Kilt Suits


Figure 1.--This boy pictured with his big sister wears a kilt suit with long ringlet curls and a hair bow. He looks to be about 10 years old.

The Scottish or Highland kilt was never extensively worn by American boys, despite the sizeable number of Scottish Americans. we noice a few boys from wealthy families done up in Highland kilts, but this was not very common. A related garment, however, the kilt suit, was very commonly worn by two generations of American boys. It was one of the most popular outfits for younger boys. We notice quite a range of different styles. They were often worn with vests. I believe that the style was also widely worn in England and to a lesser extent in France. Its popularity in Germany and other continental countries, however, appears more limited, although admittedly I have little information on these countries.

Historical Background

Surprisingly the Scottish kilt as we know it was actually fashioned by--horrors of all horrors--an Englishman about 1725. The English in the 1740s, however, after suppressing a Scottish uprising, attempted to prohibit the wearing of the kilt in Scotland as part of their effort to destroy Scottish culture and continuing resistance to English rule. By the 1780s the English reconsidered and the ban was rescinded. There followed a period in which poets, authors, and painters depicted romantic images of Scottish life. This image was enhanced by the performance of kilted Scottish regiments in the Napoleonic Wars. The fashion of dressing young boys in kilts did not develop until the mid-19th century. And of course it was the English who were responsible. Queen Victoria was one of many caught up in the romanticism of the era. She was enamored by Scotland and steeped in the romantic literature of the era. She enjoyed spending long vacations periods with her growing family in tow at her isolated Balmoral estate in Scotland. It was the Queen, despite her current dour image, who in the mid-19th Century popularized the fashion of kilts for boys when she began outfitting the young princes in the romantic style of the Scottish highlands.

Scottish Elements

Kilt suits were made with varying degrees of Scottish styling. This did not mean formal Highland outfits. The Scottish styling often was plaid material, usually a muted plaid. This makes it hard to detect in msnu portraits. In other cases the skirt was done with kilkt styling. This might mean pleats or a kind of pannel in the front. In many instances, however, there were no Scottish elements involved at all. They were essentially skirted suits, although they were often called kilt suits at the time. British and other European mothers were more likely to emply Scottish elements. American mothers did also, but not as commonly as in Britain. A good example is American boy, Frank Bigelow, in 1882.


Figure 2.--Suit worn by young Franklin Roosevelt in the late 1880s. Franklin's suit appears to be a cross between a kilt and kilt suit. The suit has a slight appearance of a jacket, but seems to be a decidedly non-Scottish material. All if the outfit is the same material. He does sport a fine Scottish sporran.

The Scottish Kilt in America

Wealthy Americans, despite the often slavish enthusiasm for British fashion, never adopted the kilt as did Victorian England. Affluent Americans generally looked to England as the arbiters of good taste and English fashion had enormous influence on the clothes worn by America's rising aristocracy. And there choices were reflected in the styles chosen by Americans of more modest circumstance. While some wealthy American boys were outfitted in Highland regalia, the numbers were relatively small. Scottish ancestry had little to do with the choice of kilts--although families with actual Scottish ancestry might be particularly likely to follow the style. As were some doting mothers who resisted dressing their older boys in knee pants. I am not sure just why actual Scottish kilts were never embraced by American mothers. Perhaps the bold plaids were at the time just to blatantly foreign for rapidly patriotic Americans. The interest in ethnic origins came with a later generation of Americans.

The Skirted Suit

We notice some boys wearing skirted suits with not attempt being made to make the skirt look like a kilt. This seems most common in the 1860s and 70s. We are less sure about the 1850s, in part because the photographic record is incomplete. We note that these skirted suits were worn by boys. Some have boyoish touches like military styling. We are not sure, however, if all of these skirted suit outfits were worn by boys. Some not show no attempt to present the skirt as kilt, but also show feminine touches, such as ruffles and florishes on the skirt. This does not necesarily mean, however, that they were worn by girls. We are not sure at this time to what extent such outfits were worn by girls.

Designs and Decorations

A new fashion based on the kilt did prove enormously popular with American mothers. The fashion of a one piece skirted suit, rather than trousers, made with a single material appeared sometime around mid-century, probably in the 1860 as by the 1870s the fashion was well established. I'm not sure who first fashioned them. Nor do I know if kilts suits were an American or British innovation. I would be very interested in any insights visitors to this web site night have. All I really know is that by the 1870s they were one of the most popular fashion for small boys in America. A kilt suit was a natural transition for boys who had grown to old for dresses. It was still a skirted garment which for some unfathomable reason, appears to have appealed to contemporary mothers. The kilt suit while not popular with the boys outfitted in them, was more popular than the dresses they wore as little boys. The kilt suits lacked many of the frills and girlish touches that boys objected to in dresses. Kilt suits had some of the outward appearances of a Scottish kilt, but in many ways were quite different. Many kitsuits had extensive embroidered designs and piping. This was primarily on the jacket, but often the jacket designs were repeated on the skirt kilt. I believe these embroidered styles were most common in the 1860s and 70s and began to go out of style in the 80s. These were not the only garments that had emroidery and piping which was popular on many other garments as well during this period.

