Little Lord Fauntleroy Suits


Figure 1.--This boys with long hair wears a very small velvet jacket to show off his elaborate lace collar and blouse. Note the large roll over lace cuffs. To emphasize his boyishness he is pictured here with a riding crop and boots.

Francis Hodgson Burnett, an English-born American, helped popularize a style of dress for boys that proved exceedingly popular among romantically inclined, doting mothers. The author modeled her famous fictional creation, Cedric Erol, after her own son, Vivian, and thereby condemned a generation of "manly little chaps" in America and Britain to elaborate, picturesque outfits. The actual description of Cedie's suits were rather brief in her book, Little Lord Fauntleroy. Perhaps even more influential than her text in popularizing the style were the lavishly detailed drawings by Reginald Birch, the artist who illustrated Mrs. Burnett's story. Whether it was the book or the illustrations, combined they were responsible for an enduring vogue of boy's clothes in the romantic style of the Cavalier/Restoration or Van Dyck Period worn by the young American hero of the story.

Background

Fancy velvet suits for boys was not a style created by Frances Hodgson Burnett. In fact, the style was an anomaly in American boys' clothing, which was generally much less fancy than European styles. Mrs. Burnett's book, however, helped make the style the height of fashion for a generation of American boys. While fancy velvet suits were available before Mrs. Burnett published her book, there was nothing like the outpouring of belaced and beruffled suits that filled clothing stores after the publication of the book. I am unsure as to just what was Mrs. Burnett's inspiration for the imaginative styles in which she dressed her boys. The fancy velvet suits appear to be a version of Cavalier or Royalist costume of the 17th century English Civil War. Interesting nearly a decade before the publication of Mrs. Burnett's book, the Yeames painting of a brave little boy in the light blue suit (And when did you last see your father?) appeared. Mrs Burnett did not invent the costume. Elegant velvet suits had become recognized dress for small boys as a variant from the ubiquitous sailor for every day wear. [Roger Lancelyn Green (Tellers of Tales, 1946.] Velvet suits were being worn in the 1860s, although not will all the Fauntleroy trimmings. Velvet suits can be seen in illustrations in Aunt Judy's Magazine and Little Folk from the beginning of the 1880s. The clothing styles popularized in Mrs. Burnett's book were based on the clothes that she personally designed and sewed for her two sons, Vivian and his older brother Lionel. She personally hand sewed much of the boys' clothing herself. At first when they were young, is was primarily to economize. It eventually, however, became a labor of love and continued as the boys grew older. The young Mrs. Burnett's sewing skills were enhanced by the young woman author's romantic imagination.


Figure 2.--It was not just small boys who wore Fauntleroy suits. This boy of about 8 or 9 appears to be wearing lace trim sewn on to his jacket rather than a lace collared blouse or shirt waist. Note the high-top shoes.

The Book

Mrs. Burnett's story first appeared in St Nicholas Magazine, published in unstallments (November 1885). It was for some unfathomable reason an instant success. It was the most american of books. An innocent American boy of pure character and common origins reforming an old cynical English aristocrat. That was how Americans saw themselves, a young, innocent pure country in aworld still dominated by the old world, cynical and corupt Europran society. We doubt if Ms. Burnett invisioned Cedril and the Earl in that fashion, but that ws precisely how American mothers, an not a few men inckuding President Hsrrison saw it. The first book edition of Little Lord Fauntleroy was published in 1886. She described Cedric's appearance in the book:

What the Earl saw was a graceful, childish figure in a black velvet suit, with a lace collar, and with love locks waving about the handsome, many little face, whose eyes met his with a look of innocent good-fellowship.
The story was an instant success raising Mrs. Burnett to the status of a major American author and more importantly indelibly popularized these romantic, elaborate velvet suits. Mothers were soon trying to outdo each other on rich velvets and elaborate lace, not to mention the sausage curls for their boys. And the rapidly rising prosperity of industrilizing America meant that countless American mothers had the money and time to devote to this project. The prevalence probably relates to the number of affluent middle-class women at home with little to do and a great deal of time on their hands. Middle and upper-class mothers rarely had jobs outside the home. So apparently many decided to devoted their energies to dress their sons in elaborate fashions.


Figure 3.--This younger boy, still in long curls, wears a small unclosed Fauntleroy jacket to show his elaborately lace trimmed blouse. Note the size of the ruffled collar and cuffs.

