United States Boys' Suits: Button-on Outfits


Figure 1.--This CDV portrait is unidentified. We wears a button-on suit. We are not sure what these suits were called at the time. The tops for button-on suits were mostly shirt like garments rather than jackets. The portrait is undated, but looks to have been taken in the late 1860s. Note the double part and top curl, a popular hair style in the mid-19th century. We tend to see quite a few boys wearing these suits with fancy hair styles, confirming that they were very popular with well-to-do fashionable families.

We are not sure what the proper name for these button-on suits is. Nor do we know what they were called in the 1860s when they were most common. They were probably just referred to as suits, meaning the shirt or top matched the pants. We assume that the style was a European import, but are information is still quite linited. We are not entirely about the chronology of these button-on suits. We see them in the 1860s, but are unsure about the 50s and 70s at this time. We have a fairly good collection from both decaded and we do not see these suits being worn very commonly. We have found quite a number of CDV portraits from the 1860s. Most are undated, but look like the 1860s. The early CDVs from the 60s are quite destinctive. They look rather like one-piece suits, but I believe they were two pieces that buttoned to gether. They were suits in the sence that the top matched the bottom, but there was no jacket. Rather the top was a shirt liked top to which the pants buttoned. The suits were often decorated with piping, embroidery, and buttons. We do not, however, notice the elaborate decoration that became popular in the 1880s. While many of these suits were done with decorative trim, we also notice plain suits with limited decoration.We are not sure about the colors. We notice these suits done in a number of styles. Both the tops and pants varied. We notice both long pants and bloomer knickers. We are not yet sure about the age conventions. We do see younger school age boys wearing these suits, but I suspect that they were not all that common at school.

Terminology

We are not sure what the proper name for these button-on suits is. Nor do we know what they were called in the 1860s when they were most common. They were probably just referred to as suits, meaning the shirt or top matched the pants. This is interesting because we still commonly see boys in the 1860s wearing suits that did not have matching jackets and pants.

Origins

We assume that the style was a European import, but are information is still quite limited.

Chronology

Button-on outfits have varied in popularity over time. We are not entirely about the chronology of these button-on suits, but have begun to develop some basic information.. We supose that the skeleton suits popular in the late-18th and early 19th century might be classified as button-on suits. We see boys wearing a variety of fancy suits in the mid-19th century. We are unsure about the 50s at this time. They do not seem to be noticeable in the Daguerreotypes and Ambrotypes we have archived on our 1850s individuals page. We have a fairly good collection from the 1850s and we do not see these suits being worn very commonly. We see them in large numbers during the 1860s. This is in part because with the advent of the CDV, very large numbers of portraits were taken. Most ofthese portaits are undated, but look like the 1860s. The early CDVs from the 60s are quite destinctive. We also notice some if these suits being wirn in the 1870s, especially the early 1870s. Button-on styles seem to decline in popularity at this time. We note many button on outfits appearing in the 1920s and continued to be popular through the 1940s. After the 40s we see button-on outfits mostly being done as fancy outfits for formal events like weddings.

Construction

They look rather like one-piece suits, but I believe they were two pieces that buttoned to gether. They were suits in the sence that the top matched the bottom, but there was no jacket. Rather the top was a shirt-like top to which the pants buttoned. That said some of the portraits show boys wearing lighter-weight shirts underneath.

Elements

These button-on outfits were twopice suits. The two basic elements were the shirt or top and the pants or bottom. We notice these suits done in a number of styles. Both the tops and pants varied. The tops as far as can tell were always long sleeves. While they might be called shirts, the were made with the samechavy material as the pants, a heavier material than normally used for shirts. We notice both long pants and bloomer knickers. We are not exactly sure what the boys wore under the tops. Some portraits show the collar of what looks to be short waists. Other photographs show small collars. And in other instance the tops button at the top without showing any shirt underneath. We notice some of the headwear in the portraits. There does not seem to have been any headwear specifically associated with these suits, but the portraits do show some of the popular styles worn with them in the 1860s.

Styling

We notice burron on outfits done in many different styles. The skeleton suit was thefirst example of button-on stuling we notice. We have relatively little information on American skeleton suits. As far as we can tell,, they were essentially the same as the ones being worn in Britain, but it was a generalized European style. We believe they were worn into the 1830s. We do not see much in the way of button-on outfits in the early photography of the 1840s and 1850s. Clothing details are often indestincr in early photographs, especilly the 1840s Daguerreotypes. Tunic type outfits seem to dominate. With the 1860s we see a varietyy of outfits that look rather like jump suits. They were button on matching shirt-like tops and pants. We do not know how they were described at the time. They do not look much like button-on suits because the style for some reason was to cover over the buttons with a kind of matching waist piece. We see these outfits in the 1870s as well. Button-on styling was less common in the late 19th century. We see a variety of button-on oufits in the early-20th century, beginning in the 1910s. Many were Oliver Twisrt suits. We also see sailor suits, some of which might be included in the Oliver Twist category. We see a variety of shorts sets dome as button-on outfits after World War I in the 1920s and 30s. These were more casual outfits. The shirts and pants did not match, but were done with coordinated colors. We also see fancy blouses and pants, usually shorts in the 20th century. These were often done for yiunger boys attending formal events like weddings.

Decoration

Decoration was a destinctive aspect of suits for younger boys. We see some tunic suits with similar styling. The suits were often heavily decorated with piping, embroidery, and buttons. This decoration was only used for these younger boy suits. Older boys wore plainer clothing. We notice a wide range of decoration. We are not sure how to describe the vrious decorative styles. Applique seems the most common. but there was also embroidery. Some decorations was slanted. We see jig-saw styling and wavy patterns. This decorative trim was often places at the edges of the jacket, although here there was also considerable variation. Stripes were popular on the pants. While many of these suits were done with decorative trim, we also notice plain suits with limited decoration. Some suits had virtually no decoration. Some suits had cotrasting trim such as on the collar and and wrist cuff. This also varied. The most common convention for these decorative aplique was dark trim on light-colored suits, but we also see light decorations or dark suits. We do not notice the elaborate decoirative collars like the large lace and ruffled collars that became popular in the 1880s.

Color

We are not sure about the colors. We suspect that they were primarily blue, brown, and grey, but we have little information at this time. The black and white photography of the day offers few clues as to color. Our primary source of information is a few colorized portraits. We see very few painted portraits of boys wearing these suits.

Age

We are not yet sure about the age conventionsfor these button-on suits. The age range seems to be about ages 3 to 6 years. The photographic record clearly shows this. We think that somewhat older boys 7-8 years old may also have worn these suits, but cannot yet confirm this. This is our initial estimate abd needs to be refined. The younger age range includes the age at many boys were still breeched. This shows how the age of breeching was highly variable from family to family. Notably these suits were a fashionable style wore by children from families in comfortable circumstances in major cities where fashion was most important. The fancy hairdos we see on some of the boys helps to confirm that these suits were worn by boys from fashionable families. These well-to-do families were often the most likely families to delay breeching so it is interesting to see younger boys from these families wearing these fashionable button-on suits. We see many pre-school boys wearing these suits. We also see younger school age boys wearing these suits, but we are not sure if they were worn to school. We don't have much information on 1860s schoolwear yet.

Social Class








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Created: 3:48 AM 8/17/2008
Last updated: 12:36 AM 12/29/2010