Boys have been dressed in innumerable different styles over the past 500 years. For most of that period boys simply wore smaller versions of their parents clothes. Little boys and girls were generally dressed alike in nearly identical dresses to their mothers until the boys were "breeched", usually at 4 to 6 years of age--although some boys were breached earlier and some later. After being breached, boys during most of this period were dressed in miniature editions of their parents' clothes.
New juvenile fashions specifically designed for children began to appear after the mid-18th Century, but
were not widely worn until the end of that Century. The idea was initially to provide children clothing especially suited for their needs, although ideas as to what was suited for children varied. By the late 19th Century, however, the children's clothing were more designed to meet their parents' social needs, demonstrating the family's position and status. The Fauntleroy suit was clearly a child's fashion, but it hardly was appropriate for the child's needs.
Some of the first specialized children's clothes were sailor and skeleton suits. During the early period of children's clothes, the late 18th and early 19th Centuries, it was the boy who might wear long pants or
pantaloons and the father knee breeches. The modern short kilt was introduced as a boys' outfit in the mid-19th Century. A wide variety of styles followed which gradually began to meet the real needs of a growing, energetic boy.
Decisions on a young boy's clothes were generally made by the mother with her son having little say in he
matter. Boys simply wore what their mothers purchased for them with little question. This gradually began to
change. The increasing spread of public education introduced boys to a wider selection of their peers. America was a leader in public education. And the increasing association with other boys increased their desire to be dressed and have their hair cut like the other fellows. The rise of the mass media in the mid-20th Century, especially television, greatly expanded the mass marketing of clothes aimed at children, bith directly and indirectly. It was hard to sell clothes over the radio, but television was the perfect medium. Mass marketing made the mother's fashion tastes increasingly irrelevant beyonf todlerhood. Changing attitudes toward child raising also affected decisions on clothes. Increasing the child, even a young child, had to be consulted as to what he or she wanted to wear.
As the 19th Century progressed, pants legs became shorter until by the end of the century, most boys wore
knee-length pants. New styles appeared like Norfolk and Fauntleroy suits and Russian blouse tunics. At the
end of the 19th Century Buster Brown suits were popular. In some cases mothers have combined styles, such
as using a kilt skirt with a Fauntleroy or sailor suit. Boys through the 19th Century and throughout much of the 20th Century wore these distinctly juvenile fashions. Through much of this period formal clothing was very
important. Adults and children dressed up for many occasions that today would be seen to involve only casual
Other interesting boyish clothes emerged in the 20th century. Scouts and various youth groups adapted
uniforms. Distinctive dress were adopted by dance and choral groups. Other distinctive clothes are associated
with different national groups such as kilts (Ireland and Scotland), ??? (Greece), lederhosen (Germany), and
other garments in various countries. Various countries also developed a variety of distinctive school uniforms.
Major fashion changes occurred in the mid-20th Century. Boys in recent years, when they dressed up,
generally wore suits just like their fathers--including dad's long pants. Dress clothing, however, has become
much less important than in the past. Boys now have a great deal of say in the clothes purchased for them. As
a result, the current styles probably represent more than ever before what the boys themselves actually want to
wear. For the most part, comfortable, casual styles have emerged as the standards for juvenile attire.
A detailed chronology of changes in styles os available in the chronological section of HBC. Here is a brief
summary to help as you move through the different styles detailed below.
Some of the most important boys' clothing styles in the 19th and 20th Century are listed below. Available
information about the design, ages worn, materials, country differences, boys' opinions and other details on
provided on each of these styles.
Often children's clothing have been available in various age groupings. The specific age groupings have
varied over time. Many clothing catalogs advertising children's clothes describe the sizes in years. This means the
average size child. Some children, of, course are smaller or larger than average. These sizes have also changed
over time as today's better fed children are often larger than children in earlier times.
One convention that can be seen in many family portaits is age grading. This is actually related to the convention of dressing children in identical or coordinated outfits. Age grading was also used when the children were dressed in differehnt types, but not necesarily identical outfits. This is of course adopted with children that are close in age. In the 19th and early 20th century, families were commonly larger than they are today. Thus it was not appropriate to dress all the children alike. In large families there mighgt be two or three levels of age grading. There were alson refinements of age grading. Children might, for example, wear the same suit, but with alterations such as different collars and neck wear ot trouser types. There are many examples of age grading on HBC. We will start to link some of the here as examples. A good example of a family whichpracticed this approach is the Rockefellers. We note an Louisiana family (1924). Age grading is a convention that virtually disappeared in the late 20th century. We are not sure why age grading when out of style.
Many of these shows dealing with short pants addressed a style that boys were actually wearing. The
reaction of boys and parents watching these shows was thus serious. Many other clothing styles were
incorporated for comic relief or parody, thus causing a different reaction.
The label on a garment can provide a great deal of valuable information. The early labels we have noted
seem primarily interested in identifying the manufacturer. Eventually they included information on the material
used as well as laundry instructions. They also generally include information on the country of manufacture,
important today as so many companies contract clothing manufacture out to low wage countries in Asia and Latin
America. A HBC reader informs us that the Pittsfield Weaving Co. in Pittsfield, New Hampshire is trying to find
the date of the first woven label. They inform us, "We know that my great grandfather was doing designs
involving labels around 1910, and have found a person with a dress dated 1863, much earlier than 1910 obviously, that has a label in it. Finding a label in clothing that can be dated seems to be the best route right now. Any information to offer?" Unfortunately as HBC work mostly with magazines and photographs, we don't often
get to see the labels in the clothes that we discuss. We would of course be very interested in adding information about labels to our discussion of various garments. If any ones knows of earlier labels, and surely there must be some from Europe, we would be pleased to convey the information to the inquirer.
It is interesting to see in HBC how the social meaning of particular items of clothing mutates over time. HBC often discusses this as convention in our consideration of different styles. As something passes out of fashion for older boys, mothers will persist in dressing younger sons in it. Thus a particular style doesn't become old fashioned as much as it becomes juvenile. Overalls didn't become truly dominant among rural American youth until the 1920s and 1930s. By the end of the 30s rural teens were increasingly wearing ordinary trousers. Younger boys kept wearing them as a matter of course for a decade longer. By the late 40s overalls were definitely juvenile wear, and had become as popular for urban children as for country boys. The styles of overalls had become more juvenile too, with much simpler and less durable hardware. By the mid-50s they were worn almost exclusively by preschoolers. Overalls didn't become fashionable again until the 1970s. Their popularity waxed and waned until reaching a peak in the early 90s, when there was even a fad for young men to wear shortalls. Their popularity among boys has rapidly declined over the past decade, although they seemed to persist a little longer in Europe. I had seen them featured at European web retailing sites as late as 2001, but this year they are sold only in toddler sizes.
One of the reasons we created HBC was that children are interested in what life was like and how children lived in historuical periods. This included how children dressed. The girls are most interestedin historical fashion, but boys are calso interested. when I was teaching school in the 1970s before the internet, sources were rather limited. My students would ask me about children in the various historical periods we covered and I did not have a lot to offer them. So one purpose of HBC is to provide teachers abnd children a resource for assessing what childhood is like around the world and in different historical periods. And we note that a very important part of our readership is school nteachers and students at all levels. Some of their assessments of historic fashions are interesting.
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