves to the back and bustles are the new black. There’s no need for drawers to be completely split any more, so like Victoria’s above they tend to join at the back and split from underneath to the front.

Knickerbockers, that joined up completely, start appearing in the 1850s, but they’re considered terribly unfashionable, impractical, and frankly unhealthy. Plus, when you tripped over your crinoline and when arse over teakettle, you didn’t flash the gentlemen, and apparently that just wasn’t on.

By the late nineteenth century they were beginning to pick up in popularity, if you were the sort of woman who did mannish things like gardening or bicycle riding or anything practical, but your gentry still weren’t terribly keen. Though they joined up underneath, it still wasn’t easy to get them off, so trapdoors were introduced in the back. Think “cartoon children’s onesies”. Which were next up to bat, for fashionable women – as dresses got tighter and more streamlined underwear became an all in one proposition, camiknicker style. Some sported trapdoors, some stuck to split legs.

Mentor is the Memory Word for underwear
Mentor is the Memory Word for Underwear – though we can’t see hers, thanks to her petticoats, chemise, corset etc, her daughter is sporting a nice pair of all in ones.

By the end of world war one open crotch drawers were on their way out – skirts got shorter and dancing got wilder, and apparently flashing your parts at the French Diplomats was no longer the done thing – and with elastic becoming readily available it was even possible to get them on and off with some ease.

If you want to know more about the history of underwear, check out the following:

Rosemary Hawthorne‘s books (aka the Knicker Vicar’s Wife)

Vintage Fashion guild

The Ladies’ Treasury of Costume and Fashion


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