The Fauntleroy Craze

Velvet suits with lace collars were worn by small boys as party dress before the publication of Ms. Burnett's novel. Most boys' suits of the era, both kilt and knee-length suits, however, before the publication of her book were rather plain. Some of the fashions include jackets that older boys or even men might have worn without comment. Mrs. Burnett's book changed that almost over night. Little Lord Fauntleroy put these fancy velvet suits on the fashion map and gave them their name. Girls also liked them. While mothers and girls were enchanted with Mrs. Burnett's book and the elegant suits depicted in the book, the same can not be said for the boys' reactions. They were decidedly not popular with the boys--especially when mothers selected them for boys much beyond 5 or 6 years of age. Despite their lack of enthusiasm, the sons of countless impressionable American mothers, however, condemned to velvet page-boy suits, knee pants, frilly blouses, lace collars, and the crowning burden-- long flowing curls. Some boys even wore their Fauntleroy suits with skirt suits rather than the more boyish knee pants. Little Lord Fauntleroy had arrived on the American sartorial scene with a vengeance. The desire of proud American mothers to demonstrate their economic position by emulating their concept of the dress of English aristocracy helped fuel the strength of the Fauntleroy craze which swept the nation. English fashion houses played a major role in setting American fashion and the perceived aristocratic English style help to popularize it in America.

Garments

A boy's Fauntleroy suit might consist of a wide-brimmed sailor hat or floppy tam, a frilly blouse with aruffled or lace collar and wrist trim, a velvet jacket, velet kneepants or kilt, long stockings, and a variety of foot wear. The various combinations or endless as were the different alternatives. A boy rather than wearing a fancy blouse might have a button up jacket with a lace collar sewn on. Stockings and footwear also varied considerably. The partcular styles and combinations varied considerably over time.

Materials

Little Lord Fauntleroy suits are generally associated with velvet. In fact the suits were made in a wide variety of materials. Velvet was most popular for the classic suits, but velvet was an expensive material and thus cost-conscious mothers used many other less expensive and more durable fabrics. Velvet was also a relatively heavy fabric. Thus lighter weight materials were adopted for warm summer weather.

Colors

Color is another interesting aspect of Fauntleroy suits. Of course they mostly look black in the black-and-white photographic portraits of the day. We have only a few color images. There are some paintings. And some enhanced hand-painted photo portraits. I am not sure if these were painted over photographs or paintings done from photographs. Of course such paintings are not as definitive evidence as actual color photographs. We think, however, that the paintings generally accurately depicted the colors. Vintage clothings is another good source of color information. Here we have various areas to persue. Of special interest are the colors associated with with classic velvet Fauntleroy suits. Here we notice mostly dark colors in the blavk-and-white portraits. They probalu were mosly black, but there were also dark shades of blue, browm. burgandy, and green. There were also collar-buttoning Fauntleoy suits. And mothers often used Fauntleroy trim with regular suits. As to color we are not only interested in the color of the suit, but associated garments like the blouse, bow, and stockings worn with the suit.


Figure 4.--This fascinating image from the classic era of Little Lord Fauntleroy suits was carefully thought out by a doting mother who wanted her son photographed in his elaborate suit. She obviously wanted the photograph to show both the back and front to display every detail of his bow, lace collar, and velvet suit. The large bow covers up the delicate lace collar in the front view, but not in the rear view. Note in particular how she has carefully spaced his ringlet curls on his lace collar in the back view. Also note that in one image he wears a skirt/kilt instead of kneepants. Perhaps he wore his Fauntleroy suit with knee pants on some occasions and a skirt on other occasions. More likely, his mother decided to have his photograph taken on the momentous occasion of graduating from skirts to knee pants--a bittersweet occasion for the romantically inclined mothers of the day.

Major Periods

The Fauntleroy rage began in the mid-1880s. The classic Fauntleroy suit was popular for about 10-15 years and then began to change. The style continued into the new century and influenced boys' clothes through the 1920s. The Fauntleroy suits that appeared in the 1880s went through several major stylistic periods. Velvet has been used used for fancy boys clothing since specialized boys clothing appeared after the mid-18th Century. Many better skeleton suits were made from velvet. This was especially true for boys from aristocratic or wealthy families. Boys were dressed in velvet suits and lace collars well before the style was popularized by Mrs. Frances Hogdson Burnett in the 1880s. Fancy velvet suits for little boys began to appear in the early 1880s. The classic period, however, began with the publication of Mrs. Burnett's book in 1885-86. Her book popularized the style with romantically inclined mothers during the late Victorian period. The stylistic changes of the Edwardian period began in the mid-1890s, well before the death of Queen Victoria in 1901. Fauntleroy suits remained popular among mothers throughout the Edwardian era. Several stylistic changes were notable. The velvet jackets became larger, in many cases covering the lace trimmed blouses which once dominated the suits. Bows remained popular, but in the 1900s the sausage-length curls popular in America and some other countries became increasingly less common. White socks and long stockings appeared. The classic Fauntleroy suit, like many other 19th Century styles disappeared in the aftermath of World War I. Some mothers continued dressing boys in Velvet suits. Perhaps a casualty of the Great War which destroyed the romantic inclination of the Edwardians. Although not so common, younger boys as late as the 1930s might be dressed in velvet suits and blouses with some Fauntleroy features. They were generally short pants suits and the fancy lace and velvet collars were replaced with simpler Peter Pan collars. While not precisely Fauntleroy suits, younger boys in recent years have worn velvet suits, but without the lace and ruffles. They were often worn with short pants and knee socks. These seems particularly popular for festive holiday wear at Christmas, but declined in popularity after the 1970s as families increasingly took a casual approach to the holidays.


