United States Boys' Clothes during the Inter-war Years: The 1920s and 30s

Figure 1.--Sailor suits in the 1920s were mostly worn by younger American boys. On Continental Europe much older boys might wear sailor suits.

The inter-war years ushered in an entirely new era of American childrens clothes for both boys and girls. Little boys stopped wearing dresses. Many fancy styles like Fauntleroy suits passed out of fashion. America basically followed European fashions in through the early 20th century, although two classic styles Fautleroy suits and Buster Brown suits did originate in America. After World War I, American and European fashions diverged. Short pants were never as popular in America as in Europe. American boys, especially school-age boys, more commonly wore knickers--even during the summer. The Scouting movement that appeared just before World War I, quickly became a major American institution after the War. A popular event during this era were beautiful baby contests when young children were dressed in their best outfits.


Dramatic changes occurred in the clothes worn by America boys after the First World War (1914-18). Dresses and kilt suits for younger boys disaapeared. Boys had worn dresses for centuries, but this suddenly disappeared almost entirely. Fauntleroy suits also other fancy outfits also largely disappeared. Kilt suits also disappeared, although the kilt a an ethnic garment continued to be worn for special occassions by boys of Scottish ancestry. Sailor suits were still worn, but most by younger boys. Knee pants disappeared. Some boys wore the new short pants with kneesocks imported from England, but knickers proved much more popular in America. They first were widely worn in the 1910s and were prevalent throughout the 1920s, but declined in popularity during the 1930s. A lot of boys' styles spanned the inter-war years, but there were definite fashions shifts during the period making it often easy to separate 1920s from the 1930s. The decline of knixckers and long stockings are one very important shit. We see more short pants and long pants in the 1930s as well as patterned knee socks. We see even some younger boys wearing long pants in the 1930s. Many of our modern clothing styles owe their foundation to this era.

Figure 2.--A fashion magazine in 1929 published these drawings showing fashionable boys' clothes seen in the New York City area. Notice the Eton suit which became a standard for younger American boys. To see some of tese summer garments, click on the seasonlity link.


Garments worn in the inter-war years often had a destinctive look, but appear increasingly modern to our fashion sence today. The decade began with the flat cap still very popular,m but was going out of style by the 1930s. Not other single style replaced it. We notgice varuous winter caps. Headwear in general waa declining in popularity, but still worn to a much greater degree than today. Boys continued to dress more formally than is common today. American boys mostly wore knicker suits. Suits and jackets were still more commonly worn than today. Double breasted styles were popular, but single breasted jackets the most common. Parents generally purchased patterned kneesocks for boys, although some boys wore ankle socks during the summer. What Americans now refer to as Eton suits for little boys appeared for the first time in the 1920s. White only vaguely related to the actual Eton suit and jacket, it became a very popular style for younger American boys by the 1950s. In the 1920s and 30s it was mostly worn bu boys from affluent families. We see a range of pants during the inter-war years. Knickers were the dominant type of pants during the 1920s. Younger boys might wear short pants. This shifted somewhat in the 1930s. Knickers were still worn, bur steadily declined in popularity through the 1930s. We see more boys wearing short pants, but this was complicated. Shorts became increasingly popular for summer wear. Some boys wore short pants suits when dressing up, but this tended to be boys from more affluent families. Long pants became steadily more popular during the 30s. We no longer see older teenagers wearing knickers in the 30s.


Clothing seasonality during the 19th century was largely a matter of the weight of the garments. Boys esenbtially wore the sane style of clothing all year, but heavier weight itens in the winter and lighter weight items during the summer. Color was also a factor. This began to change after the turn-of-the-20th century, esspecially after World War I in the inter-War era. We see short sleeve shirt becoming popular. Some younger boys wore tos ithout sleeves. We still note variation in the weight of the garments. But we notice more specialized seasonal clothing, especially warm weather summer wear. Boys earlier wore the same garments all year round and this continued to some extent in the inter-War era. Some boys wore short pants all the time, usually changing hosiery. Other boys might wear kinickers in the winter and short pants during the summer. Short pants in particular became popular after the war and by the end of the War were becoming seasonal warm weather wear. Long pants were also becomong increasingly popular. We lso see changes in hosiery. Before the War, long stockings were common all year round along with three-quater socks. Zfter the War, long stockings and ven knee sock became increasingly cold weather wear.


