The fact that the debate over women and pants was still happening in the 1960s tells you that in the 1920s, women wearing pants was likely to raise eyebrows. Even Katherine Hepburn and her newsworthy trousers in the 1930s could not shake the public perception of women strutting around town in what was widely considered men’s clothing. 1920s pants for women were not common or widely accepted in public, with a few exceptions.
1920s Knicker Sport Pants
Women’s knickers fell into a gray area. They were accepted as sportswear. It was fine for a woman to pull on checked wool tweed or linen knee-length knickers and pair them with a khaki shirt, knee-high socks, and lace-up Oxford shoes as long as she had a golf club in her hand. But were they accepted as an outfit for lunch with the ladies? No. In a small town in West Virginia, it was against the law for women to wear knickers at all until a referendum was passed. Many golf courses banned women from wearing casual knickers until the mid ’20s.
Knickers were common for other sports, too, like hiking, riding, and hunting. They were comfortable, sporty, and fit right in with the “boyish” style of the youth culture. Young women wore them on weekends even while not playing sports. Women stagehands working in Hollywood were also wearing knickers as part of their work attire. Vacationing / adventure-seeking women in far off places such as Egypt, Africa, and Australia’s outback found wearing knickers much more suitable for exploring rugged terrain.
Women’s knickers were made of grey or tan serge, linen, tweed, or denim cloth often with pressed center legs, cuffs below the knee that fasted with buttons and a waistband that fastened with buttons on the side. Slash pockets on either side of the crotch line added more style than functionality to the design. In the late 1920s, corduroy velour became another fabric choice for knickers, complete with matching corduroy sports shirt. The new matching ensemble was much more fashionable than practical, and women appreciated wearing the casual sporty look without needing to play a sport.
Sporting clothes were often called togs in the early 1920s. They were sold a coordinating set of knickers and jacket or jacket-vest.
1920s Sports Togs / Knicker outfits
My good friend Lady Carolyn made replica sporting togs from the 1923 Sears catalog. She did an amazing job, and they look so fun to wear. No wonder women loved sporty “men’s” clothes.
At first glance, knickers and riding breeches (pants for horseback riding) look the same. The primary difference is that breeches were long pants with a fitted side lacing leg up to the knee and then very wide hip and thigh on up to the waist. The design was to provide ample room in the seat, and a slim leg to fit tall riding boots over the leg. Some women wore breeches for travel and other sports, but in general riding breeches were for horseback riding only.
1920s “Bloomer” Knickers
Schoolgirls wore bloomers, a softer form of knickers, in school as well as part of their gym uniform. Black or navy boomers with a Middy top had already been in fashion for girls for a decade or more. It stayed on trend into the 1930s. One woman as a schoolgirl in the mid-1920s recalls, “The girls all wore middy blouses rolled up at the sides and pinned to look more in style. We also wore sateen bloomers in blue, red, green or purple, they were tightly fitted below the knees with an elastic cuff. Oftentimes on hot afternoons in our country school, one girl would snap an elastic cuff, then another girl would snap hers. Pretty soon, the snap-snap-snapping sounds were coming from every desk!”– Genevieve Brandon, From Flappers to Flivvers.
1920a Beach Pajama Pants
Besides bloomers and men’s knickers, a more feminine pant was the two-piece beach pajama. They were not sleeping pajamas, although the styles were very similar. They fell closer to the sportswear category. The wide leg pants were made of crepe-de-chine, cotton, or silk. Some came with a bell-shaped leg – early bell bottoms! Most fit like a straight leg palazzo pant with matching or contrasting sleeveless top. A matching wrap jacket was also sold as a perfect cover-up at the beach.
Women liked their beach pajamas so much that as the calendar hit 1930, pajamas became acceptable attire for hosting parties, visiting good friends, and for those less concerned with tradition, the theater. Those who were not going to a resort anytime soon simply adopted the style for relaxing at home and called them “lounjamas.” Linen, velvet, and cotton were favored over lace or silk/satin to make sure it was clear that these were not sleeping pajamas. Again, this was really a thirties style, not twenties, but the look began in the late ’20s among the fashion elite. Learn more about the history of beach pajamas.
The pajama pant look with wide flowing legs, coordinated blouse, and a long scarf coat is one authentic 1920s outfit a woman can wear to 1920s themed event that isn’t a dress. Fran Fisher frequently wears them in the Miss Fisher’s Murder Mysteries series. She mixes the pants with other types of tops, shawls wraps, and long and short jackets.
My advice for women who want to wear pants to an event is to seek out a loose-fitting evening pant set or pair of palazzo pants with a simple top and a shawl/wrap/scarf coat.
1920s Men’s Pants for Women
Did any woman wear pants in the way that we think of pants today? Not flowing pajama bottoms or knickers, but actual trousers? Yes, a few women did that, but make no mistake that a woman had to be as bold as Amelia Earhart to wear them. For the women who opted for pants as daywear, they wore them the same way that man did: with men’s shirts, neckties, vests, caps, and blazers.
1920s women’s trousers were like men’s: high waisted, straight leg (sometimes tapered to the ankle, but most were wide leg), cuff or no cuff, and either a button fly if it was men’s pants or no-fly/side button if it was specially designed for women. There were no off the rack pants women could purchase. They either modified men’s pants, made their own, or had them custom made.
What is all this fuss about pants, anyway? After all, it was just in February 2013 that it became officially legal for Parisian women to wear pants when a law dating back to 1799 was stricken from the books. The reasons for this pants-phobia vary. Religion, modesty, and gender roles top the list. Even the Jazz Age was not enough to fully bring women’s pants into fashion, but it was the start of a fashion revolution that would continue to evolve for decades to come.
Women who worked on farms and intensive labor occupations could hardly wear dresses for their duties. Women had to adapt men’s overalls and coveralls into working clothes. They had been doing this since WWI (1914-1918). There were some overalls and coveralls still being made for women in the 1920s, but they were few and far between. Those sold to women in catalogs and department stores were marketed at women who did gardening and housework. Gone were the days women were encouraged to work a man’s job, although many continued to do so out of necessity.
Another cross-dressing option was worn by female cabaret performers. A show costume was usually a men’s tuxedo tailored down to fit a woman’s body with a black derby/bowler/top hat, cane, Oxford shoes, and a monocle. Anita Berber pictured below was an iconic naughty showgirl of the era. Gladys Bentley was another performer who often wore men’s tuxedos in the 1920s and 1930s as part of her stage persona.
1920s Inspired Pants and Knickers
Looking to wear pants for a 1920s event? We found some long pants and knicker pants for sale online. From flowing beach pajamas to menswear style trousers.
Women in Pants: Manly Maidens, Cowgirls, and Other Renegades – History of women who wore pants from 1850 to the 1920s.