Knickers Through History
Shhh! Don't mention the knickers! For many years ladies' undergarments have literally been unmentionables. In this post I'll be focusing on the most unmentionable of the unmentionables, the ladies' knickers, tap pants or underpants.
Long Drawers - (indeed!)
Until fairly recently in history women did not wear underpants at all. This is still the case in many cultures around the world.
Wearing underpants for women did not become the norm until the early 19th century, when women began wearing long drawers.
During the Regency period when women were wearing transparent muslin dresses underwear became necessary for reasons of modesty. Originally, drawers were two separate legs which tied around the waist.
By Victorian times split crotch drawers were the norm, the two separate legs joined on a waistband. The split crotch was a necessity when corsets and a multitude of petticoats encased a lady.
Victorian drawers available in our Etsy store
Towards the end of the 19th century and into the 20th century drawers were sewn closed at the crotch. These drawers were often ornamented with tucks and lace, and generally closed on one or both hips with little mother of pearl shell buttons, or bone or ceramic buttons.
SOLD! Late Victorian or Edwardian drawers in the Etsy Store.
Early 20th Century Drawers
These drawers are a particularly fine example of Edwardian or early 20th century drawers.
Notice that they are a fair bit shorter than Victorian drawers.
Here is a detail:
Lace and pin tucked trim on Edwardian drawers.
French Knickers & Tap Pants (1920s -1930s)
By the 1920s, drawers were getting shorter with the hemlines, although they still reached far below the buttocks. Young women's bloomers were starting to morph into French knickers or "tap pants", which started to become fashionable towards the end of the decade and into the 1930s.
The signature constructions detail of the 1930s was the bias cut. This meant that garments - dresses, nightgowns, camiknickers or teddies and the popular tap pants were cut on the cross grain of the fabric rather than on the normal straight grain.
Cutting a garment on the cross grain allowed garments to drape beautifully, enhancing the figure. It also allowed a comfortable degree of stretch when stretch fabrics were yet to be invented.
1930s French knickers or tap pants cut on the cross generally closed at the hip with little shell buttons - elastic was not necessary with bias cut garments.
Girls About Town
(B&W 1931 vintage movie)
One of my favourite pre-code (pre Hayes code censorship) 1930s movies is a film called "Girls About Town", 1931, where the main characters seem to spend an inordinate amount of time running about in their underwear.
You can see what I mean. There's also a wonderful scene towards the end where one of the main characters auctions off her wardrobe. (Sigh!!)
1930s Floral silk knickers
These tap pants are a rare example of floral silk knickers from the 1930s.
1930s French knickers - organza
This other pair of 1930s French knickers are made of a beautiful silk organza fabric with a bamboo design, very unusual and beautiful.
1930s Vintage Panties
Man-made fabrics were starting to be used for lingerie in the 1920s and more often in the 1930s. These underpants are an acetate, it seems not everyone wanted to wear the wide-legged French knickers, and the more modern look was introduced.
These panties still opened on one hip and closed with a button.
1940s Tap Pants
In the US the term tap pants is generally used. This possibly dates back to the 1930s and 1940s custom of dancers wearing shorts resembling these underpants at tap dancing rehearsals.
In the 1940s, due to wartime restrictions, silk was not available as it had been requisitioned for making parachutes (!) Rayon largely replaced silk for underwear. Stretch fabrics became available - rayons and acetates.
Nylon had been invented in the 1930s but was not available commercially until the 1940s, when it too was largely requisitioned for the war effort.
Luxury items were frowned upon as excess in times of such shortages, and there were even limits on what percentage of a garment could be embroidered.
Plain but sweet 1940s rayon French knickers - the legs are trimmed with cotton netting.
Lacy 1950s french knickers
By the early 1950s femininity was back in fashion, wartime rationing mostly over and pretty lacy unmentionables were back.
These have beautiful lace insertion and applique work.
These are an early kind of nylon with a crepey feel. Note that the side opening has by now disappeared, replaced by the elastic waist.
During the 1950s the French knickers, tap pants, or "scanties", as they were called in Australia, disappeared, replaced by a more modern kind of high waisted and full panties.
High Waist Panties
This is a kind of hybrid pair of panties with the look of short legged French knickers, still with loose legs. Note the beautiful lace insertion work.
Underwear like this was most likely part of a woman's "trousseau" - the special wardrobe she made or collected to take with her into her marriage.
These panties are a beautiful early nylon with a dainty pattern in the weave, with cotton lace to trim. These come as a set with the matching slip and camisole.
This panty style continues into the 1960s, with nylon being the most popular fabric, along with cotton.
1960s nylon hot pants
By the mid 1960s, of course, anything goes.
I suspect these ruffly cuties were originally the pants to a babydoll pyjama set, but how sweet!!
Towards the G-String or thong
Note that underwear did not often appear in black until the 1950s. Until then it was invariably in peach. In France, and the US, black lingerie appeared earlier than in Britain and Australia.
Towards the end of the 60s, women's underpants got progressively smaller and smaller - through the bikini panties from the 1970s, the throwback revival of French knickers in the 1980s - down to the g-string or "thong" in the 1990s.
Now, it seems, you can take your choice of any, with underpants available in any height and leg style.
It can be almost as complicated as buying jeans!