The most significant fashion trend during the inter-war era was a shift toward increasingly less elaborate and more casual styles that we saw beginning after the turn-of-the 20th century. Boys dressed more formally than modern boys, but much less formally than before Word War I. An this trend continued throughout thr inter-war era. And we see it in all kinds of clothing situations, including dressup occassions, school, and play, and seasons. And we see this this in important garments. Informal caps became standard. Flat caps were particularly popular. Large neckwear disappeared. We see some floppy bows in the 1920s, but smaller ones and only for younger boys. More important were the open sports collar. We also see shirt sleeve shorts n even sleevelsss tops for younger boys, mostly part of buron-on outfits. Boys pants were largely knickers. They were virtually universal in the 1920s and widely worn in the 30s. Short pants became increasingly common. Here there were age and social class factors. We still see a lot of suits, even at school in the 1920s. By the end of the 1930s suits at school were more an exception, except for older secondaty school boys. Suits were commonly worn for dress up. Younger boys might wear button-on sets like sailor suits or Oliver Twist suits. Tunics suits were widely worn in the 1910s, but we see a few in the early-20s. Thee was a transition from ling stockinfs which werevirtually inversal in the 1910s to first kneesocks and then and than ankle socks. We see more spcialized seasonal garments. Footwear also changed. We continue to see hight-top shoes in the 1920s, but there was a gradual change to low-cut shoes which were standard by the late-30s. Some younger boys continued to wer high-tops, mostly pre-school boys. We note saddle shoes. Sneakers appeared in the 1910s, but became much more popular in the inter-war era as play/casual foowear.

Dressup occasions

Boys still commonly dressed up with suits in the inter-War era. The occassions for dressing up, however changed markedly during the inter-War era. oys commonly still wore suits to school in he early-20s, but by the late-30s this as much less common. We also see yunger boys dressing less formly for church and for parties. Virtullu all boys had suits on the 1920s, by the late-30s mothers might not buy suits for younger boys. We still see younger boys waring sailor suits. Tunics were no longer common by the early-20s.


Play/casual clothes

Knickers wre standrd during the 1920s and still vey common in the 1930s. Youner boys were the most likely to wear short pants. they were most common with affluent families which were more apt to follow English and other European styles. Shorts were most common in the Southern states and California. A variety of play clothes for little boys such as rompers and coveralls were also worn. Most older boys wore knickers for both school and play. In the early 1920s knickers were worn with long stockings or kneesocks, but by the 1930s it became common to wear them with ankle socks--especially during the summer. Overalls were commonly worn by rural boys, but city boys had not yet begun to wear what we now call jeans.

Beautiful Baby Contests

A popular event during this era were beautiful baby contests when young children were dressed in their best outfits. These were not precisely beautiful baby contests as infants and young children were involved. We are not sure when these events first developed. We believe in the late 19th or early 20th centuries. It is during the 1920s and 30s that they appear to have been most common. We notoce them in Ameica, but they may have also been held in other countriues as well. They were held throughout America. A popular venue were county and state fairs. Photographs of these events are good illustrations ogf how younger children were dressed during the era.

Figure 3.--American Scouts in the 1930s mostly wore knickers, but would frequently wear a short pants uniform at camps, like the first American Jamboree in 1937.

Youth Uniforms

The principal American youth movement in the inter-wat years was Scouting. American Scouting grew tremendously during the 1920s. The Depression of the 1930s limited the ability of some American boys to participate. American Cubs and Scouts mostly wore a knickers uniform, in contrast to Scouts in other countries who mostly wore short pants. Some American Scouts wore shorts and kneesocks, but mostly at camps, jamborees, and other outdoor activities. The formal uniform hat continued to be the traditional "Smokey Bear" hat worn by early English Scouts.

Youth Culture

The United States emerged from World War I as the largest industrial power in the world. Europe had been devestated by World War I. Virtually an entire generation of men had been wiped out. The world had never seen such slaughter. American was largely untouched, its economy has in fact been stimulated by the War. American cities and the increasing urbanization of America life continued in the inter-war era. The impact of industrial expansion and urbaniaztion was far reaching. Youth continued spending ever increasing time in school. Almost all children now finished primary school, and an increasing number were now at least beginning secondary schools. Children were increasingly dependent on their parents into their late teens. This development had given rise to a youth culture that was affecting fashion and dress. The new youth culture began to exert itself as never before in American life and culture. There were many other less benign consequences. Newspapers reported on youth "gangs" and "juvenile delinquency" in the larger cities. Thus concern over youth and juvdenile delinquency had given rise to the Boy Scouts and other youth groups. Many American boys became Cubs and Scouts or participated in other youth groups. [Graebner, pp. 11-13.]


HBC has quite a range of pages showing the clothing offered in American catalogs and periodical dvertisements during the inter-war era. This is a section that we are constantly expanding nand provides a wealth of intormation about the stles and garments worn. We have pages from both the 1920s and 1930s. Unlike the photograhs we have found, the catalog and periodical ads often have ad copy with a great deal of information.

Individul Boys

We have archieved quite few boys from the inter-War era on HBC. We have not yet made the links, but this is one of many projects we are planning. This will provide a wealth of information about period clothes. But it will take some time to make all the appropriate links.


William Graebner, Coming of Age in Buffalo: Youth and Authority in the Postwar Era (Temple University Press, 1990).


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Created: November 22, 1998
Last updated: 11:27 AM 11/26/2017