Trousers for Boys

Men and boys in the 18th Century both wore knee breeches with no differentiation in style or length. It was boys which first began wearing long trousers in the 1780s. For several decade while men continued to wear knee breeches, boys wore long pants skeleton suits. After men began to commonly dress in trousers by the 1820s, boys continued to wear long trousers also. It was not until the after the turn of mid-century that shorter cut trousers became an increasingly popular convention for boys. I am not sure who conceived of this idea or why it proved so popular, persisting as a convention for about 100 years. There was a degree of practicality about short trosers for boys who in their active games were prone to tear their trousers at the knee. I am not sure, however, how important this was in the growing popularity of the shorter cut trousers for boys. The shorter trousers for boys have taken many forms after knee breeches passed out of style, including knee pants, knickers, and short pants.

Knee Breeches

American men and boys in the 18th Century wore knee breeches. Boys for most of the Century began wearing adult-looking knee breeches after breeching. Little boys and girls during the 18th Century wore the same dresses with little or no difference. The process of dressing a boy in 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 at the beginning of the Century. This concept of specialized children's clothes did not begin to develop until late in the Century. Boys simply wore scalled down sizes of their fathers' breeches. There was no idea of different types or lengths of knee breeches for boys. The breeches for boys and men extended below the knee and were closed by a row of buttons, usually three 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.

Transitional Style

We note in some early photographs taken in the 1850s and 60s that young boys seem to be wearing a kind of transitional outfit that looks like the bodice of a dress, often with a low colarless neckline, and trousers. We do not know if this was also a European style. All of theimages we have are American. Nor do we know when this style began. We first see it in the 1850s, but his may be because 1840s photographs are quite rare. I believe that I have seen some earlier portraits by naive artists, but cannot recall specific portraits at this time. we assume that this fashion was a kind of transition from dresses to trousers worn with more boyish shirts or blouses. The boys pictured look to be about 4-6 years old. Many have their hair done in curls.

Pantalettes /Drawers

We notice boys and girls wearing pantalettes, sometimes very fancy ones, with skirted garments such as dresses and tunics. A good example is two Hungarian boys about 1850. Boys' pantalettes could be plainer than those worn by girls. The plain pantalettes were often called drawers. We note boys wearing drawers with tunics that seem rather like trousers, both knee pants and long trousers. The difference here seems largely a matter of fabric. Pantalettes were often made in a light material while pants and trousers in a heavier material. This is not always to discern in photographs. Not or we always sure how they would be described in period fashion magazines. A good example is an unidentified New York boy about 1850. He wears a green plaid tunic with white drawers or pants. I'm not sure what term would have been used at the time.


Figure 1.--Knee pants were almost universally worn by boys after breeching. Almost all boys' suits, Fauntleroy suis, sailor suits, Norfolk suits, and other style were made with knee pants.

Kneepants

A new style of knee-length pants appeared for boys after mid-century. This new style was to dominate boys' fashions for the the rest of the century. Gradually in the 1860s mothers began to widely accept the convention that boys after breeching should not wear adult-looking long trousers, but instead trousers cut short at the knee. It is unclear who conceived of this idea or why it became so popular. There does not appear any precedent for it in earlier clothing styles. Quite young boys commonly wore long trousers in the early 19th Century. Never before had shorter cut clothes been used as a mark of boyhood. Whatever the reasons, by the 1870s this was a firmly established convention in in Europe and America. Kneepants were at first worn by younger boys, but in some periods and countries were worn by older boys--even older teenagers of high school age. The knee pants style persisted through the rest of the Century. Other styles of shorter cut trousers became popular for boys after the turn of the cebtury. The convetion of shorter cut pants for boys thus persisted for about 100 years.

Bloomer Knickers

Younger boys commonly wore bloomer knickers with a variety of outfits. There was no standard termuinology for these pants. We also see them referred to as bloon=mers and knickerbockerts. They were normally worn above the knee with blouced legs. I am not sure if the leg hems had draw strings or elasticized legs. We have noted these pants during the mid 19th century. They were especially common in at the turn of the 20th century with tunics suits, which became a masin stay for younger children. There were several different styles for these suits. TYhe sailor style was especiually popular. Many American boys wore Buster Brown suits. The bloomer knickers did not vary. We are not entirely sure how they were suspended. We thought that there may be suspenders or perhaps buttoned on to waist suit. A McCall's pattern in the early 1900s suggests they had bodices. I am not sure all did, but suspect that this was a common feature. American boys wore them with both long stockings and three-quater socks. The three-quarter socks were more common in France.


Figure 2.--The trousers worn by American boys during the 1910s and early 1920s were mostly above the knee knickers, mostly with long stockings.

