Knee Breeches

Figure 1.--The most common attire for boys during the 18th Century were knee breeches, like te ones worn by the boy in this Renyolds, painting. The boys' breeches were just like the ones worn by their fathers.

American men and boys in the 18th Century wore knee breeches. They evolved from the bloomer like pants men wore in the 16th Century. Boys for most of the Century began wearing knee breeches after breeching. At the time, little boys and girls both wore dresses with little or no difference. The process of buying a boy his first pair of breeches was thus called breeching. This term continued to be used in the 19th century, even after breeches were no longer being worn.


The 18th Century breeches for men and boys were identical. At the beginning of the century the clothes worn by men and boys, after breeching, were identical. There were no specialized children's clothes. Boys simply wore scalled down sizes of their fathers' breeches. The breeches extended below the knee and were closed by a row of buttons. The kneepants worn by boys in the late 19th and early 20th Centuries often had decorative buttons harkening back to the buttons of 18th Century breeches.


Knee breeches evolved in the 17th century as the bloomer-style pants worn in the 16th century length pants gradually became longer. Men in the 16th century wore rather short bloomer-style pants well above the knee and long stockings. Women on the other hand completely covered their legs. Gradually in the 17th cebntury the pants became longer until by the end of the century they began covering the knee. Knee-length breeches were woren throughout the 18th century. Men and boys both wore knee breeches. Until after the mid-18th century there was little or no difference between the clothes worn by men and boys. In the late 18th century, specialized childrens clothuing began to appear. The first such clothing was for boys. The first clearly identified specialized boys' outfit was the skeleton suit. Although skeleton-styled clothes were first worn with knee breeches, by the turn of the century long trousers had become common. This was only true for boys. Men of any status continued to wear knee breeches, although sailors (but not officers) and laborers also wore long trousers.

Country Trends

Knee breeches were commonly worn by men and boys throughout the 18th century. Until the late 18th century when boys' skeletin suits appeared, there was no difference between the pants worn by boys and adults. Knee breeches were widely worn throughout Europe and in the Americas. We know of no major differences among countries. We notice frontiersmen in America wearing long trousers, but in the settlements boys and men wore knee breeches. In France knee breeches began to be seen as symbolizing aristocracy. The Parisian mobs were at first dersively referred to as the sans-cullottes. Even so, Revolutionary leaders like Robespierre (1758-94) continued to wear knee breches as did Napoleon after he seized power.


Several different garments were associated with knee breeches.


The jackets worn by men and boys in the 18th Century for dress wear with knee breeches were quite long, often extending far below the waist.


Ruffled collars were commonly worn with jackets and knee breeches in the 18th century. By the late 18th century, boys commonly wore open-necked blouses with ruffled collars. Men did not wear the open-necked blouses, but they were commonly worn by boys.

Figure 2.--This Francis Wheatley study of a family study painted about 1775 shows boys wearing knee breeches and matching jackets. Notice the red suit. The open-style ruffled collars were popular with suits of the era and were also employed with long pants skeleton suits that wwere popular at the turn of the century.

Skeleton Suits

The style of open ruffled collars continued in the 1790s when skeleton long pants suits became fashionable for boys. Boys after mid-century were wearing suits that had some of characteristics of the skeleton suit, but with knee breeches. Only as the turn of tghe cdentury appraoched did boys begin wearing their skeleton suits with long pants.


Knee breeches were generally worn with white or light colored stockings.

Modern Derivatives

Knee breeches have not entirely disappeared. They can still be seen in the knicker-length lederhosen that are still worn in Germany, Austria, and Switzerland. Lederhosen in fact were worn in the 18th century when knee breeches were commonly worn. These lederhosen are not common casual wear as boys in these countries mostly wear jeans and other casual pants. They are worn for dressier occasions, especially folk events.


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Created: October 27, 1998
Last updated: 5:31 PM 6/2/2007