Fashion Transformations: Cycles in Boys Clothing


Figure 1.--Boys attitudes toward short pants have varied over time. British boys once commonly woe short pants to school. This is now much less common.

It is interesting to see in HBC how the social meaning of particular items of clothing mutates over time. HBC often discusses this as convention in our consideration of different styles. As something passes out of fashion for older boys, mothers will persist in dressing younger sons in it. Thus a particular style doesn't become old fashioned as much as it becomes juvenile. Overalls didn't become truly dominant among rural American youth until the 1920s and 1930s. By the end of the 30s rural teens were increasingly wearing ordinary trousers. Younger boys kept wearing them as a matter of course for a decade longer. By the late 40s overalls were definitely juvenile wear, and had become as popular for urban children as for country boys. The styles of overalls had become more juvenile too, with much simpler and less durable hardware. By the mid-50s they were worn almost exclusively by preschoolers. Overalls didn't become fashionable again until the 1970s. Their popularity waxed and waned until reaching a peak in the early 90s, when there was even a fad for young men to wear shortalls. Their popularity among boys has rapidly declined over the past decade, although they seemed to persist a little longer in Europe. I had seen them featured at European web retailing sites as late as 2001, but this year they are sold only in toddler sizes.

Social Meaning/Conventions

It is interesting to see in HBC how the social meaning of particular items of clothing mutates over time. HBC often discusses this as convention in our consideration of different styles. At any given time there may be drfinite age and gender conventions associated with a particular style or garment. These conventions are of course not fixed and are constantly changing. These are sometimes small changes, but over time styles and garments can change radically. Men in Elizabethan England wore clothes that showed most of their legs while womens' legs were etirely covered. This in the 20th century was largely reversed. There are many more modern examples. Boys in the early 19th century worn long trousers while adult men wore knee breeches. During much of the 20th century, short pants were seen as a boy's garment. Overalls for many years were practical clothes for workingmen and farmers. Gradually overalls became a childrens style. They even became very fashionable in the late 19th century.

Age Shifts

When older boys wear a particular style, younger boys begin to want that style as well. As something passes out of fashion for older boys, mothers will persist in dressing younger sons in it. Thus a particular style doesn't become old fashioned as much as it becomes juvenile. And of course when younger boys begin wearing a style, than older boys no longer want to wear it. A HBC reader comments, "It's so true what you say there about things "becoming juvenile" before they become out of fashion.

Gender Shifts

The same shift was also affected by gender. Girls in the 19th century did not wear boys' styles. There were a few eceptions, primarily during the late 19th century. The most significant was the sailor suit. Of course here it was only the blouse, not the pants. Girls only wore dresses. This change in the 20th century as girls began adoting boysish styles, especially after World war I. As the girls adopted a style, however, boys except younger boys would often begin to reject it.

Process

Of course fashion trends are obviously varied. A British reader provides us an assessment of the process which may be involved in boys fashion changes. He writes, "I think what often happens is this. A new trend becomes fashionable amongst boys and they all want to be dressed like that. But then it becomes a style which is associated with being a boy (rather than a man) ... so boys don't want to wear it!"

Examples

There are several examples of fashion cycles and changing social conventions.

Overalls

Overalls didn't become truly dominant among rural American youth until the 1920s and 1930s. By the end of the 30s rural teens were increasingly wearing ordinary trousers. Younger boys kept wearing them as a matter of course for a decade longer. By the late 40s overalls were definitely juvenile wear, and had become as popular for urban children as for country boys. The styles of overalls had become more juvenile too, with much simpler and less durable hardware. By the mid-50s they were worn almost exclusively by preschoolers. Overalls didn't become fashionable again until the 1970s. Their popularity waxed and waned until reaching a peak in the early 90s, when there was even a fad for young men to wear shortalls. Their popularity among boys has rapidly declined over the past decade, although they seemed to persist a little longer in Europe. I had seen them featured at European web retailing sites as late as 2001, but this year they are sold only in toddler sizes.

Short pants

Our British reader writes, "I reckon the pressure for shorts probably originally came from boys themselves, who thought ti was great not to be trussed up in stuffy suits on formal occasions but to wear shorts which they identified with being more casual. I know that one of my uncles growing up in the late-1940s refusd to stop wearing shorts and was MADE to wear long trousers when he was 14 or 15. Could you imagine that situation now? An interesting development in the 21st century is that there are occaions when boys now are demanding the right to wear shorts to school in the summer and aren't allowed to as it's not part of the uniform. Obviously, they envisage casual or sports shorts, not uniform shorts. I can well foresee a situaion in the future, where a school compromises and says "OK, you can wear shorts, but they have to be made from the same material and in the same colour as normal school trousers" ... and we'll have come full cycle! Shorts are already far more prevalent among teenagers in the summer than they were ten years ago. As the link between being a boy and wearing shorts fades, for a lot of teenagers there's again no problem about wearing them!"






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Created: 3:28 AM 9/18/2005
Last updated: 3:28 AM 9/18/2005