United States Boys' Clothes Chronology: Late-19th Century

Figure 1.--This cabinet card portrait shows brothers Carl Gustav and Frank Edward in 1975. Franks wears a white dress with a plaid cash. Carl wears stripped long stockings. Notice the small collars and bow.

The proliferation and falling cost of photography provide us far greater information about fashion than ever before. The CDV significantly increased the number of available images in the 1860s, but Americans show a preference for cabinet cards in the 1870s. Of course there are many more images from the 1890s than the early decades, in part because of rising income levels and falling costs of studio portrits. Even so there are substantial numbers of photograps availablr from the 1870s andc80s. Most of the images, especially of children, were studio images--almost always dressed up in their best outfits. Images of everyday clothes do not begin until the development of amateur snapshots at the turn of the century. Fashion magazines continue to expand, including the publication of patterns. Magazines achieved runs that can be called mass circulation by the 1890s.

The 1870s

Little American boys in the 1870s continued to wear dresses. The kilt suit appered in the 1870s. Thios was a fashion inovation based on the Scottish kilt that Queen Victoria had helped popularize for boys. While American boys did not wear Highland outfits, the kilt suits became very popular. Sailor suits appeared in many forms, but were not yet the dominate stule for boys. Fancy velvet suits for boys appaered showing a French influence, but they were not yet called Faintleroy suits. Some had fancy collars and bows, but generally not the huge collars and bows that appeared in the 1880s. Many styles of hats appaered for boys. Collars began to increase in size as did bows by the end of the decade. Boys were increasingly dressed in kneepants rather than long pants. By the end of the decade, kneepants had become a widely accepted fashion for boys, although they were generally not yet commonly weorn by teenage boys, except for the very youngest.

The 1880s

Little American boys still wore dresses inthe 1880s, but kilt suits became increasingly popular. The major development in the 1880s was the appearance of Little Lord Fauntleroy suits and Fauntleroy styling at mid-decade. Fancy velvet suits for boys appeared before the publication of the story in 1885, but the popularity exploded after the story appeared in print and on the stage. The result was a fashion arms race for little boys with mothers competed with how many ruffels and bows could he heaped their sons. Lace and huge ruffeled collars and bows increased greatly in size, virtually engulfing younger boys. Other styles such as Eton collars for older boys and sailor suits grew in popularity. We see more boys wearing knee pants which were still cut well below the knee, but began to approach the knee by the ebnd ofthe decade. American boys almost always wore knee pants with long stockings. It was consider inmodest for boys above the toddker stage to wear socks. Of course boys in rural arras often went barefoot. Older boys wore long pants. Long pants were also more common in rural areas.

Figure 3--We see many American boys by the 1890s wearing outfits with large coolars and bows. Knee pants became standard for boys.

The 1890s

Younger boys still wore dresses in the 1890s. There seems to be more of a trend to differentiate boys and girls clothing. We note boy dresses bing advertized. The conventionof boys wearing drsses which has existed for centuries seemed to decline in popular in the later part of the decade. We are not entirely sure why. We think the popularity of the kilt suit and Fauntleroy suit were factors here. Smocks were not common in America except in rather affluent families. The styles of the 1880s, such as kilt suits, Fauntleroy suits, and sailors suits continued to be popular. The sailor suit was especiallly popular and was now also worn by girls, but with skirts rather than kneepants. Fancy styles such as Fauntleroy suits reached their peak of popularity in the 1890s as were sailor suits. Boys commonly wore blouses, often with large collars, with knee pants and long stockings, mostly black long stockings. Kneepants were now widely worn by boys of all ages. We see even older teenagers wearing knee pants by the end of the decade. Most boys wore kneepants, mostly with long stockings. Some boys might wear long hair, in some cases in ringlet curls. By the end of the decade many boys were weraing tunic suits. The new style of tunic or blouse suits, made in various styles (sailor, Russian, and Buster Brown) were enormously popular and began to replace the kilt suit. Boys mostly wore short hair in the 1890s. Some boys, however, wore ringlet curls. While worn by a minority of boys, we see many portraits of boys wearig long ringlet curls, especially with fauntleroy suits, but also with sailor suits. The fashion of ringlets was more popular in America than in other countries.


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Created: 6:00 AM 5/5/2009
Last updated: 6:00 AM 5/5/2009