Costumes of American Literary Characters: Little Lord Fauntleroy


Figure 1.--This drawing of a boy in a classic Little Lord Fauntleroy suit, complete with large dog, is for sale in an English antique store. Note that the boy, who is blind, is not pictured with ringlet curls. While ringlet curls were popular in America, the style was much less popular in England. Click on the image for a closeup

One of the widely recognized costume of any American literary character is the elegant velvet suit and frilly lace collar worn by Cedric Erol, or has he is better known, Little Lord Fauntleroy. Actually the nationality of Cedric is somewhat ambiguous. The author was born in England, but lived and raised her children in America. Cedric himself had an English father and an American mother and was being raised in America. Actually I guess he has to be considered an American as his attitude innocent attitude toward privlige and aristocrarcy is at the center of the story. The story was written by Frances Hodgson Burnett in 1885. It was based on stories that she would tell to her two beloved children. Cedric's clothing is only described briefly in the book, but those descriptions and accompamying drawings caused a censation in America and the Fauntleroy craze had begun. A generatiin of American boys found theselves oufitted in velvet kneepants party suits with huge lace collars and bows.

The Authoress

Frances Hodgson was born in Manchester in November 1849, one of five children of a well-to-do manufacturer. After the death of her father the family fell upon hard times and in 1865 they emigrated to America. She married Dr. Swan Burnett in 1873 and it was their second son, Vivian, remarkably graceful, well-mannered child, who was the inspiration for the hero of her classic Little Lord Fauntleroy. Frances returned to England rich on the success of her book. She had known wealth as a small girl and the return to England with money was no dount a childhood dream come true. The success of her book was soon augmented by the spectacular success of theatrical productions throughout Europe. Problems arose with unauthorized productions, but she pursued her rights vigorously. While in England shesuffered a run of ill fortune. Her divorce from Dr. Burnett was followed by the failure of her second and subsequent marriage to Stephen Townsend. In 1890, she uffered the tragic news that Lionel, her elder son had died. After 1901, Frances lived in both Bermuda and Long Island, occupied in turn by her interests in gardening, Christian Science, theosophy and spiritualism. The Little Princess was finally published in book form in 1905 having previously appeared in serial form and as a long-running play. It was while deciding on the lay-out for her garden at her home in Long Island, that Frances conceived and wrote The Secret Garden (1911), probably her best and most enduring work. In it the garden acts as a means of health and as a symbol of the children' growing personality. She continued to write up until her death in 1924, a few weeks short of her 75th birthday.

Mrs. Burnett's Childrens Clothes

The clothing styles popularized in Mrs. Burnett's book were based on the clothes that she personally designed and sewed for her two sons, Vivian and his older brother Lionel. She personally hand sewed much of the boys' clothing herself. At first when they were young, is was primarily to economize. It eventually, however, became a labor of love and continued as the boys grew older. The young Mrs. Burnett's sewing skills were enhanced by the young woman author's romantic imagination. I'm not sure just where she got the ideas for her creations. Velvet suits for boys were not unknown at the time. Certainly the Van Dyck paintings must have had some influence as did the family's brief stay in France. After her succees as an author she probably has a semistress do the work, but almost surely continued to design the boys' outfits herself. She used the English Restoration Era (restoration of the Stuarts) when lace, ruffles, long flowing hair, and ribbons were used in men's clothes. The result was the flamboyant page-boy costume poularized in her book and acompanying illustrations. The drawings pictured a velvet suit with knee-length pants, a deep lace collar and cuffs, a red or black satin sash, long hair, and a picturesque plumed hat.


Figure 3.--Cedric says goodbye to Dick before setting out on his ocean voyage to England. Notice Cedric wears a kneepants sailor suit with a wide-brimmed sailor hat.

The Story

Little Lord Fauntleroy is a charming account about an impoverished American boy, Cedric Erol, and his gruff English grandfather, the Earl of Dorencourt. Cedric and his beloved widowed mother are summoned to England so that Cedric may meet his paternal grandfather and take his rightful place as Lord Fauntleroy, heir to his grandfather's estate. The old Earl dislikes Americans and refuses to meet his daughter-in-law, insisting that the boy live with him, apart from Dearest, as Cedric calls his mother. Gradually, the Earl discovers that Cedric is a courageous, caring boy with a strong sense of right and duty. He realises that this is primarily due to the influence of his American mother who he has shunded. Dearest is finally allowed to rejoin Cedric and enjoy the love and respect of her father-in-law. The Earl's decission to bring his favorite son's only boy to England from America, not only ichanges young Cedric's life dramatically forever, but his innocent goodness eventually transforms the Earl who haf reigned over Dorencout making the life of the workers miserable. With an ever-innocent and trusting perspective on life he manages to turn his bitter grandfather into a loving, generous man while also endearing himself to every other person he comes in contact with. Contrary to the popular image of Little Lord Fauntleroy as a simpering child tied to his mother's apron strings, the hero Cedric is robust, determined, and straightforward. His namby-pamby reputation is wholly unjustified. Of course Mrs. Burnett's costuming did not help a great deal here.

