History’s Forgotten Fashion FadOn June 12, 2019 by Elyse
Americans living in the early 20th century had much to be concerned about: a world war, an influenza pandemic and most frightening of all, women neglecting their homes in pursuit of the vote. However, alongside these worries was another terror that could strike anywhere at any time:
You’d think an army of pickpockets was mounting a wholesale invasion. Newspapers were full of advice for thwarting those with light fingers. However, it wasn’t enough to simply avoid crowds or not become engrossed in the evening paper for Miss Verna Elliott. In 1915, the “prettiest of Akron’s belles” was “that scared of pickpockets that she designed the knee-watch pocket just to fool them.” As the name suggests, the revolutionary knee watch was worn right below the knee.
And yes, it’s exactly as inconvenient as it sounds:
It isn’t such a handy place for me, but this knee-pocket is very unhandy for the pickpocket.– Verna Elliott, quoted in the Day Book, September 7, 1915
It may have been very unhandy for the wearer and the pickpocket, but it was very entertaining for the newspapers, which were full of quips, derision and moral panic about the length of skirts:
While the press had its fun, the visionary Verna thought she was onto something:
I know it’s ‘advanced,’ but so is the trench skirt and the fad of carrying live birds on the promenade and no one seems to mind them. Mine is a sensible fad and I hope folks will like it.– Verna Elliott, quoted in the Day Book, September 7, 1915
We’ll give her half credit since the trench skirt is still around. The birds on the promenade? Not so much, thankfully for all parties concerned.
Still, she had a point. Six years later in 1921—that’s something like 60 years in the world of fashion—the knee watch was called “one of the most popular timepieces ever adopted.” It didn’t lose any of its salacious appeal in the intervening years:
Every time the fair wearer consults it a huge throng of men become curious as to the time and crowd about to see if their judgment of what o’clock it is may be verified by the accurate chronometer of the pretty girl.– South Bend News-Times, February 18, 1921
The knee watch even spawned a copycat trend:
However, all good fads must come to an end. Today, I can’t find a single knee watch for sale on Amazon.com, under either apparel or anti-theft devices. Still, those of us with overflowing closets know everything comes back into style eventually. So, if you’ve inherited a knee watch from a grandmother bold enough to wear the controversial timepiece, hang onto it—and those trench skirts—for a little while longer.
Disclaimer: The modern era is far from the first to grapple with rampant “fake news.” As I am neither a historian nor journalist, I make no claims about the accuracy or lack thereof of the above historical articles. I assert only that they make for a good story.
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