Chronology of the Development of Modern Boys' Clothing Styles: The 19th Century


Figure 1.--The dresses worn by boys at the turn of the Century were long floor-length dresses in the Empire style, just like the ones worn by their mothers and sisters. This 1802 painting Sir Thomas Lawrence is Lady Mary Templeton and her eldest son Henry who was 2-years old.

The 19th century is the most important history in the development of children's clothes, certainly the most interesting. Specialized childrens clothes become widely accepted in the 19th century. At first childrens clothing seemed to reflect the special needs of childhood. The shift from simple, comfortable garments ideally suited to childhood of the early 19th century to the fancy, restrictive garments of the late 19th century are especially notable. Another notable development was the divergence of boys and men's clothing. Never before or since have boys dressed more differently than their fathers. Interestingly as men's fashions approached the ultimate in drab conformity--the sack suit of the 1880s, boys clothing reach the height of decorative adornment in the Little Lord Fauyntleroy suit. We have begun to collect information on each decade of the 19th century. Our understanding of some of the early decades of the century, but improves after mid-cetury when photography begins to provide us a far great supply of images than ever before with which to assess fashion trends.

Major Trends

mportant trends make the 19th perhaps the most interesting period in the development of boys fashions. Until the late 18th century there was no such thing as specialized children's clothes. "Prior to the 19th century, children were dressed as miniature adults," explains Charles L. Mo, Director of Collections and Exhibitionst at the Mint Museum of Art. "Social reforms at the end of the 18th century inspired changes in clothing designed for the special needs of children." Even with the appearance of specialized boys' clothing like skeletion suits, such outfits were still the exception rather than the rule even for boys. Specialized girls' wear was slower to appear. Girls's continued to wear the same styles as their mothers. It was only in the 19th century that specialized children's clothes were fully accepted. The first style to appear was the classic skeleton suit for boys. The long pants worn with skeleton suits were to help establish long pants as the principal male garment of modern times. As was often the case, changes in boys' wear often were only later accepted for men's wear. Mo explains, "Children's fashion in the early decades of the 19th century often preceded similar changes in adult clothing. Simple frocks for girls reflected the fashionable high-waist, neo-classical style for women. Trousers for young boys were popular long before they were adopted as adult male dress." [Mint Museum of Art] The styles that developed in the 19th century still influence boys' clothing today. The styles that developed varied widely from the simple practical sailor suit in the mid-19th century to the fancy, elaborate Fauntleroy suit in the late 19th century. The shift from simple, comfortable garments ideally suited to childhood of the early 19th century to the fancy, restrictive garments of the late 19th century are especially notable. Another notable development was the divergence of boys and men's clothing. Never before or since have boys dressed more differently than their fathers. Interestingly as men's fashions approached the ultimate in drab conformity--the sack suit of the 1880s, boys clothing reach the height of decorative adornment in the Little Lord Fauntleroy suit. Interestingly the jean overalls developed for working men in the 19th century were eventually to become the most important fashion for boys, but not until the mid-20th century.

Garments

Throughout the 19th century young childern, both boys and girls, wore long usually white dresses at least until they began to walk. The dresses were then shortened so as not to impede walking. Women's fashion trends also affected the length of the dresses. Children began wearing pantalettes sometimes trimmed in lace as a measure of modesty when dress hems rose. Older children also began wearing more colorful dresses. Most boys wore dresses virtually indistinguishable from their sisters until they were 3-4 years of age. Some boys wore dresses longer, primarily at the discression of their mothers. Gradually some destincly boyishly styled dressed appeared and were quite common by the late 19th century. After the age of breeching, boys and girls fashions diverged considerably. Girls of course continued wearing dresses, but they began looking more like their mothers' dresses. Boys began wearing destinctive outfits, but quite unlike the garments their fathers were wearing. While boys were breached, their garments were still in many cases more influenced by women's than men's fashions. Often this was done by adding copious ammounts of ribbons, laces, and ruffles to their sons' outfits. This was in part that younger boys were still largely cared for by their mothers. In the eraly 19th century boys wore colorful skeleton suits with fancy collars. Tunics were also popular. By mid-century a cariety of fanciful suit styles appeared. Jackets were heavily braided. Some suits had bloucey pantallons influenced by French Zouaves. Sailor suits and kilts made a major fashion imprint at mid-century. In America the full Highland kilt outfit was less popular than the kilt suit combining an often very boyish jacket with a pleated skirt. Velvet suits appeared in the late 1860s and by th 1880s had become the decorative Little Lord Fauntletoy suits embellished with lace trim and often large bows. Some boys even wore ringlet curls. The styles that boys wore could not have been more different than the dour dark business sack suits wore by their fathers. Mothers also selected head wear like broad-brimmed sailor caps and tams that were quite different than what theor fathers wore.

