American Boys' Clothes: Jeans in the 1940s-50s


Figure 1.--Here I am in 1946 about 3 years old wearing ayellow T-shirt. T-shirts had become standard. Most of my T-shorts wre striped. We suspect that the artist didn't want to deal with the stripes. A reader writes, "About the picture of you in the yellow T-shirt. The artist did suggest the stripes on the shoulder, but not in detail. The focal point of this pastel portrait is the face and ear. The rest is mostly suggestive and not intended to be in detail; including the hair. If everything had been in detail it would have detracted from the face. Just my thoughts."

I was born in 1943 in Washington, D.C. and raised there except for a year in Idaho and a year in Alabama. I don't really rember what I wore as a small child, but I can see from the photographs that it was often shorts. My mother liked short pants for boys. Both my older brother and I wore shorts. Mercifully I mised those dreadful knickers that my brother, who was several years older, wore. I wore sailor suits and during the summer a kind of shortall affair with a bib front, but without a shirt. I must say that I didn't think that my account was particularly intetresting. I have received, however, questions from European HBC readers. One HBC reader writes, "I think you are underestimating the fascination that America holds for Europeans. Far from finding it a dull story, I am interested in some clues and parallels it seems to provide."

Washington: My Todler Years (1943-48)

I did not like the idea of short pants one little bit. I do not remember any boys wearing shorts beyond the age of 4 or 5 years. Although I do not recall myself. I was usually dressed in short pants. My mother thought that they were the most suitable outfits for boys. One outfit I wore a lot was a one piece shorts outfit with a little bib/suspender affair in front. I only wore this when I was quite young. Mostly until I was 4 years old, perhaps 5-never older. I do not remember what my mother said to me at this age. I was an obstinate kid and by 5 years old was refusing tonwear short pants.

My Mom

I'm not sure why my mom liked short pants sommuch. I tink she just though kids looked cute in shorts. She was not European or affluent. In fact she lived in an orphange for several years. I think a lot of American moms thought that ways. Its just that we kids had very different ideas. Some boys did wear shorts in the 1930s, but this had become less common by the 1940s and especially the 1950s.

Idaho: Over the Saloon (1948-49)

My dad lost his job and he found one in of all places Idaho. We lived over a saloon. My strongest memory was a nasty pet pigeon named Oscar and driving my trike in a drainage ditch. Then I fremember going to a rodeo and winning a calf. I threw a fit when mom wouldn't let me bring him home. (Remember we had a small apartment ober the saloon--the prefect spot for a calf.) I have hazy memories, but there were no short pants in Mackey, Idaho where we lived. Rather lots of jeans and overalls. I wore a snowsuit in the wnter.

Washington: My Boyhood (1949-54)

We moved back to Washington in 1949. It was in Washington that I spent my boyhood, those wonderful years from 6 to 12 years of age.

No short pants

Certainly when I started school in first grade in 1949, (6 years old), none of the boys wore shorts. There was no school rule, it was just that boys in our area did not wear short pants. They were not worn for play or for dressing up. This is not to say that this was the pattern all over America. It was not. In some areas, boys did wear shorts. My experience, however, was similar to much of middle America. My mother had rather given up on me wearing shorts by tis time. She did say that I would be mopre compfortable in short pants. People didn't have air conditioning at the time and Washington could be quite hot. I don't remember any real discussions, however, I just flat now refused to wear them. I never discussed this with my father, but he would never have forced me to wear shorts. I don't remember a discussion with him, but I don't think he thought boys sould wear short pants. (Short pants were worn by boys in the cities, especially boys from affluent families. They were almost never worn by rural boys. I don't think they were cionsidered many, but I'm not sure how this attitude developed. There were also some regional differences with boys in the south wearing them more commonly.) Dad came from a rural background. So my mother never pushed the issue.

Jeans

I mostly wore jeans. I can remember jeans during the winter with those red plaid linings when you turned up a cuff. I don't remember now if these were just for winter, but I do remember wearing them while I was in elementary school. There was not much of a selection. There was only one color--dark blue. I almost always wore my jeans with a turned up cuff. I also rember how stiff and uncomfortable new jeans were in that period--not like jeans today. You had to force your feet into a new pair. It was a real struggle to get them on that first time. I also rember that my mother often bought jeans with knee reinforcement. Even so, I would reguarly tear my jeans at the knees. Heavens knows what would have happened to my knees as a boy if I had worn short pants. There were special jeans for winter wear that were flanel lined. You could always tell as almost all boys cuffed their jeans.

Shirts

At school I would often wear flanel shirts during the winter. During the summer I remember crew neckedf "T" shirts with wide horizontall stripes. There were no corporate logos in those days, even shirts with sport teams were rare.

