When I, an American, think of “knickers” I generally think of something like this (and I suspect I am not an outlier):
“Men’s Knickers – Khaki Twill,” via Historical Emporium, San Jose, California (“Authentic products and old-fashioned service” since 2003).
Across the pond, and Down Under, they think of something more like this:
“Know your knickers!” via Kayser Lingerie, Australia. Not for men.
But I’ve recently learned of two women’s-underwear brands doing business in the US that are trading on the British/Aussie sense of knickers. Which leads me to wonder whether we USians are about to adopt this sense of knickers into our retail vocabularies. (Or re-adopt, as I’ll explain in a bit.)
The first brand is Knickey, founded in 2017 in New York City and still headquartered there. Knickey sells organic-cotton women’s undergarments, top and bottom, in sizes XXS to XXXL (although the largest size isn’t terribly large by contemporary fit standards). The brand name certainly appears to be derived from knickers—it’s not explained on the website, and I found no US trademark applications from the company that reveal the name’s derivation. Knickey is cutely reinforced by one of the product categories: “Knick Knacks.” But Knickey doesn’t go Full British Usage in its product names; it calls its bottom-half apparel “undies.”
Knickey wordmark and product packaging.
Knick-knack—a pleasing trifle or toy—is usually hyphenated or spelled as one word. It’s not related to knickers but rather derived from a specialized sense of knack: “a trick or strategem.”
One of the Knickey knick-knacks is the Knickey hanky, illustrated with abstract renderings of bodies viewed from the rear.
Here’s a 2019 article about Knickey’s commitment to sustainability, which includes recycling used cotton underwear.
I discovered the other knickers-esque brand name during a stroll down San Francisco’s Fillmore Street.
If I didn’t know better, I’d think KNIX was a radio station. In fact, there is a KNIX-FM, in Phoenix, Arizona.
Knix was founded in Toronto in 2013; the San Francisco store opened in November 2021. The company sells its own line of seamless bras, underwear—nope, not “knickers” … yet—and leakproof underwear (a growing category of its own). The parent company, Knix Wear, began registering U.S. trademarks in 2012; its applications don’t include a clarification of the name, but again—pretty clearly derived from “knickers.”
My prediction: Knickey and Knix are the driving wedge in a campaign to get Americans to start saying knickers instead of whatever else we say, especially if that something else is panties, a well-documented trigger for the word-averse.
So where did knickers—in both knee-pants and underpants senses—come from?
From Washington Irving, proud son of the US of A.
Irving invented “Dietrich Knickerbocker” as the author of his History of New York (1809), and for several decades afterward “Knickerbockers” (a real Dutch surname) was shorthand for descendants of the first Dutch settlers of New York. (The association with New York survives in the name of the NBA team whose home court is Madison Square Garden: the Knicks.) Illustrations in Irving’s book depicted Dutchmen wearing loose-fitting trousers gathered in at the knee, and in the 1860s these trousers became known in the U.S. as “nickerbockers” or “knickerbockers.” By the 1880s the clipped “knickers” version was in circulation.
In a 2020 post on her Separated by a Common Language blog, Lynne Murphy wrote that “the fashion sense of knickerbockers moved over to the UK,” but not “knickers,” which in the UK referred only to women’s underpants:
Though knickers is a very clear example of a Britishism now, it's interesting to note its AmE roots, since it is a clipping of knickerbockers. I presume this is because women’s undies used to look like knickerbocker breeches. Such undergarments were also called bloomers (in both Englishes), as were the outerwear women’s knickerbockers that gained popularity as women started bicycling. (Unrelatedly, bloomer also happens to be the name of a type of bread loaf in BrE.) In BrE, the word knickers changed with the changes in underwear styles, but the word bloomers didn’t.
Meanwhile, women’s underthings kept evolving, and so did the language to describe them. In the UK, pants has been the preferred term for “men’s or women’s underpants” since at least 1880; the overpants, which Americans call pants, are “trousers” in the UK. (I learned from the OED that “a load of pants” can mean “rubbish” or “nonsense.”) Underpants first appeared in 1931 in a satirical poem published in London, but the term didn’t refer to anything slinky, lacy, or feminine: “The living image of a country lover, In woolly underpants, a sort of Faun.” In American English, however, underpants succeeded in driving out drawers (which had been in use since the 1500s to mean “a garment that’s drawn on or off”) and knickers.
The one place where Americans are comfortable with knickers in the “underwear” sense is in the idiom “[don’t get your] knickers in a twist.” As Ben Yagoda wrote in 2012 in his Britishisms blog, the phrase was originally (c. 1960s) British but took root in the US in the early 1990s and now is (or was, in 2012) more popular in the US than in the UK. Likewise “knickers in a knot,” which appears to have been invented in the US, maybe because of its alliterative appeal.
But as I said: times are changing. Watch for the folks who made normcore a thing to start embracing knickers, at first ironically, then matter-of-factly.
And what of Canada, the birthplace of Knix Wear, which now has two Southern California retail outposts in addition to the San Francisco store I saw? Canadians who answered my informal Twitter poll overwhelmingly preferred any other word to knickers. (“Panties if necessary ,” one wrote.) And several of them mentioned a preference for “ginch” and “gonch,” those delightful Canadianisms that I wrote about back in 2013.