Boys' Clothing during the 1960s

The 1960s were a dividing point for American and European boys between the classic styles of the 1930s-50s and the styles more in vogue today. At the beginning of the decade mny Europoean boys, still some teenagers, wore short pants suits. By the end of the decade only little boys were still in shorts and even more important, fewer boys were wearing suits at all. Informal casual clothes became increasingly dominate. The Civil Rights Movement and the War in Vietnam were major events in America, causing young peope to question authority and a host of previously unsalable social coventions. In Europe the Anti-War and Anti-Nuclear campaigns flourished, the enviromental movement expanded. In Western Europe the 1969 Paris student movement put a massive crack in the ossified edifice of French education. One outcome was the virtual disappearance of French school uniforms. There were even stirings hehind the Iron Curtain that were to lead to the Prague Spring in the 1970s. Wile these movements had massive spcial implications, one impact was that children, even young children took control over what they would wear. Moms by the end of the decade could no longer dictate what their children wore or in many cases how he cut his hair. Well this was most vapparent with teenagers, even elementary children gained considerable influence over their clothes.

Trends


Garments


Material

Almost all fabrics we know of today were available. Day dresses and suit sets were of light-to mediumweight, usually in natural or natural-look fabrics.

Countries

Significant differences existed between American and European boys' fashions in the 1960s, but social trends in these countries were beginning to create what was to become almost universal fashion trends.

America

All elements of American life began "heating up" in the 1960s. Since the early 1960s, the Civil Rights Movement had been fighting to eliminate racial segregation and the oppression of African-Americans. An off shoot of this was an increased interest in Africa and African culture. Feminism got a new lease on life after the publication of Betty Friedan's The Feminine Mystique in 1963. Increasingly the role of women in modern America was question. American women increasingly looked beyond the family for "fullfilment". The impact on our society and children is yet to be fully assessed. Protests erupted against the Vietnam War in the mid-1960s. Hippies held the first "Be-in" during 1967 as they revolted against the values of what they saw as a consumer-oriented society. Some experimented with hallucinogenic drugs for escape. The impact on consumer textiles of each of these events was significant. African-inspired textiles became popular. Blue jeans were ubiquitous, worn morning, noon, and night. Young protesters and hippies adopted blue jeans and incongrously, Army fatigues, as virtual uniforms of the movement and a symbols of solidarity with working people. Psychedelic colors and patterns adorned their tie-dyed and hand-painted garments.


Figure 1.--Madras jackets were popular with American boys during the 1960s.

Clothing styles developed along simpler, more youthful lines during the 1960s. Clothin began to appear in many more varried colors than ever before. Tennagers finally arrived on the fashion scene. Rising family incomes and teenage jobs foe spending money rather than to support the family meant that there was a significant and growing new market to exploit. The fashion industryblostbno time in doing so. The 1960s were the first decade that had its own fashions directed specifically at teenagers. Before the Sixties, teenagers dressed like basically scaled-down versions of their parents as soon as they outgrew juvenile styles. Young adults dressed in the same styles of dresses or suits that their mothers and fathers wore. There had previously existed fashion subcultures which were more or less limited to young people, such as the Edwardians (Teddy Boys), the "Rockers", and the Beatniks. However, since these movements existed as sub-cultures among the non-conformists or the alienated youth, they were concentrated among just a portion of the entire young population. The majority of teens continued to dress like their parents. The cult clothing styles of the non-conformist young people were basically put together by the young people themselves; there were no designers who catered specifically to their preferences. The Mod movement of the early 1960s originated as such a youth subculture. However, by the mid-1960s it had evolved into a more generalized yet at the same time more outrageous form of fashion. It led to an explosion of the youth culture which gave all teenagers a style of dress they could call their own. This style was very revolutionary but it eventually influenced the fashions of the entire decade for people of all ages, changing fashion from mass-market clothes all the way up to the haute couture industry. Parents were initially better able to decide on the clothes of their younger children. It was not long, however, before these styles were affecting even the clothes of young boys.