Shoes

I wore oxford-style leather shoes to school. For play I wore Keds. (I know that HBC believes in using internet internet English and I have apparently confused some European readers. Keds are a brand name for sneakers. It is hard to understand now when thefre is a dizzing number of styles and brands of sneakers. In the 1940s-50s, most boys wore Keds. The most common kind was black high tops with white soles.) When I was younger I always wore the black high top style.

Galoshes

I remember a major confrontation I had with my mother early on, in 1st and 2nd grade. My mom to keep my feet dry when it snowed or rained and to protect my shoes got me a pair of boot-like heavy rubber galoshes. You slipped them on rather had to pull them on over your shoes. It was rather hard to do. There was a long row of clasps to keep them on. Mom would put them on me in the morning. It was a struggle to get them off by myself when I got to school. They were great heavy things and I hated them. It wasn't a matter of fashion. Other boys had them. I hated them because they were so much trouble getting them off once I got to school and putting them on again after school. I had to struggle with them in the cloakroom. After school, i would either put them on without buckling them or just carry them home, which irritated my mother to no end. We didn't have a lot of money and the snow and rain were hard on leather shoes. She continued to insist on them. Finally my reaction was to stand on the porch in the morning after I had been dressed and sent off to school. I just stood there poting and refuse to move. A Britih reader remembers a similar experience with wellies.

Cubs

I remember being an enthussiastic Cub. I joined the Cubs in 1951. None of us Cubs wore short pants, although my older brother had worn knickers as a Cub. In those days we really liked our uniforms. There was no wearing Cub shirts with jeans--we wore the full uniform, including the peaked cap. We all wore long pants. I never rember seeing a Cub wearing short pants. There were sme Cubs that wore shorts in the 1940s and 50s, but they were a small minority. Certainly I never saw any. A European reader asks, "I' ve seen scores of pics of American cubs and scouts in shorts. Again regional differences, or do they belong to another scouting organization?" Scouts are a bit complicated, but very few Cubs wore shorts and kneesocks. Some images appeared in Scout publications and Norman Rockwell drawings, the Boy Scout Association were promoting sorts, but in fact few of us Cubs wore them. Scouting was different, many Scout camps and the national Jamboree insisted in shorts. Until the 1970s, it was very rare to see an American Cub in shorts.

Camp

I remember going to camp when I was, I believe 11 years old. My mother pprepared my clothes in a trunk. Without telling me, she packed two pairs of short pants. I was surprised when I opened the trunk. There were a few boys there wearing shorts, but much the minority. I wasn't about to wear them and through them away. I wore the pair of jeans that I arrived in all the time I was at camp--2 weeks. bI was a very shy boy and did not want tonstand out in any way, certainly not by wearing short pants.

I did not have a suit as a boy. I didn't have much occasion for dressing up. I did go to Sunday school. Normally I would wear a white shirt and a tie. Actually I didn't even learn to tie a tie until I was thirteen. That was about the time I got my first sports jacket.

My Brother

I had an older brother. He was 7 uears older than me. I never saw him in shorts, except in Idaho wear he wore a pair of satin basketball shorts. I have, however, seen photographs of him wearing shorts as a little boy and wearing knickers for Cubs.

Alabama: A Whole New World (1954-55)

We moved from Washington in 1954 to Alabama. I went to my last year of elementary school in Alabama. Kids wore much the sames clothes to school as they had in Washington. There were no shorts. After schol, however, younger boys up to about 10 or so did wear play shorts--the boxer style popular in those days. Of course I wore my jeans.

I do not remember the Scouts wearing shorts, at least where I lived. I briefly joined the Scouts in Alabama and they all wore longs. We wore the olive green uniform with campaign caps.

My Teen Years (1955-61)

I do not remember wearing shorts until high school in the late 1950s. We had moved to the suburbs. Bermudas had come into style and even older highschool boys had begun to wear them for casual wear. Not to school of course. While the dress code was not strict, you didn't wear jeans or shorts to school. I was very shy at the time. Some of my friends began wearing Bermudas, so I wanted a pair. I was embarassed, however. about asking my mother to buy them for me. I remember fussing so about shorts when my mother wanted me to wear a pair. A European reader asks wy I was embarassed. I supose this was because I ad complained that they were only for little boys that it seemed a bit silly for me to want to wear them now thay I was growing up.

We didn't wear short pants to school. In fact, shorts were not allowed at secondary schools and many elementary schools did not allow then--aslthough this varied somewhat.





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Created Last updated: November 5, 1998
Last updated: 7:45 PM 3/26/2013