Country Differences in the Wearing of Short Pants--Reasons

Figure 1.--This Germans boy about 1930 was photographed during a family outing in the country. In America, This boy in America would have more likely worn knickers.

Just why did such different styles of boys clothing develop in America and Europe in the early 20th century. Was it just hapinstance or were there actual discernable factors at play. Cultural differences? Different cultural icons? A variety of reasons has been suggested for the difference between the popularity of short pants in America and Europe. HBC will present the various factors presented. Please let us know what you think of these theories and whether you know of any other pertient factors. The following are some initial thoughts. Some nay be unrelated factors, but others may have impacted fashion to varying degrees. At this time we are unsure about casuality, but hopefully as we consider the various factors that a better understanding of the fashion trends will emerge.

Role Models

British colonial soldiers at the turn of the century were pictured fighting for God and Queen in short trousers uniforms. Thus it was an easy transition when Lord Baden Powell chose short pants for rge Scout uniform. The popular press had even earlier published imagdes of explorers and adventurers in tropical climes. This made shorts seem rugged and proper for boys wear. In the United States there were no such comparable role models. American boys didn't see Buffalo Bill riding about in short pants or Teddy Roosevelt charging up San Juan Hill in shorts.


America's climate is much more severe than much of Western Europe, despite the norther lattitudes. Many American mothers did not think short pants were appropriate boys wear in cold winter weather. American mothers appear to have become convinced that it was unheatlhful to expose children's knees to cold weather. This was common place in England, but the weather there was more moderate than in the northern American states. In parts of Europe where winter was more severe, boys might wear short pants during the winte, but with long stockings. In Britain boys after world war almost always wore short pants with kneesocks. Short pants were not as popular in America as in Europe and this was especially true in the winter and in northern states in general. Europen styles were influential with affluent Americans, but for most American families, mothers were convinced that they hd to protect their childrn's knees. Here gender differences developed. While girls commonly wore long stockings during the winter in the 1920s, by the 1930s girls were more commonly wearing kneesocks during the Winter. Boys for the most part, however, had their knees well covered with knickers and long pants.

Child Raising Style

Parents in both America and Europe exercised more authority at the turn of the century than is the case today. But European parents were generally more authoritive, although this varied by country, than were American parents. Thus European parents dictated to a greater degree than American parents what boys would wear. Likewise, European parents were less prepared to listen to their children when they expressed opinions about clothing.


American puritanism and excessive modesty might also have been a factor. One HBC reader believes that the attitudes of some fundamentalist Baptists toward wearing shorts even for leisure purposes during hot summer months may have been a factor in American attitues towar short pants.

School Fashions

Fashion in England was still strongly influence by what the upper class wore. Uniforms adopted by prestigious schools influenced hat mother wanted their boys to wear. This was much less the case in America. Upper class fashions were a defite influence, especially in the 19th and early 20th century, but many Americans view apeing the upperclass as afectations.

Attitude toward Europe

Some Americans closely followed fashion trends in Europe. An increasing number, especially after World War I (1914-18) rejected European fashions as part of an overall rejection of things European. America desperately tried to shy away from anything European, shunning its heritage (since America is made up of immigrants). In fact, in America it has always been a case of leaving your culture at the door before arriving. Many Americans have always seen the Europeans as "sissies," especially the French and British, and then point to the short pants as example. If you emigrated from, say, Ireland, you through out the short pants for your sons to try and fit in. Assimilation was a key, and in America, you wore pants and denim and tried to be a cowboy or soldier (and American soldiers never wore shorts). One irony of this "feud" between Europeans and Americans is a point of contention. Whereas boys were forced to wear shorts even in the dead of winter, boys in the hot southern regions of the United States who might wear heavy fabrics in the dog days of summer. Huck Finn was a rebel for not wearing shoes, remember? The South retained a bit of its British properness and discipline.

Social Class

Social class is a another factor that has to be assessed. European boys wore short pants across social class lines. Both wealthy boys and poor boys wore shorts. Actually wealthy boys might often get long pants earlier than less aflluent boys, althjough this changed in the 1960s when wearing short pants began to decline noticably. In Americam however, wearing short pants was seen as an upper class or European style. America has always prided itself as being less affected by class barriers. Thus styles associated with the upper class have been seen as suspect by many. Affluent families always "tried to be better" than the rest of classes, hence looking to Europe for dressing their children. And ofttimes, it if you had money to spend, you flaunted it by importing clothes or buying imports. In Europe, the lower classes always looked towards the upper classes and royalty (no matter how bitterly they complained about them); a sign of respect and a goal they sought to achieve.

Societal Trends

A Britiosh reader suggests that larger societal trends were an important factor. He writes, "Boys in Europe were more likely to have traditional and conservative parents. The whole of society being based in knowing ones place in society and ranking. This obviously extended to children who were considered lower in order than adults irrespective of class although children of land owners, bosses or aristocracy would be afforded more deference from employees or lower classes due to the position of their parents and the fact they would probably become the future boss. With their own social spheres all children were at the bottom of the rung. This meant that you simply did as was expected of you and considered the norm. If other boys wore shorts then so did you. There was nothing to question. In the USA where a less established status quo existed alongside promotion of the idea of more independent thought and a need to see children as more important due to the need to establish and build the population a different mindset set in. Peer and societal pressure still occurred but was not as strong as in Europe." This is very interesting. I think that our reader is correct that different child rearing trends developed in America. I m less sure about the conservative idea. America is a very conservative country. This was especially apparent after World War I when Europe began moving decidely toward socialism and away from religion. Tradition is more of a question, however, as Americans do seem to be more innovative in the 20th century. And within this complicated mix, Americans while conservative seem as our British reader suggests more willing to accept movement within the social class system.

Limitations and Availability

A British reader writes, "The limitations of availability may also have led to boys wearing shorts more often in Europe during and post War as material was often in short supply and the time to design clothes for children or men not being seen as a big priority or commercially worthwhile." There were certainly economic differences between Europe and America after World War I. Europe fought the War for over 4 years. The economies of the countries involved, as well as non-beligerants were devestated. There was not only war damage and the terrible human toll, but even the victors experienced economic problems because of the cost of the War. America on the other hand had fought for only 1 years. Casualties were limited compared to those suffered by the Europwans and American factories and farms boomed filling war orders.


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Created: 4:22 PM 3/25/2007
Last updated: 4:23 PM 3/25/2007