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Once upon a time in Duluth: Locals got their undies in a bundie over knickers

100 years ago: The News Tribune investigated a controversial women's fashion: knickers. "Not unwomanly," says one man, "but they are not effeminate.'"

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Knickers: like them or loathe them, the News Tribune asked in 1921. Duluth News Tribune archive / News Bank

About 100 years ago this week in Duluth, an unnamed woman and a News Tribune reporter, working under the name The Mere Man, engaged in a bit of man-and-woman-on-the-street journalism — an investigative piece to gauge the social temperature of short pants.

The headline: “Mere Man Romps Forth with Knicker Girl, Just to Learn Who Likes ‘Em and Who Don’t.”

The Mere Man and Knicker Girl, the latter dressed in knee-length pants that puffed then cinched, went into the streets of Duluth and took note of the range of opinions on this seemingly audacious wear.

At Glass Block, the manager reportedly smiled across his glass top desk and studied the Knicker Girl before he “forthwith placed his stamp of approval on the outfit.” An added bonus: He said that women working in his store would be allowed to wear knickers — or, as they were also referred to in the Sept. 21, 1921, story, “bloomerettes.”

A good thing, as women surveyed for the story tended to favor the look.

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Walter Brinkman, seemingly a male manager of the George A. Gray company, said he could see the fad catching on, but he had a few reservations about the trousers.

“Knickerbockers are not unwomanly — but they are not effeminate,” he said. “They are sensible, comfortable and practical, and not in the least immodest.”

He predicted that if they took off, it wouldn’t take long for the pants to not even wage a second look. But he didn’t see that happening in fashion realms, at least outside of sporting events.

“We do not anticipate they will become generally popular as they lack the charm and fascination of skirts, frills and laces, which women, even the younger set, will be loathe to forego,” he said.

A secretary at Silberstein & Bondy agreed with Brinkman.

“Every woman likes the soft, feminine touch in her clothes, to enhance her beauty, and whether she is a worker or a society woman, she will never discard the skirt for knickers,” the employee said.

(The Mere Man also reported in his whimsical column that he sat on his hat and broke two cigarettes during this outing.)

More than a week later, the fashion investigation was addressed in "Forum," the then-equivalent to a modern-day letters to the editor.

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“It is discouraging to have every effort toward reform met with ridicule and scoffing,” a reader, identified as "Mother of Boys and Girls," responded on Oct. 1. “One hundred and fifty years ago, men wore curled wigs, short pink or blue satin trousers and highly colored silk stockings, ruffles and much jewelry. They broke away from these foolish fashions and sensible women wish to do the same.

“The long hair, which is necessarily insanitary is gradually going, and skirts, with all the foolish, expensive lingerie now worn by women, will be replaced by neat, comfortable garments of a more simple kind.”

Knickerbockers are a mark of progress, she wrote.

“The same people who call women vain and extravagant will find fault with them for trying out the newer, more simple and less expensive styles. So don’t mind the knockers, women, but cut your hair and wear the sensible ‘Knickers.’"

Related Topics: HISTORYFASHIONDULUTH
Christa Lawler is a former reporter for the Duluth News Tribune.
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