United States First Communion Suits


Figure 1.--Catholic American boys used to get new suits, often decorated with large bows for First Communion. This boys suit has a coat with a white sailor collar. Also notice the white gloves. The short pants and socks suggest the late 1910s or early 20s.

First Communion is a major milestone in the lives of Cathloic boys all First Communion was a particularly important event in the lives of many immigrant American families, especially Irish and Italian communities. New suits were often purchased for the occasion. Sometimes, but not always, the suits were white symbolizing the purity of the children. It was much more common to buy white dresses for the girls than white suits for the boys. Irish and Italian mothers were more likely to insist on white suits. The suits before the 1910s were mostly knee pants suits. Beginning in he 1910s, through the 1930s they were often Knicker suits and less commonly short pants suits. Beginning in the 1940s long pants suits were most common, although some boys wore short pants suits through the 1960s. Some parents chose white suits to emphasize the childrens purity, but dark black or navy suits were more common as they could be worn for other occasions after the First Communion ceremony. I am not sure when it became common to buy a boy a new suit for his First Communion. Certainly it was the standard practice in America by the ealy 20th century. Families that coud afford it bought their sons brand new suits. Some wre suits that could be worn for other formal events. Others were special white suits that were just for First Communion. Not all families could afford this. Suits since the 1960s have become increasingly less common with the boys only wearing ties and white shirts with a pair of slacks. The purchase of a new suit, especially a white suit, just for first communion has gradually passed out of fashion--cost being the primary factor especially as a white suit has few other uses. Now boys in many places simply wear white shirts. Girl still often are outfitted in dresses purchased just for the occassion.

Garments

We know very little about First Communions garments during the 19th centuyry. A factor here is that America was a largely Protestant country in the 19th century. This beggan to change with the arrival of the Irish in the 1840s and even more so when large numbers of Italians and other immigrants from southern Europe began to arrive in the 1880s. Thus we have been able to find very few American First Communion portraits from the 19th century. We are not sure to what extent First Communions were celebrated. I'm not sure what Catholic boys wore in the early and mid-19th Century, but by the late-19th Century those families that could afford it dressed their sons in smart new suits. We know much more about the 20h century. We note many First Communion portraits in the early 20th century. First Communions apper to have become a major event. We suspect this reflects in part the increasing success of Ctholics in Ameica. We see many boys posing in new outfits purchased for the occassion. Looking at First Communion suits over time are a good indicator of popular boys' fashions during the 20th century. For the most part this meant suits, but this was not always the case. We see some boys in the early20th centry wearing tunics, but it was not very common. There was another major shift in the mid 20th century as suits became less commonly worn.


Figure 2.--This boy also wore a knicker suit for his First Communion in the 1920s. His knickers are buckled right at the knee. Note the double breasted jacket styling and Eton collar.

Chronology

We have very limited chronological information on American First Communion suits at this time. We do not know just when it became common to buy a boy a new suit for First ommunion. We do not note very many 19th century portraits. We note, however, numerous photographic portraits beginning in the early 20th century. We believe that immigration from Catholic countries in Europe, especially Italians in the 1890s, had a significant impact on popularizing the convention of a new suit for First Communion. Dressing boys up in suits for their First Communion presumably predated the 19th Century, but I have no information. The subject does not seem to have elicited great interest on the part of the painters of the day. Large numbers of Catholics first came to the United States in the aftermath of the potato famine in the 1840s. Even great numbers of Italian began to arrive in the 1880s. With these two groups large numbers of American boys began to have First Communion. I'm not sure, however, what these boys wore for their First Communion at mid-Century. We have relatively limited information on First Communion suits during the late 19th century. we note boys from the 1870s through the 1890s wearing kneepants suits for First Communion, especially in the 1890s. We are not sure how common it was or boys to receive new suits for First Communion. The boys who had them always wore long dark stockings. I am not sure when it became common to buy a boy a new suit for his First Communion. Certainly it was the standard practice in America by the ealy 20th century. Families that coud afford it bought their sons brand new suits. Some wre suits that could be worn for other formal events. Others were special white suits that were just for First Communion. Not all families could afford this. Amercan boys in the first decade of the 20th Century wore suits for First Communion much like those worn in the late-19th Century. This began to change in the 1910s as kneepants were gradually substituted for knickers or short pants and knee socks. There were significant changes in First Communion suits after world War I. Short pants suits appear for the first time. American boys mostly wore knicker suits for First Communion. Some boys wore short pants or long pants suits, but the knicker suits were most common. We also see more white First Communion suits.


Figure 3.--This girl is the sister of the boy above. Unlike the boys who often wore dark suits, the girls always wore elaborate white dresses, styled like wedding dresses.

Gender

There were sharp gender differences in First Commuinion outfits. Boys outfits could vary. Suits were vert common until the 1970s. At some churches boys wore the same color and styles of suits. This became common in the inetr-war era, but was expensive because it meant that suits had to be purchased just for First Communion. It is one reflectiion of the increasing economic success of American Catholics. At other churches boys wore their own suits of different colors and styles. Girls wore junior wedding dresses for First Comminiom. There were a wide variety of styles. And generally churches let the girkls and their mothers select the style as long as they roughly conformed with the basic style, especially the skirt length/ The junior weddingbdresses were always white.

Color

We see American children doing First Communion wearing both white and dark outfits. The girls always wear white junior wedding dressess. The boys outfits were more varied. First Communions outfits from the 19th century are rare. We see mostly dark suits in the early-20th century. A new suit for First Communiin was very common for boys who could afford it. We are not sure about the color, but believe navy blue was commom. We see some boys wearing white bloues without jackets in the 1920s. We are not sure about the 1910s. We begin seeing white suits in the 1920s and they were a little more commin in the 1930s. We see both dark sand white suits through the 1960s, but by that time First Communiin outfits began to become less common and we see fewer suits.

Individual Accounts

HBC has begun to collect accounts of individual American boys doing their First Communion. We have a variety of portaits. Some are idebntified, but many are not. We have obtained several First Communion portraits without any provinance. We can not at this time readily date or identify these images. The fashions allow us to make some rough guesses as to when the portraits were taken, but are not positive about them. We would be inteeted in ant insights that HBC readers might have. We also have some accounts od First Communion experiences.







HBC






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Created: December 15, 1998
Last edited: 8:53 PM 12/5/2009