The Character

The character of Cedric Erol, Little Lord Fauntleroy, has not aged well. The modern view of Cedric is a far cry from the character Mrs. Burnett created and how he was viewed by the late Victorian audience.
Original character: The Cedric Erol created by Mrs. Burnett was a manly little chap. He played outside with the neighborhood boys. He ran races and won them--but never gloated. He was polite to everyone, from boot black to a lord of the realm. He stood up for the poor. He was indeed brave, energetic, thoughtful, enterprising, and completely unaffected by his good fortune. He is in short a most likeable little boy.
Modern view: The modern view, stringly heald by many who have never even considered of reading the book, is that Cedric was a supercilious little fop. He is seen as a coddled sissy. But this is clearly not the character Mrs. Burnett created.

Cedric is of course, really to good to be true. The relatinship with his mother, "Dearest" as he calls her is certainly idealized. Apart from his inability to spell, a fault I can identify with, he has no real character flaws. Even so he came acrost to the Victorian reader as a red-blooded American boy. Certainly there is some rather sugary text in Littlr Lord Fauntleroy. Mrs Burnett pens passasges like:

Though he was born in so quiet and cheap a little home, it seemed as if there never had been a more fortunate baby. In the first place, he was always well, and so he never gave any one trouble; in the second place, he had so sweet a temper and ways so charming that he was a pleasure to every one; and in the third place, he was so beautiful to look at that he was quite a picture. Instead of being a bald-headed baby, he started in life with a quantity of soft, fine, gold-colored hair, which curled up at the ends, and went into loose rings by the time he was six months old; he had big brown eyes and long eyelashes and a darling little face; he had so strong a back and such splendid sturdy legs, that at nine months he learned suddenly to walk; his manners were so good, for a baby, that it was delightful to make his acquaintance. He seemed to feel that every one was his friend, and when any one spoke to him, when he was in his carriage in the street, he would give the stranger one sweet, serious look with the brown eyes, and then following it with a lovely, friendly smile; and the consequence was, that there was not a person in the neighborhood of the quiet street where he lived--even to the groceryman at the corner, who was considered the crossest creature alive--who was not pleased to see him and speak to him. And every month of his life he grew handsomer and more interesting.

Such passages, however, are not as common as might be imagined. It should be remembered that this style of writing was rather the norm for the late Victorian era in which the book appeared. Also the character of Cedric had to be a charming little boy so as to convert the embittered Earl of Dorencourt.


Figure 4.--Cedric and the cats. Note Cedric's long, but uncurled hair in this classic drawing by Birch.

Importance of the Costuming

Although the costuming was not dwealed upon in the book, it was of some importance in the story line. Cedric's appearance was used as an outward sign of his own natural nobility, as well as his mother's efforts to raise him as a gentleman, despite her straitened circumstances as a widow in America. Mrs. Burnett first meets 7-year-old Cedric running breathlessly down a New York street. Mrs Burnett in her writing often uses dialect effectively. Cedric is described in the words of a devoted servant: "An' ivvery man, woman and child lookin' afther him in his bit of black velvet skirt made out of the misthress's ould gound." [Frances Hodgson Burnett, Little Lord Fauntleroy', (New York: E.P. Dutton, 1962) p.8 (reprint of 1886 edition)] Later, Cedric wins a footrace wearing a summer suit of cream-colored flannel with a red sash, his long golden locks streaming behind him. In this way, Burnett introduces Cedric as princely yet every inch an active, energetic and American boy who saw everyone as equal. There is no conflict between his appearance and his character.

Little Lord Fauntleroy Look

The Little Lord Fauntleroy suit is one of the most recognized boy's outfit in history, although it was not very popular with maby of the boys that wore it. Many boys had actual Faumtleroy suits. Others wore plainer suits that had Fauntleroy stling added to them. Here by far the major element was a pin-on lace or rulled collar or a Fauntleroy blouse. Boys might also wear large floppy bows, although this was an alternative item. An especially fancy item that might be worn for formal occassions was a colorful waist sash. A variety of other items might be work to complete the Fauntleroy look, but there were no definiye styles of headwwear, footwear or outerwear assiociated with the Fauntleroy suit. They were not only items that made up the Fauntleroy suit, but items that might be employed with other suits to give a Fauntleroy look. Ringlet curls are sometimes associated with the Fauntleroy suit, but most American boys did not have them and they were much less common in Europe.

Fauntleroy Craze

St. Nicholas Magazine in its November 1885 issue published the first installment of Mrs. Burnett's romantic novel about a little American boy who inherits an aristocratic British title. The story was an enormous success. Published as a book in 1886, it was an instant best seller in Americas. The book and resulting theatrical productions soon swept Engalnd and the Continent. No where, however, was the impact as pervasive as America. As a result of the book,innumerable American boys were subjected by their mothers to the fancy velvet suits. American mothers who before and after resisted the fancier European fashions for their boys--subcumed to the Fauntleroy craze. The fashion is probably the most despised costume in the history of American boyhood: velvet knee length page-boy suits, delicate lace collars, and--the crowning ignominy-long, flowing sausage curls. Little Lord Fautleroy-style velvet suits with lace collars were worn by small boys as party dress before the publication of Ms. Burnett's famed novel. Most boys' suits of the era, both kilt and knee-length suits, however, before the publication of her book were rather plain. Some of the fashions include jackets that older boys or even men might have worn without comment. Mrs. Burnett's book changed that almost over night. Little Lord Fauumtleroy put these fancy velvet suits on the fashion map and gave them their name.