Jacketed Dresses

It is not always easy to descriminate betwwn kilt suits and jacketed dresses. A kilt suit was a two-piece and often a three-piece suit with the addition of a vest. A dress was of course a one-pece garment. Some dresses were made to look like they consisted of and jacket, vest, and skirt. The way it was sewed together it was difficult to tell that it was not a kilt suit. Some dresses fall straight down from the bodice. These are easy to identify as dresses. Other dresses in the late-19th century were more complicated. The bodice bodice was made to look like a jacket. We see this construction used for dresses made for both boys and girls.While it is not always possible to distinguish between the kilt suits and jacketed dresses, often it is oossible to identify the proper separate kilt suit jacket.

Country Trends

We note boys in several countries wearing kilt suits. HBC has have no clear informational on national trends. Suprisingly they were not mostly worn in Scotland. Rather we see more American boys wearing kilt suits than all other countries combined. We know kiltsuits were very popular in America. This assessment may in part be influenced because we have a much larger American archive than any other country. Even so, the number of boys we see wearing kilt suits in America seems extrodinary. A factor here may have been the rapidly growing industrial economy and reulting the affluence of Americans. In addition we also see kilt suits being worn in quite a number of other countrie. England and Scotland seem the most important. e have found more English than Scottish portraits, but this probanly reflect's England's larger population. We have found a few boys in continental Europe wearing them. Our failire to find much evidence of kiltsuits being worn on the continent may mean that it was not a style that was worn. It may, however, simply reflect our very limited information at this time. We have noted French sailor kilts, but have yet to find kiltsuits as worn in America. There were many stylistic variants of the kilt suit. We are unsure just how this varied from country to cpuntry because so many of the kilt suit portraits we have found are America. Boys stles during the 19th century in continental Europe is a topic on which HBC is trying to obtain more information.


Figure 3.--This portrait shows the varierty of garments worn with kilt sduits. The boy has a flat-top wide-brimmed hats, a shaved head, lace collar, stripped stockings. He may also be wearing pantalettes, but the image is not clear enough to tell.

Garments

The two major components of the kilt suit were of course the jacket and kilt or skirt. Other garments and accessories were also worn with kilt suits. The accessories in oparticular could be quite varied. Many boys wearing kiklt suits wore wide-brimmed hats, but HBC has not yet fully assessed the tyoes of headgear most commonly worn. Few images show boys in kiltsuits wearing their head gear, primarily because most of the available images are studio portraits and mothers usually wanted the boys' hair to show. Kilt suit jackets were made in several differebnt styles. The jackets worn with kilt suits could be quite long. Much longer, for example, than Fauntleroy jackets. The exception of course was the kilt suits in the Fauntleroy style. Many boys had fancy collars for their kilt suits. The most common collars were lace or ruffled collars of widely varying sizes and shapes. Some wwere huge affairs almost enveloping the boy while others were modest in size. The lace collar was common, but ruffled collars seem less common than with Fauntleroy suits. The boys wearing Fauntleroy kiltsuits of course tended to have the fanciest collars. A few boys had Peter Pan and Eton collars. The collars were worn both with and without bows. Generally speaking the boys shirt or blouse was covered by the jacket and vest. Thus we have little information about what kind of short or blouse was worn, although often there is a collar shown. Only when wearing a Fauntleroy kilt suit do we get a good view of the blouses that the boys wore.. Many kilt suits were worn with vests (waistcoats). The vests were commonly matching rather than contrasting. HBC has noted, however, some contrasting colored vests. Usually the jacket was buttoned, but we have noted some kiltsuits where the jacket was worn open or partially open to show off the vest. The kilt skirts were generally of two kinds. One had a flat pannel at the front, often decorated with buttons and pleated at the back. The other was more like a standard skirt, pleated all around. The kilt or skirt worn with the kilt skirt was usually a matching color and material. There were, however, some skirts with specialized styling. Generally the standard kilt suits wore dark muted colors and fabrics. Almost all boys wearing kilt suits wore them with long, over-the-knee stockings. We have seen very few images of boys wearing socks with kiltsuits. Black was the predominate color.