The unifying themes of the protest movements during the 1960s was to question authority. This filtered down to all aspects of our culture and society, not the least was fashion. The primary group participating in the movement was older teenagers and young adults. They were the fashion setters. Younger boys, however, soon followed their lead and the new fashions soon appeared even in elementary schools. Boys and girls rejected the "nice" traditional clothes desired by their parents. The "buttoned-down" look was out. Boys wanted the tie-dyed shirts, fatigues, and jeans worn by the teenagers they emulated. As part of this process, dressy short pants suits began to disapper. This was especially true in America, but the process was also notable in Europe.

The ever-hungry fashion industry constantly sought new ideas and inspirations. It was not long before these symbols of protest had been co-opted by mainstream fashion, with varying results. Blue jeans, of course, are still with us, but the polyester double-knit pantsuit left the fiber with a negative image that polyester producers are still trying to live down. Comediand still use polyester leisure suits as a source of derision. Fashionable psychedelic-printed textiles were worn by men, women, and children in garments ranging from underwear to men's shirts. Mens' and boys' clothing styles also changed radically in the 1960s. Esquire called the newly colorful men's styles "The Peacock Revolution," and men and boys of all ages felt free to grow their hair long and wear colorful prints, leisure suits, and Nehru jackets. Parents and schools at first resisted, but by the end of the decade, long hair for boys had become increasingly common.

The sixties brought the Peacock Revolution - a phrase popularized in this country by George Frazier, a former columnist for Esquire magazine and the Boston Globe - which began on Carnaby Street in London and featured a whole array of new looks, including the Nehru jacket and the Edwardian suit. In contrast to the fifties, during which time choices were limited, a wide range of alternatives was now available as the focus moved to youth and protest. The designer Pierre Cardin even created an American version of the slim-lined European silhouette, which, along with the immense popularity of jeans, led to the acceptance of extreme fittedness in clothing - a far cry from the casual, comfortable elegance of preceding generations.

During this period, the American designer Ralph Lauren was attempting to convince the American male that there was a viable alternative to this high-style clothing. This alternative was a version of the two-button shaped suit with natural shoulders that had been introduced by Paul Stuart in 1954 and briefly popularized by John Kennedy during his presidency. Lauren updated the Stuart suit by using the kind of fabrics usually reserved for custom-made suits and dramatizing the silhouette by enlarging the lapel and giving more shape to the jacket. Laurenís following remained small, however, as most men leaned toward the jazzier Cardin-style suit.

One of the enduring American fashions from the 1960s is the "preppy" buttoned-down style. Preppy standards included blue blazers, button-down shirts, stripped ties, kaki pants, and penny loafers. The yuppies of the late 1980s got their clean-cut starts as the preppies of the early '80s. How to spot a prep in action? Look for cotton Izod shirts with the collars turned up, tassled loafers, crew neck sweaters worn over neat turtlenecks and the casual sweater slung over the shoulders with the sleeve ends cuffed over one another. The much-satorized, but enduring preppy look is an aspirational style based on the crisp sartorial codes of the Eastern White Anglo-Saxon Protestant (WASP) upper-middle class. (The term itself derives from expensive precollege "prep" or preparatory schools. This refers to American secondary-level preparatory schools.) The height of preppy era was the early '80s, when Lisa Birnbach's WASPish The Official Preppy Handbook sat astride best-seller lists and America was merry on the heady draft of Reaganism. Along with many other '80s excesses, the trend faded, but it had something of a renaissance in 1993-94. This time, preppy style was both a sardonic statement by B-Boys (Ralph Lauren, Tommy Hilfiger, ect.) and an ironic talisman for non-aspirational whites. The Beastie Boy/Sonic Youth-linked X-Girl clothing line concisely expressed this latter strain with a T-shirt bearing the words "X-Girl Prep"; inlaid into the shirt's faux-heraldic crest was the word "snooty."

