Boys' Clothing Style Summary

Figure 1.--Private schools in England commonly required uniforms, often short pants uniforms. State primary schools did not begin rquiring uniforms until well after World War II.

HBC has extensive historical information about boys clothes. With so much detailed information we thought it might be useful to supply a brief overview for readers to put some of our more detailed pages in perspective.

Style Summary

A detailed chronology of changes in styles os available in the chronolgical section of HBC. Here is a brief summary to help as you move through the different styles detailed below.

The collection of children's outfits illustrated in HBC chart the evolution of children's fashions. The clothing from the late 18th century to the present visually charts the changes in attitudes toward children throughout generations.

18th century

Prior to the beginning of the 19th century, children were dressed, and treated, as miniature adults. Aristocratic children wore scaled-down versions of their parents' clothes, made of expensive fabrics designed to display status.

Early 19th century

This formal attire was abandoned as Rousseau's ideas about the natural innocence of children spread. A loose-fitting white muslin dress from 1815 represents this change in thought. Later in the 19th century, British and American children dressed in kilts and sailor suits made popular by the children of English royalty. Early examples of the sailor suit and kilt can be seen in HBC. These costumes allowed for greater freedom of movement while maintaining a fashionable appearance.

Late 19th century

The freedom of movement didn't last, though, as Victorian society extended its formality to children. Bustles and corsets were worn under elaborate dresses to create the silhouettes of adult fashion. Dresses for mourning and other such elaborate rituals were common place.

20th century

Victorian formality then gave way to high-waisted dresses of soft fabrics which again allowed children the freedom of movement needed for playing outdoors. These dresses could be mass-produced thanks to the sewing machine and were made of easy-to-wash fabrics. Dresses from the 1930s reflect the modernization of the clothes-making process.

Modern Chronology Pages

The chronolgy pages explore the relationship between children's and adults' fashions as well as broader developing social trends. The focus of the chronolgy pages is the era beginning with late 18th Century when boys' suits began to depart from the tradition of clothing children as miniature adults. The chronolgy pages then chroicle the development of specilized children's clothes, decribing the popular styles in each decade.


Boys for most of European histiry did not have destinctive clothes. Ratherthey wore smaller versions of their parents' clothing. The first destinctive boys' garment was the skeleton suit which first appeared in the late 18th century. Another popular garment for boys in the early 19th century were tunics. Younger boys in the 19th century commonly wore dresses like their sisters or in the late 19th century a variety of other skirted garments (skirts, kilts, kilt suits, and tunics). Boys were normally breached and began to wear pants at age 3-6, depending on the date, country, social class, and family situation. This was a very common social convention, but the age of breaching did vary considerably. A simmilar pattern affected when a boy's hair was first cut. Some boys wore dresses and other skirted garments longer than others because individual mothers loved to keep their boys looking innocent and fashionable. Not only did many mothers prefer fancy clothes, but also liked to delay cutting their boys' hair. This was especially common among women in affluent families who rarely worked and had a great deal of leisure time. Mothers had considerable disgression in how to dress their boys in part becuse clothing convebntions were not as established in the 19th as in the 20th century. A factor here was the lack of readtmade clothes until late in the century. Boys not only wre fancy dresses,but tgere were a variety of fancy outfits even after they were breached. The best known such style was the Little Lord Fauntleroiy suit. Such suits existed before Mrs. Burnett published Little Lord Fauntleroy (1885), but they became a sensation after the book appeared. A style more popular with boys at the stime was the sailor suits. By the late 19th century boys were commonly wearing various types of shortened-leg pants such as knickers and kneepants. Long stockings thus became common, but this varied from country to country.

Very substantial changes began to take place in rhe 20th century, especially after World War I (1914-18). The War was a major inflection point in European history and deeply affected spcial attitudes as well as political trends. One major change after tghe War was the increasing popularity of short pants. Knickers were also worn, especially in America. Short pants and knickers were worn with both knee socks and long stockings. Shoer pants were common for younger boys and older boys from affluebt families. Here there were differences from coubtry to country. Short pants and long stockings were commonly worn by boys in Germany, Scandinavia, Canada, the northern United States, and other countries. These countries had cold winters those countries are cold in winter. Wool and cotton ribbed stockings were a warm garment for cold weather wear. Long pants wre more common for working-class boys, especially after they left school. overalls were widely worn on American and Canadian farms. They were also worn in factories, including European factories. American boys in rural areas worn overalls to school, but never in Europe. Schooling was seen as a refined activity. Boys commonly dressed up foir school, although after World War I boys attending state schools began to wear more casual clothes, although proivate schools tended to be stricter, many eveb insisting on uniforms. Boys commonly wore short pants and long stockings or kneesicks to school, although this varied seasonally and by country. Some boys objected to the prickling wool on skin. Thus shorter-length socks gradually became more popular over time, especually in the summer. Another reason that boys didn't like complicated suspender waists use to hold up long stockings. Short pants and knickers were a symbol of childhood. Maybe they were laughed at them by children who disliked school. Working class children once they left school commonly wore long pants. Boys staying in school were more likely to wear short pants or knickers. This was a kind of social elitism expressed in fashion. Compulsory education laws becmne increasing strict, requiring even working=class boys to stay in school. Thus in the 1930s more and more boys were asking f0r long triusers, especially older boiys. By te 1950s even younger boys were asking for long pants--especially jeans. This process varied from coubntry to country. Many boys wanted to be treated like adults and look like adults. For many boys, wearing long pants symbolized being a man. When all boys were in short pants there was no connotation of being juvenile, but as more boys began to wear long pants this began to change. Here there were differences among countries and also social class. There were more important fashion changes after World War II. The trend for casual clothing notable after Woirld War I continued. Short pants became more associated with war weather casual clothing, for boys and men. This thus changed how boys viewed them.


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Created: March 18, 2000
Last edited: 1:34 AM 8/5/2004