Chronology

HBC is not yet sure about the precise chronology of kilt suits. They certainly were a British import--at least the kilt which British princes began wearing in the 1840s. Available information suggests that American kilt suits appear to have originated in the 1860s and became popular in the 1870s. They were widely worn through the 1890s. They began to decline in popularity after the the turn of the century. They are little seen by the 1910s. There were stylistic changes during this period, but HBC is not yet able to etail them. This chronology is primarily based on American fashion trends. I am not sure about chronological trends in other countries. HBC has not note the kilt suit as such apopular fashion in other countries, but this may be ue to access to less information. So it is not possible at this time to assess chronolical trends in other countries.

Fabrics

Kilt suits were common made with wool fabrics. We note both sold colors and a vasriety of patterns. The patterns were commonly plasids, but muted plaids, not the colorful plaids used for Highland kilts. A good example of a plaid pattern is the one worn by Emery Washington Elliot about 1880.

Patterns

Most kilt suits were not purchased a ready wear outfits. Rather a mother generally selected a pattern and then chose the material. She might have the suit made at home or order it made by a seamstress.

One bodice Fauntleroy kilt suit was described in a 1897 fashion magazine:

Green fancy suiting and white pique' with embroidered edging for the frills form the stylish combination shown in this costume. Boys from two to five years of age will look well in this ensemble. The skirt, which is deeply hemmed at the bottom, is laid in box plaits all round and buttoned to a sleeveless underwaist that is shaped with shoulder and underarm seams and closed at the back.

The vest is fitted by shoulder and underarm seams and a center seam and is closed to the throat with buttons and buttonholes. Openings to side pockets in the fronts are finished with welts. Straps stitched to the back and fastened together with buckle regulate the width at the waist. The neck is completed with a turn-down collar that has rounding front corners.

The jacket is shaped by center and side seams which are terminated a short distance above the lower edge to form the back in tabs; the fronts almost meet at the neck and flare sharply. The edges of the jacket are finished with machine-stitching. The large fancy collar and pointed cuffs, which are removable, are made of pique' and bordered with wide frills of embroidery; the collar is trimmed with rows of insertion arranged to flare toward the lower edge. The cuffs are mounted on bands that are turned under the close fitting sleeves. Pocket laps cover openings to side pockets in the fronts and a welt finishes a left breast pocket.

Mixed suiting, cheviot, serge, broadcloth and so forth combined with piqué and handsome embroidered edging will be appropriate for this little costume; silk braid and insertion will trim it daintily. In a very dressy suit brown velveteen and red silk were united, the silk being used for the vest, collars and cuffs. Pearl ball buttons were used for making the closing and fine Swiss embroidered edging contributed the frills. Insertions could have been arranged on the fancy collar as in the illustrations and the effect would have been especially dainty if the silk was cut away from beneath the insertion. Pattern No. 9053. The Delineator. May 1897.


Figure 4.--Some boys in kiltsuits also wore ringlet curls. This late 1860s or early 1870s image show a kilt suit with a sailor styling on the jacket. Note cross hatching pattern rather than stripes.

Hair Styles

Boys in kilt suits wore a variety of hair styles. Boys outfitted in kilt suits after being breeched and graduating from their dresses are most commonly seen in short hair--based on a sampling of available photographic portraits. Some boys even had shaved heads. Mothers varied on whether to cut a boys's hair before or after breeching. The most common pattern appears to have been to cut a boys' curls before breeching which is why so many boys appear in kiltsuits with short hair. Boys wore many styles of short hair cuts with a variety of parts. Mothers did not always, however, cut a boys hair before breeching. While short hair appears to be the most common style, there are many images with the boys wearing long hair. As most of the available images are American, many of the boys with long hair wear ringlets. While in kilt suits, it was not unusual for boys to wear hanging curls and perhaps bangs but the curls were often cut when the boy was finally breeched (allowed to wear pants), an occasion which would brought tears to the eyes of many a doting mother. As a result, even after a boy began weraring pants, his hair was not always cut.

Ages

Kilt suits based on available images were generally made in sizes from about 3 to 6 years. The suits with frillier applique were usually made for sizes up to 5 or 6. Plainer more boyish styles were sometimes available in sizes up to 8 years. This would mean that boys of 9 or even 10 might wear them. Older boys were more likely to wear proper kilts, but with a variety of shirts varying from lace trimmed blouses to shirts with stiff Eton collars and bow ties. The age varied over time. The Sears 1897 catalog had kilt suits only for ages 2 1/2 through 4 meanig that boys might commonly wear them through about age 5.