While increasingly rare, a few boys were nicekly dressed in the 1960s. British fashions still influenced American mothers, a least wealty or well to do families. The Kennedy's had a great impact on American fashion. Jacki's impact on womens' fashions was legendary. The Kennedy children impacted children's fashions. The most famous Kennedy boy, of course, was John John. His wearng of a short pants suit, with rather short shorts, in the middle of the winter was noted by many mothers. His shortalls and red strap closed-toe sandals also impressed fashion concious mothers. Even after going to New York he was often seen in shorts, knee socks, and "t" bar sandals until he was about 10. These outfits probably did't endear John to his friends. (Incidentally John didn't like to be called John-John, his famous kickname appears to have been a press creation.) Jacki's choices in clothes for both John and Carolyn were more English than American. While noticed, few American mothers could keep hope to keep their boys in shorts passed the shortalls/Eton suit phase. Perhaps more influential was John John's bangs. Ethel Kennedy kept her younger boys in black short pants suits and knee socks. But these were the last few times that such fashionable clothes would be seen on American children.

Movies and Televison: Interesting details on boys' clothing styles can often be seen in old movies and television shows or shows with period settings. As in the later 1950s, the boys pictured on American television never wore short pants. Certainly not for dressy occasions, but not even for play.

Congress passed the Textile Fiber Products Identification Act (TFPIA) in 1960. The proliferation of manufactured fibers proved confusing. When only natural fibers and rayon were in use, it was relatively easy to tell one type of fabric from another. With manufactured fibers, and especially with blends, it was virtually impossible to know just which fibers one was dealing with. TFPIA simplified matters by requiring that apparel be labeled as to fiber content.

A. Dress clothes

Boys in America increasinly reserved their suit for very special occasions. Even church did not merit a suit. Boys' suits were mostly single breasted with narrow ties and lapels. There were also some new fabrics such as searsucker. Some boys wore searsucker or Madras jackers with contrasting shorts. Cord suits were also available. Boys mostly dressed up in long pants suits. Short pants suits were never as common in America as in Europe. As the decade progressed fewer and fewer boys dressed up in shorts. Some little boys wore shortalls, a new style intoduced at the beginning of the decade. Jackie Kennedy and the way she dressed John John had the impact of promting this style. Slightly older little boys might wear Eton suits. At about 7 or 8 th ey might get regular short pants suits which they would wear for a few years, but rarely beyond 10 or 11. By the end of the decade, however, even this was declined greatly. For most American mothers it was a struggle beginning at about 7 years to keep boys in short pants suits. Most of the parents that did were wealthy and sent their children to private schools which had short pants as a uniform. Knee socks were not as common as in Europe, but worn by well dressed boys for special occasions.

One contributor describes seeing two brothers dressed in dark blue short pants suits attending church. It was the last time he rembers seeing boys in short pants suits. It is interesting to note the younger boy wearing ankle socks and the older brother kneesocks. I assume their mother did this thinking ankle socks were more suitable for younger boys. However, by the 1950s and especially 60s, kneesocks in America had become associated as girls clothes. Remember this was one of the taunts at Beaver in that clasic television series episode about Aunt Martha's visit. (Interestingly in the book his father after bring Beaver his long pants mentions his memories of having to wear white stockings when he was a boy. So I wonder what the older boy thought of wearing the kneesocks.

As the population moved to the more informal suburbs, boys dressed up less and less. Suits and even blazers were less commonly worn. Even occasions formerly requiring suits and ties such as church and parties increasingly were more casual events for boys. As a result, dress occasions like church or dance classes were often meant a mix of clothing. Some parents holding to the old conventions. At the beginning of the decade there would still be some boys up to about 12 in short pants suits. By the end of the decade, however, only younger boys of 7 or 8 years might be seen in dressy shorts, and even this was increasingly rare.

