Chester Martin Remembers Some Minor Fashion Alterations

Tuesday, June 7, 2016 - by Chester Martin
From the UC Yearbook of 1960-61
From the UC Yearbook of 1960-61

When I was much younger than I am today, there would be small changes - frequently in the world of Fashion - that would happen mysteriously overnight. One of those things I still ponder about from time to time was how "knicker's" boys' pants ALL went away at the end of my third-grade year, never to be seen again. Perhaps they represented an idea that had out-lived its time, or maybe the fashion moguls of New York simply decided that enough was enough, and secretly banned them from the store shelves.

It would be very rare to find a Genex-er or a Millenial who had even heard the word,"knickers" today - unless he or she had first seen a movie like "The Great Gatsby" which depicted an era like the 1920's or '30's. Anyway, "knickers" were a style of mens' pants which gathered below the knee into a tight elastic band about 2.5 inches wide. Long stockings were pulled up to fit under the elastic band - and this had been a major style for all boys through late adolescence for many years. It is still a style for the rich golfer class of Scotland, where old men still wear them - but not in America! (The name "knickers" is a shortening of the name "Knickerbocker", which vaguely suggests a geographical origin in New York State, perhaps among Ivy Leaguers. That word  means something entirely different in the British Isles, and refers to an item of ladies' undergarments. The pants portion of baseball players' vertically pin-striped uniforms are very much like the old "nickers" of my youth - but are not called by that name).

I wore boys' knicker pants all through third grade, but when I returned for fourth grade at the same school, they were gone with the proverbial wind! No one ever explained why - or how -  the word got passed that they were now out of style!

Then, years later, there had been an old custom for new U.S. Presidents to be inaugurated wearing morning attire - including an Abe Lincoln style "top hat". The outgoing President Eisenhower in 1960 was amenable to the old idea, but the incoming and youthful President Kennedy refused to wear traditional attire, choosing a dark business suit instead, WITH NO HAT, and therefore the ancient custom - dating back to George Washington - instantly went away. Everyone adored Kennedy and wanted to follow his lead - including in Fashion.

Not only did it go away as an old custom for Presidential inaugurations, it also went away for the entire hat-making industry. That industry collapsed overnight - at least in the USA - and except for the 10-gallon hats found in the American Southwest, hats are gone from the American scene.

In my father's time, he had religiously kept at least two hats on hand, both in immaculate condition for wearing outside the home. A man was not considered properly dressed without either a darkish fedora hat for winter, or a white Panama hat for summer. An older such fedora hat might be kept for everyday wear, but a slick new one was a necessity for Sunday wear. "Stetson's" ruled! Nor would any respectable man be seen without long-sleeved shirts for both summer and winter - or the proper hat for either season. (Short sleeves were mainly for workers or  children). And there were exact dates for making those changes - just as we have set dates today for adjusting our clocks to or from Daylight Savings Time. Check out John Wilson's "Stokes Collection" book to see if I am not telling the truth about hats and short sleeves! "Proper" ladies ALWAYS wore hats when leaving the house. These dress-codes went on for years!

In my dad's day, the "baseball cap" as a major item of headgear had not found its way into common use. Baseball caps and tennis shoes DID exist, of course, but were used for actually playing a sport OR denoted the wearer to be either a "seedy" person, or a poverty case! Nowadays, however, the executives in your office who are forced to wear business suits by day can't wait to get home and switch into these far more relaxing clothes in the evening! At the local mall you cannot distinguish rich from poor! My principal MD has not worn a necktie in years, and most frequently wears jeans with a T-shirt!

Back in the 1950's only the football players at the University of Chattanooga could get away with wearing "dungarees" - now known as jeans. When someone came to class wearing them it meant either they were very poor, or they were a football player! (The athletes on teams were segregated away from the regular school body and had their own dress-code). This style went away like  knickers and hats had done earlier, but I cannot say exactly when the transition took place. In the early 1960's I worked with a Louisiana woman whose father made "dungarees" for a living, which were still considered work-clothes at the time. Sometimes they were called "blue-jeans", until eventually the "blue" was dropped, and now the entire world simply calls them "jeans". (Sometimes they had also been called "overall pants" as well).

All of the above amounts to a general "loosening up" in Society, which I think is for the better. Neckties were fine in the much chillier British Isles, and on the Continent of Europe. They were perfect for keeping you warm in those climates, along with a jacket, but I never understood how they made the transition onto our hot and humid American shores. I puzzle, for example, as to how Ben Franklin and all the Constitution Framers could sit in the Statehouse of Pennsylvania (Independence Hall) wearing LINEN suits in the summer of 1787, with the windows closed (to keep the horseflies out) - and still be able to concentrate on writing the U.S. Constitution!

If the trend toward "loosening up" continues - maybe in another 80+ years -  I should just wait to see if the necktie doesn't also mysteriously go away along with knickers and hats!

It would be well-worth the wait just to see!

(Chester Martin is a native Chattanoogan who is a talented painter as well as local historian. He and his wife, Pat, live in Brainerd. Mr. Martin can be reached at )


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