Boys' Clothing: Social Class


Figure 1.--Social reformers in the early 20th century began to use photography to record the conditions of the urban poor. The goal was to influence public opinion to promote the passage of progressive legislation. The result was we have some fascinating images of the urban poor that are very rare from the 19th century. Here we see some boys, we think in Boston during 1909. We are not entirely sure what the boys are doing. I think they are bringing wood and paper scrap to a peddler who brought such junk for a penny ot two. Perhaps they even worked for him.

From time immemorial human scociety has stratified ifself. Social hierarchies were present in hunter-gathering society and became much more prevalent with the development of agriculture and civilization. Only in our modern age has human society began to seriously address the issues of class with yet limited success. Any assessment of clothing and fashion should include all strata of society. And until modern times the lower strata of society were by far the most numerous. This presents a problem for HBC because the available imagery often focuses on the upper classes. With ancient civilizations images of children are rare and those of peasant children almost not existant. Even in our modern age, photographs tend to be much more available for the middle class and wealthy than the very poor who often could not afford photographs. And ofcourse catalogs focused on clients with money to spend. Readers need to bear this basic problem in mind when using HBC. We have, however, attempted to address clothing and other issues associated with the less-affluent classes. And on many HBC pages on specific styles you will find a social class paragraph.

Social Class

From time immemorial human scociety has stratified ifself. Social hierarchies were present in hunter-gathering society and became much more prevalent with the development of agriculture and civilization. Only in our modern age has human society began to seriously address the issues of class with yet limited success. One of the tragedies of Western civilization is that Karl Marx's Communism designed to resolve the problem of class turned into justification for dictatoraial regimes that murdered millions of all social classes.

Social Strata and Fashion

Any assessment of clothing and fashion should include all strata of scoiety. And until modern times the lower strata of society were by far the most numerous. A reader complains, "So much of the information on your site seems to be drawn from the behaviors of the classes whose activities were recorded, the royalty and the upper middle class and upwards. But the vast majority of people weren't in these classes. Even the Sears catalogue wasn't necessarily something that everyone had access to...for example sharecropping families in the rural south, or enslaved peoples prior to the civil war. How much of the elaborate costuming of both boys are girls are reflections of conspicuous consumption of the day? How much information is there about the clothing of the lower classes?" One should be carefully here in assuming that the very poor were the largest segment of the population. This was certainly true in ancient times. It is less true of Americand Europe by the 20th century. Evenso, our reader has a poit and HBC has attempted to address issues and clothing of the less affluent classes.

Slavery and serfdom

HBC has an extensive section on both slavery and serfdom. We have begun to collect some information. but finding images is much more difficult. Slaves and serfs did not did not often have their portrais made.

Working children

HBC also has an extensive section on working children. This focuses on children who had to work, often leaving school early. There are not a lot of images from the 19th century, but many more beginning in the early 20th century.

Individual schools

Th individual school section of the school uniform suite is another important source oif information. Here we are not talking about the overall school section. Here you encounter the problem of children from wealthy and middle-class famililies being photographed more and thus over represented in the hostorical record. There is also a section on individual schools. As compulsory attendance laws went to affect, these school images provide a good cross section of society. We have individual school sections for several cuntries, including America, England, France, Germany, and Italy and are building similar sections for other countries.

American immigration

The American immigration section provides more informtion on the clothing worn by boys drom low-income families. Not all immigrants were poor or of modest means, but most were.

Garments

HBC covers hundreds of different garments including pages on different countries and during different periods. There are on quite a number of these garment pages that have social class paragraphs where we address the social class connotations for that garment. Here we discuss boyrg affluent an less affluent classes.

Imagery

This presents a problem for HBC because the available imagery often focuses on the upper classes. With ancient civilizations images of children are rare and those of peasant children almost not existant. Even in our modern age, photographs tend to be much more available for the middle class and wealthy than the very poor who often could not afford photographs. This was especially true when photography first appeard. Daguerreotypes were, for example, quite expensive. Over time the cost of a portrait declined. This was especially true after negative formats (CDVs and cabinent cards) developed. And another major step in the demoritization of photography was the Kodak Brownie (1900) and the expansion of amateur photography. While this made photography widely available, it is surely true that the very poor are not fully represented in the photographic record. HBC readers will just have to have this in mind when using the site.

Catalogs and Advertisements

HBC has an extensive section on clothing catalogs and advertisements. They are very useful because they are dated and often have details about the garments offered such as the construction, material, color, age-sizes, ect. Ofcourse catalogs focused on clients with money to spend. Readers need to bear this basic problem in mind when using HBC. Every company publishing a catalog has a clientel in mind. These target clientel varies substantially from company to company and reads need to have this in mind when using the HBC catalog section.

Class Impact

The basic principle of fashion is that high status individuals set fashiom. This was the aristocracy and gradually as cities appeared in Europe, the affluent merchant classes. For a while sumtory laws limited the ability of the afdluent to ape the stylesof their social betters. Fashion was away of individuals to show off their wealth and social status. Thus the less affluent classes would attempt to follow the styles set by the affluent classes to the extent that they could. In children's fashion the Little Lord Fauntleroy suit is the best example of this. America's industrial expanson created great wealth and an expanding middle classes. The extravagant style with expensive material and trim perfectrly reflected what was occuring in society. Soon less affluent mothers tried to recreate the style with lessexpensive material and trim. A relative rarity in fashion is copy the clothing of the less affluent. This appears to have occurred in America where hiphop fashions were essentially based on the styles popular in the big city ghettos.







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Created: 5:29 PM 7/7/2007
Last updated: 5:29 PM 7/7/2007