Individual Decades

We have begun to collect information on each decade of the 19th century. Our understanding of some of the early decades of the century, but improves after mid-cetury when photography begins to provide us a far great supply of images than ever before with which to assess fashion trends.


Figure 2.--The skeleton suits was one of the most endring fashions for boys and was popular for half a century. It is still considered by some fashion purists as one of the most attractive suits for boys. Note the open, ruffled collar worn with many suits. This Sir Thomas Lawrence painting shows the Flyden children in 1805.

The 1800s

Throughout the 19th century, babies and toddlers were kept in dresses-- little different from those worn by their sisters. The dresses tended to be long, extebding to the feet in the Enpire style. Some time between the ages 3 or 6 years, depending on mother's whims, boys were "breeched" or put into various styles of smocks/ tunics or suits, the Russian pleated tunic being one of the most common in the early decades of the 19th Century. Boys wearing tunics often continued wearing pantalets, perhaps less elaborate than those of their sisters. Older boys were allowed to wear various boyish styles of suits, such as and skeleton and less commonly--sailor suits. The first two decades of the 1800s was the period in which the Empire (referring to the Napleonic empire) fashion raised waistlines of women, girls, and small boys up under the arms. Similar styles were known as Regency (referring to George IV's Regency) fashions. This basically classic style, harking back to classical Greece, was viewed as charming and artistic. Many saw it as the most appropriate, of all children's costumes ever designed, especially for little girls--but some also considered it charming for boys. It served as the basis for Kate Greenaway's (1846-1901) lovely drawings and endless later day Valentine cards.

The 1810s

The hems of dresses, including those for little boys began the rise and women, girls, and little boys began wearing pantalettes as bare legs were not considerd approriate--even for children. Tunics and skeleton suits were the primary clothes worn by boys after breeching. Large ruffled collars were commonly worn by boys, especially with skeleton suits. Knee breches had entirely disappeared for boys and by the end of the decade were becoming less common for men. Younger boys might wear tunics with pantalettes, but older boys wore tunics. A boy might also wear his first skeleton suit with pantalettes showing at the ankles of his long pants. Pantalettes were less commonly worn in America than Britain and Europe.

The 1820s

The 1820s was a time of peace after the tumultuous years of the French Revolution and the Napoleonic Wars. Peace and the Congress of Vienna meant reaction. The changes underway as a result of the Industrial Revolution, however, meant that a return to the Amcien Regime was not possible. The 1820s in terms of fashion was perhaps the most significant of the 19th century. The 1820s is in many ways similar to the 1920s. Both decades were a period of piece following major European wars. And in both decades, momentous changes were noted in fashions. Dress hems continued to rise and the shorter dress were commonly worn with lacy pantalettes. Older boys wore tunics with long pants and skeleton suits with ankle length long trousers. Kneebreches for men diappeared except for the most formal occasions and they were never worn by boys. So far I have collected little information cpecifically on the 1820s, but have alittle information and would be interested in any insights HBC readers might have.

The 1830s

Very little inovation is notable in the 1830s. Boys continued to wear the basic styles and garments of the early 19th century, but with some stylistic changes. Children’s clothes were similar for boys and girls until about the age of six--although this varied from family to family. Both wore "dresses" of cotton or wool around the house. Girls and little boys often wore pantaletes peeking beneath their dresses, although younger children may have bare legs in the nursery.These pantaletwes eventually became known as drawers. The usual child's dress was long or short sleeved to suit the season, with slim sleeves, round or boat-shaped neck and the waist was lightly fitted with a set-in belt. Preferred fabrics were linen and cotton, for ease of care. As an interim step between dresses and trousers, tunics were still commonly worn. Skeleton suits were still commonly worn, but by the end of the dcade were declining in popularity.