Little Lord Fauntleroy Look

The Little Lord Fauntleroy suit is one of the most recognized boy's outfit in history, although it was not very popular with maby of the boys that wore it. Many boys had actual Faumtleroy suits. Others wore plainer suits that had Fauntleroy stling added to them. Here by far the major element was a pin-on lace or rulled collar or a Fauntleroy blouse. Boys might also wear large floppy bows, although this was an alternative item. An especially fancy item that might be worn for formal occassions was a colorful waist sash. A variety of other items might be work to complete the Fauntleroy look, but there were no definiye styles of headwwear, footwear or outerwear assiociated with the Fauntleroy suit. They were not only items that made up the Fauntleroy suit, but items that might be employed with other suits to give a Fauntleroy look. Ringlet curls are sometimes associated with the Fauntleroy suit, but most American boys did not have them and they were much less common in Europe.

Book Editions

Francis Hobson Burnett originally conceived of the Little Lord Fauntleroy story as a way of entertaining her children. She published the book in 1886. She also published several other books, the text and illustratins to which include interesting discritions/illustrations of boys' clothes during the late 19th Century and early 20th Century. Little Lord Fauntleroy is her best known book and it was an immediate success in the United States and England when published. It has since been translated into many languages. Frances Hodgson Burnett's first book was a phenomenal success, as noted in Goof Housekeeping in 1918: "It does not do to say merely that Little Lord Fauntleroy was a great success; it caused a public delirium of joy. It had the Cinderella charm and something else. Young and old laughed and thrilled and wept over it together."


Figure 5.--Cedric tells the Earl he can lean on him for support. Note the sash Cedric wears with his velvet suit.

Stage Productions

Mrs. Burnett's book proved so popular, both in America and England, that she was soon involved in managing theatrical productions and protecting her intersts against unauthorized stage productions. Productions appeared in Boston, New York, and soon England. Mrs. Burnett as a result became quite a wealthy lady. Foreign-language productions soon began appearing on the Continent, the first of course was in Paris.

Movies

Little Lord Fauuntelroy suits have been depicted in a great many movies and television programs, including several productions of the book itself. The accuracy of the production of the suits and other fashions predicted has varied greatly. This is in part because in several instances well-established child starts such as Freddy Barthomew and Ricky Schroeder were used and they had some say in how they were costumed--no doubt drawing a line at ringlet curls. In addition, because of the image of the book, producers have often sought to downplay the sissy image of velvet suits, lace collars, and long sausage curls.

The Costuming

The classic Little Lord Fauntleroy was a kneepants suit. It was made of a black or dark-collored (burgandy, deep blue, forrest green, etc.) velvet. The jacket was small and worn open to show a heavily ruffled blouse with a huge lace collar and matching wrist trim. (Notably this varied from the original Birch drawings, which showed a velvet jacket completely cobering the blousw with only a lace collar and lace cuffs showing.) It was worn with long (usually dark) stockings and kneepants. Mrs. Burnett did make some references to costuming, but not very many considering the future impact of the Little Lord Fauntleroy style. The original drawings pictured him with long flowing hair to which many American mothers soon added the ringlet curls so associated with the Fauntleroy style.


Figure 6.--Cedric writes home to America, explaining his problems.

Illustrators

I have not yet properly researched the topic of illustators who worked on editions of Little Lord Fauntleroy. I believe the first edition was illustrated by Reginald Birch. The illustrations on this page are some of the originals. These illustrations were very important. Reginald Birch’s distinctive drawings first appeared in St. Nicholas Magazine, the most important illustrated magazine of the day. Birch was during the 1880s was one of St Nicholas' most prolific artists during the 1180-90s. Birch probably proved more influential than all the others, and not just in an artistic sence. The passages in Mrs. Burnett's devoted to describing Little Lord Fauntleroy's clothing are very limited. Much of the image of the image for the Fauntlroy suits and ringlet curls worn by boys in the late 19th Century came from the illustrations perhaps more than Mrs. Burnett's book. His drawings earned him the undying hatred of several generations of small boys--their doting mothers, following Birch’s depiction of the manly young hero of the story, dressed their sons in velvet suits with sometimes enormous lace and ruffled collars, and coaxed their hair into carefully curled long ringlets. Many other illustrators have worked on a myriad of other editions published in every major European country. The costume depicted in these illustrations, as in theatrical and movie productions have varied greatly.

Sources







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Created: March 17, 1999
Last updated: 4:13 AM 2/26/2007