B. Casual/play clothes


Shorts were becoming increasingly popular among boys as casual play wear. They certainly appealed to hard pressed moms because of the ease of washing them. Manufacturers had found consumers receptive to clothing that did not require ironing but that also had the look and feel of cotton. Clothing was given wrinkle-resistant finishes (these had first appeared in 1929). Resin-finished cotton or cotton and polyester garments were marketed as "wash-and-wear" or "easy care."

A new style was inroduced, "camp shorts" with larger pockets. Toward the end of the decade "cut offs" became popular. They emphasized that they were casual, not dress wear. The idea being that one did not purchase a proper pair of shorts, but rather salvaged an old pair of worn out log pants bt cutting off the legs. Some younger boys began wearing these casual styles to school. Older boys could now be seen wear Bermuda shorts" or "Bermies" for casual wear, always with white athletic socks and tennis shoes. While dress shorts were becoming less common, play shorts were becoming more popul ar.

England

Dress clothes

Many boys in England commonly wore short pants suits at the beginning of the decade. The suits were generally worn with knee socks. Shorts on even older boys were still common at the beginning of the decade. Parents were, however, beginning to discuss the fashion of having boys werar shorts, even in the winter. But this style passed to younger and younger boys as the decade progressed.

By the end of the decade almost few British boys beyond the age of 11 still wore short pants suits, although many boys, even some in the first years of their secondary school wore shorts. (Some private schools still required all their boys to wear shorts.) British Boy Scouts went to long pants, further influencing the trend away from shorts.

School clothes

School uniforms began to change in the 1960s. Most schools still required them, both state and private schools. Caps began to disappear. Toward the end of the decade, older boys began tomlobby for long pants. Womens' styles changed again and may affected boys' styles. One new fashion appears to have had a significant impact on boys' fashions. Skirt lengths began to rise higher and higher. Rising hem lines and "hot pants," very brief short pants, for young women were widely discussed in the press. Thi s made boys in older boys in England and the Continent still wearing shorts, generally as part of a school uniform, increasingly self conscious and by the late 1960s and early 1970s even conservative schools were shifting to long pants.

Play clothes



Figure 2.--Boys in Europe still commonly wore short pants suits in the 1960s, although it was becoming less common by the end of the decade.

Europe

Dress clothes

In Europe shorts were still common, but becoming less so. The Paris student movement that erupted in 1968 had a great impact on French education. An off shoot of the empowerment of young people was the rapid disappearance of short pants suits for boys even in elementary school. The disappearance of dress shorts was part of the increasing influence of the boy's own opinions. This was facilitated in the late 1960s by the anti-war movement and the decrediting of adults abnd adult conventions Wearing old ragged clothes became stylish. Boys didn't want to wear suits at all, especially short pants suits.

School clothes

Unlike England, Continental European schools were generally less insistent on shorts and by the end of the decade it was realtively rare to see an older boy in a short pants suit. A few private schools did continue to require shorts.

Play/casual clothes

French and German boys, like their American counterparts all wanted to wear jeans. "T"-shirts also began to appear in Europe. American boys did begin to wear shorts more for play. Many manufacturers began to put morecolor in childrens' clothes.

Additional Information

Traveling in Europe: 1960s: A fashion writer advises American mothers on how to dress boys while taveling in Europe.

The Beautiful People: Another America fashion writer advises on how to dress boys.

The 1960s: Shorts, jeans, and France.

The 1960s: American mothers buy clothes.

The 1960s:

The 1960s: American private school.

The 1950s-60s: John

The 1950s-60s: Grey flannels

The 1960s

The 1960s: Michael and his school uniform

The 1960s in England: Away with frozen knees





Christopher Wagner




Related Pages in the Boys' Historical Web Site
[Return to the The main chronology page]
[The 1930s] [The 1940s] [The 1950s] [1960s] [The 1970s] [The 1980s] [The 1990s]



Created: March 21, 1998
Last update: September 27, 2000