Knickers, bloomers and drawers

I love the British word, knickers, for ladies underpants. It has a gentle naughtiness without being vulgar. In Britain it has surpassed all its rivals: smalls, briefs, panties, bloomers and completely replaced its predecessor, drawers. In Australia we tend to talk about pants or panties (as does the US) although knickers is gaining some ground.

Drawers gets its meaning from being a piece of apparel that was pulled on, i.e. drawn on (not buttoned or fastened). It is quite an antiquated word for underpants and when it is used it implies old-fashionedness.

Marks and Spencers (M&S), the UK retailer, sells 60 million pairs of ladies underwear a year labelled as knickers. Knickers would seem an archetypal English word—we should therefore expect an interesting English story. Although the story is whimsical it comes not form England but from the US.

Washington Irving was a New York born American writer and satirist . His two most famous works are Rip Van Winkle and The Legend of Sleepy Hollow, which were published in 1819-20 and brought him fame in Britain and the United States.

Irving has been the source of several culturally iconic words in the modern world. In 1809 he had authored the satirical History of New York from the Beginning of the World to the End of the Dutch Dynasty under the pen-name Diedrich Knickerbocker. It gave New York its nickname, Gotham (the Gotham City used in the Batman comics was a thin disguise for NY). Irving borrowed Gotham from English folklore. He was comparing the people of NY to the Men of Gotham, a village of fools (although in some stories a village of people pretending to be fools to avoid the king’s tax collectors).

Irving had borrowed the surname Knickerbocker from one of his friends, a Dutch-descended a politician in New York at the time. The History of New York was widely read and knickerbockers was soon being used for the Dutch-descended people of NY.

Knickerbockers also came to be used to describe the knee-length trousers that the Dutch wore (as illustrated in the book) and was picked up both in the US and the UK (and has continued to be used in that way in the US up into the present).

Knee length underpants were also known as knickerbockers. As the fashion for long underpants disappeared in the early 19th century in the US so did the word , knickerbocker to describe them. However, even though the fashion also changed in the UK the word survived, abbreviated to knickers referring to underpants in general.

Interestingly, bloomers, also has a US origin. Bloomers were loose trousers originally based on Turkish pantaloons that were championed by American feminists in the middle 19th century to liberate women from hoop skirts and girdles. Amelia Bloomer was a champion of feminism and published a journal supporting the new fashion, which took her name.

I wonder what the next generation will call ladies underpants when knickers starts to get a bit hackneyed and associated with granny pants.