The 1840s

Babies and toddlers were still kept in similar dresses. The Victorians, however, introduced many new styles for boys. Victorian boys, after they graduated from their toddler dresses at about 5 or 6 years of age, were put into various styles of fancy suits, especially kilts, Russian box pleated tunnics with matching bloomers, and sailor suits. Styles were heavily influenced by Britain's Queen Victoria in the mid-19th Century who commonly dressed her sons in kilts and sailor suits. The appearance of the kilt for boys was an innovation as it had virtually disappeared in Scotland. The Victorians were extremely fond of these styles and there popularity carried over into the Edwardian period before the First World War. English styles greatly influence upper-class American dress and middle class Americans followed the styles adopted by the upper class.

The 1850s

Some images appeared in the 1850s, but the photographic record is still incomplete. A few images are available, often from affluent familes. Clothing styles for boys were still rather plain. Ruffled collars became rarer for boys and collars overall were much smaller. Knee or calf-length pants appeared for younger boys. British boys might wear sailor suits or kilts, but the syle was not yet widespread in America. At mid-Century, children's fashions began to return to restrictive styles closely modeled on adult fashions and with few concessions to childhood needs.

The 1860s

Americans will view this decade as the decade of the Civil War. Photography was becoming increasingly available and greater number of images are available. Styles tended to be rather plain. Boys, even quite young boys after breeching, might wear long trousers. Collars were generally small and not worn with large bows. The British fashion of dressing boys in kilts and sailor suits had begun to spread to America, but was still not widespread.

The 1870s

This was a decade of major change. While little boys continued to wear dresses, olders boys began to wear increasingly fancy clothes and were less likely to wear adult styles than in the 1860s. Kilt-like suits and sailor suits became increasingly accepted as standard boys' wear. Outfits became increasingly fancy, leading to the more elaborate styles of the next decade.


Figure 5.--This boy in the 1880s wears a boyish suit with a wide white collar instead of a Fauntleroy lace collar, but his mother was still unwilling to cut his curls. Notice the riding crop used as a prop to stress his sporting interests.

The 1880s

Outfitting little boys in dresses continued much in vogue. Kilt suits increased in popularity, partly as they enabled a doting mother to delay breeching. Victorian children's garments incorporated elements of fantasy and novelty and these elements became particularly important in the 1880s. Whether it was in sailor suits, Scottish highland outfits, military uniforms, or Little Lord Fauntleroy suits, the late 19th Century was an era for dressing up children. A variety of new styles appeared or were modified into fancier styles with larger collars, ruffles, lace, sashes, and bows. The fanciest ones were the Little Lord Fauntleroy suits. Frances Hobson Burnett had a major impact in the 1880s with the publication of Little Lord Fauntleroy. A generation of American, British, and European boys were introduced to fancy velvet suits, often with elaborate lace collars and trim. Kilts and sailor suits remained popular, but fancier versions of the classic styles appeared. Some mothers added long hair and curls to complete the effect. While mothers often adored this style, it was generally despised by even the youngest boys. Some mothers kept their sons in smocks. The boys involved had a variety of preferences.


Figure 6.--A young Franklin Roosevelt and his family in a photograph taken about 1895. Notice the center hair part popular at the time. I am not sure if the long-haired cousin at the lower right is a boy or girl.

The 1890s

Fashions were similar to the 1880s, but many changes occurred. Little boys still wore dresses, but much less elaborate dresses than previously. Suits with skirts often had jackets that looked quite boyish. Fauntleroy suits continued in vogue, but by the mid-point of the decade the lace collars and cuffs were less elaborate and the boy was less likely to wear long sausage curls. Boys even older boys increasingly wore knee pants suits. The length of the pants was shorten ed slightly. Toward the dend of the century long shorts appeared, mostly worn with long over the knee stockings.

Sources

Mint Museum of Art, "Children's Fashions from the 19th Century," exhibit May 9-November 6, 1999.






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Created: October 10, 1998
Last updated: July 27, 2003