Knickers

Knickers may have evolved from the knee breeches worn in the 18th century. They were not al first specialized children's wear. They seemed at first to have been more worn as a kind of sporting or outdoor wear. They were often associated with Norfolk jackets. Apparently when men's fashions evolved from knee breeches to trousers in the early 19th Century, the British country gentleman disciovered that it was a bit tedious sloshing around the muck after a grouse or two. They found that it was a lot easier and less expensive to clean a pair of socks than muddy trouser legs. Thus knickers became the establish costume of the country gentleman. This style continues to this day as a kind of anachronistic country gentleman's outfit. Knickers are today generally associated with the 1920s and 1930s, but modern knickers were worn as early as the 1860s. The term Knickerbockers originated with the Dutch settlers who first populated the New York area in the 1600's. Knickers appear to have been worn in several different ways and came in different styles. The major differences were in the length of the knickers and the prominence of the blousing affect. Knickers were worn with several different types of clothes. Knickers do not appear to have been very popular to the boys that wore them. Most boys appear to have coveted long pants. Many adults looking back recall finally putting away their knickers as an important step in growing up. Knickers appear to have been worn more widely in America than many other countries. This was in part because fewer boys wore short pants than in European countries. Hosiery worn with knickers has varied widely. Knickers were mostly worn by American boys with long over-the-knee stockings. Some fashion observers are stymied as to why more people don't wear wear knickers any more. They, or similar pants, were worn for centuries in hundreds of cultures, for walking, especially in mountainous terrain.


Figure 3.--Short pants appeared at the turn of the Century and their adoption by Baden Powell's Scouts help to popularize them. Short pants suits became less common in thr 1960s, but were still required by some schools in the 1980s. Casual short pants, however, are now worn by boys and men of all ages.

Short Pants

Short pants first appeared in England before the turn of the century. They were worn by younger boys not yet wearing knickers. There were some practical and economic advantages of short pants. They were also army units posted to tropical countries and then adopted bt Baden Powell's Scouts which greatly helped to popularize them. Soon they appeared in Europe and to a lesser extent America. At first shorts were mostly worn by little boys and were only slightly shorter than knee pants. One of the principal differences is that they were worn with kneesocks rather than long stockings. The first shorts even continued to have the buttons at the side that knee pants had. The style was given great empetus, especially as a style suitable for older boys when developing British boy scout movement adopted them as standard wear. American Scouts, however, chose to mostly wear knickers. After mid-century short pants were worn by younger boys and became less popular for dress wear. At the same time, in the more casual post-World War II era, they became popular for casual and play wear, by boys of all ages--especially during the 1970s.

Long Trousers

Long trousers first appeared in the 18th century as garments for peasants and workers and sailors. They were looked down on by the established classses. The French referred to the people wearing them cotempuosly as the "sansculotes". Boys would wear what the style of trousers worn by their fathers which was governed more by social class than age. The first long pants to be worn specifically by boys were the long trousers that boys began wearing with skeleton suits at the end of the 18th centurty. It was a couple decades before their fathers followed suit and began wearing long trousers in polite society. Boys generally wore long pants on the fotst half of the 19th century. Shorter types of pants (primarily kneepants and knickers) became increasingly common for boys in the later half of the 19th century and other types (knickers and shorts pants) in the first half of the 20th century. Through this period, long pants were worn by sonme boys and became increasingly common in the later half of the 20th century, especailly after World War II. Long trousers were especially common as work pants. Some American boys for examples might have a knickers suit, but long pants play clothes are jean overalls work clothes. Various types of long pants have been worn. Many in the 19th century were purchased as parts of suits. In the 20th century various casual types of pants became more common. A new style of baggy trousers energed in the 1990s.

Rompers

Romper suits originated in France and were in many ways the beginning of a revolution in children's clothes. Rompers were the first true play suit. They were initially designed for boys a nd continued to be worn primarily and the first garment (other than dresses and pantalettes) designed for both boys and girls. One of greatest change in children's clothing occuring after the turn of the century was the declining custom of dressing boys in skirts until the age of 4 to 6 years ended. While the custom did not disappear until the beginning of the 1920s, it became increasingly less common as the century progressed. One of the reason for this decline was the appearance of rompers for younger children. Other fashions appeared for little boys. One of those fashions were one-piece romper suits which were worn by both boys and girls. Older boys wore short pants. In America, School-age boys wore knickers.

Stirrup Pants

Stirrup pants are a topic HBC knows little about. A reader writes, "Without knowing much detail, I believe that in the early 1960s (and briefly about 1990) German and perhaps other European boys and young men to an extent, wore skipants or stirrup pants. In Germany they might be called steghosen (bar trousers) for what looks like a bar for the underfoot stirrup. I believe many of the close fitting narrow legged trousers from the early 1960's were actually stirrup pants. Back in the late 1980's Adidas and several other sportswear manufacturers had a 2-piece warmup suit with stirrup pants here in the U.S., but I believe stirrup pants for boys and young men were more populat in Europe in general. I have not seen any treatment of stirrup pants as such in HBC, probably because of the difficulty in finding any substantial material regarding this fashion." Yes it is a topic HBC hs not yet addressed. We are unsure at this time if stirrup pants should be archived as a type of trousers or a sub-category of long pants.






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Created: January 25, 1999
Last updated: 6:24 PM 4/25/2016