Bows

Most kilt suits were worn with collar bows. These collar bows, like the collars worn with them, were generally small in the 1870s, but grew much larger during the 188Os. This was particularly true in after Mrs Burnett's publication of Little Lord Fauntleroy in 1885-86 and the ensuing Fauntleroy craze. This is particularly true of the Fauntleroy kilts described below.

Sashes

Some of these kilts suits were worn with sashes, added for formal occasions. This was, however, not as common as the bows worn with the kilt suits. More usual was to wear sashes with their Fauntleroy kilts which might look somewhat like a kilt suit.

Styles

HBC has noted several different styles of kilt skirts. The style was normally determined by the jacket. Here we see several different styles. We see the standard kilt suit with long jackets. Here the jacket and kilt-skirt almost always matched. The jackets were doe in various styles. There were several other jackets styles. We notice in particular sailor-dtyled jackets and cut-away jackets. One of the styles in which boys kilts were available was the popular sailor suit style. These had become particularly popular by the 1870s. Some of the cut-away jackets were done with Fauntleroy styling. A related fashion to the kilt suit was the Fauntleroy kilt. This adapted the kilt suit to the imensly popular Fauntleroy suit. While the style of the suit was rather determinec by the jacket, we notice different styles of skirt-kilts as well. On some suits the styling on the jacket was repeated on the kilt-skirt, but this was not always the case.

Gender

HBC thought that the kilt suit was primarily a boys' outfit and that girls generally wore fancy dresses--especially for an important event like a portrait. HBC has, however, noted some images that appear to be girls wearing kiltsuits. HBC has not yet determined to what extent girls wore kilt suits, but is pursuing this question.

Prevalence

The photographic record suggests that kilt suits in the mid- and late-19th century were very common. It was one of the most popular garments for younger boys. We see them very commonly being worn by boys from about 2-6 years of age. We note them being woirn all over the country, including both big cities and small towns as well as all regions of the country. Assessng prevalence is more difficult. We also see quite young boys wearing knee pants and trousrers. So clearly kilt suits were not iniversal. We suspect that kilt suits were not very common with working-claSS families. This would of course significantly afflect the prevalence of kilt suits>

Social Class

Another important question is social class. A reader writes, "I have seen pictures of many older boys wearing kilt like garments after five years of age. I believe Queen Victoria may have had something to do with this style becoming popular. Do you have any idea what proportion of boys wore kilts as opposed to pants?" Well it is true that older boys wore Highland kilt outfits, but the kilt suit was a boy's outfit. Most of the boys who wore them seem to have been younger boys up to about 5-6 years of age, although we have seen them advertised in larger sizes. We are not entirely sure about social class. The photographuic record conforms that they were very common. The photographic record, however, heavily skews the evidence in favor of the more affluent and urban population. Most of the boys wearing these kilt suits look to us to be from if not well-to-do families, a least middle-class families in comfortable circumstances. We can not yet confirm that kilt suits were commonly worn by boys from working-class families. We do note boys from farm families wearing skirted garments. How common kilt suits were we are no sure. We do see kilt suits from rural towns that were large enough to have photographic studios.


Figure 5.--Fashion designers occasionally try to bring back the kilt and kilt suit, like this Italian creation in the 1980s. As boys generally object, the efforts are only purchased for very special occasions.

Boyhood Preferences

Accounts vary as to the attitude of boys to kilts and kilt suits as opposed to other styles prevalent at the time. Some clearly disliked the kilt as girlish. Others thought Fauntleroy suits with lace collars and Russian tunics to be worst. Probably the favorite of most boys before they graduated to more adult-looking styles was the sailor suit.

Fashion Changes

Kilt suits began disappearing after the turn of the century. While still worn in the 1900s, they were not much worn by the 1910s. The kilt suit has not completely disappeared. Fashion designers have occasionally make efforts to bring them back, but with little real success. While the outfits may appeal to adoring mothers--they are decidedly unpopular with the boys. The modern boy, unlike a boy 100 years ago, has a great deal of say about how he is dressed, especially once he begins school.

Theatrical Depictions

Despite the fact that the kiltsuit was very commonly worn by boys in the late 19th century, it is almost never used as costuming in period movie and television productions. One of the rare instances in which the kilt suit was used in a major film was "Life with Father" (US, 1947). The boy Harlan appeared in two scenes in a kiltsuit. One in a store shopping (a blue suit) and one at home dressed up for the reverend's visit (a black velver jacket and plaid skirt/kilt). Notably he wore this garment even though he had already been breached. I'm not sure how accurate thuis convention was.

Additional Information

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Created: January 20, 1999
Spellchecked: October 14, 2000
Last updated: 6:07 AM 5/21/2014