United States Boys' Clothes: Chronology--The 18th Century


Figure 1.--This was the Hartley family painted by Henry Benbridge (1743-1812) in 1787. The painting shows the mother, grandmother, and the two children. We think the child in the yellow/gold dress is a boy, but we have not yet confirmed this. Note the chikdren or wearing what me thought of as gold abd silver, perhaps designed to suggest wealth. Despite the Revolution, the fashions shown would be virtully identical to those worn in England at the time. Also notice the length of the dresses, dragging on the griund. Not a very practical length.

Much of what we know about American fashion during the 18th century is the clothing of the well-to-do elite of the colony. The fashions they wore is what most of the Colonists wanted to wear, if they could afford it. Fashion styles in colonial America was of course set primarily by the mother country, England. This was especiallt true of men's fashions. It was somewhat more complicated in that France influenced English fashion, especially women's fashion. Only the colonial elite, however, could import expensive imported cloth. (Generally cloth material was imported rather than actual garments.) Children's clothing for most of the century were rather restrictive. Stylistically they were essentially scaled-down versions of their parent's clothing. Interesting, America achieved its independence just as major changes were beginning to take hold in children's clothing. Fashion on the frontier is less well described. The Americans living in develped farming communities or carving out farms in the backwoods which was at the time the western frontier by the 18th Century were esentially self sufficient, generating only limited cash income. These families often produced their own cloth, apply named homespun. The overall fashion trends were still influenced by England, but the practical exingencies of the frontier had a powerful influence of its own. Thus long before long trousers appeared in Europe, they made their appearance on the American frontier. Fashions in the bustling colonial urban centers (Boston, New York, Philadelphia, and Charleston), however, were still largely English--although French and other European fashions were also followed. And we also have the fashions of the Native Americans which could be considered. The practicality of Native American clothing had some impact on frontier fashion.

Colonial Elite

Much of what we know about American fashion during the 18th century is the clothing of the well-to-do elite of the colony. The fashions they wore is what most of the Colonists wanted to wear, if they could afford it. This included the population of the cities as well as the plantation aristocracy of the southern states. While this social group dominated fashion, they were, however, a relatively small portion of the colonial population. Fashion styles in colonial America was of course set primarily by the mother country, England. This was especiallt true of men's fashions. It was somewhat more complicated in that France influenced English fashion, especially women's fashion. Only the colonial elite, however, could import expensive imported cloth. (Generally cloth material was imported rather than actual garments.) Color was another factor. Adultsboth men and women often wore brightly colored clothing. Children's clothing for most of the century were rather restrictive. Stylistically they were essentially scaled-down versions of their parent's clothing. Children's clothing tended to include constricting garments. Infants were still swaddeled (tightly bound) at the beginning of the century, but then gradually fell out favor. Younger children of both genders wore dresses with close fitted bodices styled similarly to thise worn by adult women. The bodices of these dresses were commonly fastened at the back. They also often had leading strings, cloth bands sewn to shoulders to help parents guide a younger child just beginning to learn to walk. They were also useful in restraining an active todler. Leading strings might be retained on older girls' dresses as an ornamentl device and symbol of youth long after their actual practical functions were no longer needed. [Baumgarten] Boys also wore restrictive garments, suits with long frock coats. Interesting, America achieved its independence just as major changes were beginning to take hold in children's clothing. This was not, however, an merican inovation, but rather areflection of fashion trends in Europe, both Britain and France. We begin to see designed specifically for children. This occurred first with boys. The first such garment was the skeketon suit. Comparable innovations did not appear for girls until the early-19th century.

Rural Fashions

The great bulk of the colonial population in the 18th century lived on relatively self-sufficent farms. This was something the British discovered to their displeasure. They could occupy major cities alike Boston, New York, Philaadelphia, and Charleston and still have littke impact on the lives of the colonists or the Continental Army. Fashion on the farm and frontier is less well described. The Americans carving out farms in the backwoods which was at the time the western frontier by the 18th Century were esentially self sufficient, generating only limited cash income. These families often produced their own cloth, apply named homespun. And in contrst to fashionablble city clothing, the colors were usually very plain, reflecting the natural colors of homespun. The overall fashion trends were still influenced by England, but the practical exingencies of the frontier had a powerful influence of its own. Thus long before long trousers appeared in Europe, they made their appearance on the American frontier. Fashions in the bustling colonial urban centers (Boston, New York, Philadelphia, and Charleston), however, were still largely English--although French and other European fashions were also followed. Slaves were another important rural group, located primarily but not exclusively in the southern colonies. Ann interesting question here is to what extent slave clothing differed from the clothing of the rural population in the northern colonies.

Native Americans

And we also have the fashions of the Native Americans which could be considered. The practicality of Native American clothing had some impact on frontier fashion.

Sources

Baumgarten, Linda. Eighteenth-Century Clothing at Williamsburg. Baumgarten is Curator of Textiles at the Colonial Williamsburg Foundation.







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Created: 10:02 PM 9/21/2012
Last updated: 10:03 PM 9/21/2012