Figure 5.--This boy wears a Fauntleroy dress with a delicate lace collar. He has already had his curls cut even though he has not yet been breeched. The photograph is undated, but was probably taken in the late 1880s.

Skirted Fauntleroy Suits

The classic Fauntleroy suit was worn with kneepants. The style was so popular, however, that many doting mothers wanted to adopt it for their sons before he was breeched. Thus Fauntleroy styling was used for both dresses and kilt outfits. Almost as soon as Little Lord Fauntleroy suits began appearing on American boys, dresses in velvet and other materials with large lace collars appeared. They differed from the Fauntleroy kilts in that the dresses were one-piece garments. They came in a wide variety of styles and materials, but the one recurrent element was a prominent lace collar. Velvet kilt-skirts were also made that could be work with a jacket and lace collared blouse. These suits could be worn after breeching by simply replacing the skirt with kneepants. These were two-piece garments. These suits had a strong advantage for the thrifty mother who did not yet believe that her son was old enough to be breeched and wear kneepants. When the time finally came to breech him, he could continue wearing his velvet Fauntleroy jacket and lacy blouse. All he needed was a pair of velvet kneepants.

Age

The age of boys wearing Fauntleroy suits varied with the style of suit and chronological period. The youngest boys of course wore the Fauntleroy dresses and kilts while somewhat older boys the Fauntleroy suits. Fauntleroy suits would normally been worn by boys about 3 to 8 years of age, but some boys as old as 13 years are known to have worn them. After the 1900s and especially after World War I (1914-18) much younger boys wore the as the classic Fauntleroy suit passed into fashion history.

Hair Styles

American boys wore Little Lord Fauntleroy suits with a large variety of hair styles. Perhaps the most popular adjunct, at least to the mothers, to the Little Lord Fauntleroy suit was long ringlet curls. This was not the most common hair style worn with Little Lord Fauntleroy suits, although it was probably the most popular with Victorian mothers. Not all boys in Fauntleroy suits wore their hair in long ringlets. Some boys had their hair cut well before they were were breeched and thus wore short hair with their velvet Fauntleroy suits. Ringlet curls were most common on younger boys, commonly until 5 or 6 years of age. Some mothers liked them so much that they had their sons wear them well beyond that age. The curls were styled in a variety of different ways. There were a variety of thicknesses and number. Some mothers even added hair bows to the curls. While hair bows were more popular in France, they were not unknown in America. By the Edwardian era after the turn of the 20th century, ringlets became less common with Fauntleroy suits, but not curls.

Mrs. Burnett

It is interesting to speculate if Mrs. Burnett was an American or English author. One of the purposes of this web site is to try to see what social trends in different countries can be found by assessing clothing styles. Mrs. Burnett is difficult to categorize as she was born in England but lived in America. She clearly wrote for an international audience; she crossed the Atlantic numerous times after immigrating to Tennessee as a child. She seems to have remained very British at heart. Little Lord Fauntleroy, of course, was based on her all American son, Vivian. Even so, her book and resulting theatrical production was an enormous success in England suggesting the story appealed to both American and English sensibilities. Some observers appear to categorize her as a clearly American author writing for an American audience. One observer opines, "I think her sentimentalizing of the `poor little rich boy' is more graphic in her Little Lord Fauntleroy. My question is, was she glamorizing the working class/farm boy Dickion and ridiculing the infantile "lording" of Colin partly because she was an American?" (Colin was the sickly boy in her other well-known book, The Secret Garden.)

Social Connotations

The Fauntleroy suit was in and of itself a status symbol on the part of late-19th century mothers. Both parents often wanted to demonstrate social status, but in the case of the Fauntleroy suit, it it was almost always the mother who made the choice. At the time the craze began, most children worked at very early ages. They often wore hand me down adult clothes, not specialized children garments. Furthermore, much of the contemporary literature of the day describes children not having any childhood due to economic needs. Children dressed in Fauntleroy suits could, obviously not work in factories, mines or on the farm. This was an instant statement of family wealth at the time. A child's juvenile status was another method of declaring wealth and status, especially an older boy dressed in such a fashion. The sumptuousness of the Fauntleroy outfits were another display of status--especially using expensive lace and fabrics for a boy's outfit. Velvet was very expensive and symbolized wealth. Also silk shirts were expensive and shirts with ruffles or expensive lace were not only expensive but required a great deal of time to maintain speaking of the mother's leisure time or access to domestic help. Furthermore, bows, sashes and ringlet curls required huge amounts of time to properly display and for most children some adult had to perform this task. The older the child the greater wealth described because the child's family was wealthy enough to maintain the juvenile status longer.

Other Aspects

HBC has noted a variety of other aspects related to the Little Lord Fauntleroy suits. We have collected the various observations and accounts here. Many are based on an analysis of available images, but we hope to also obtain contemporary written accounts as well.

Theatrical Productions

Mrs. Burnett taking advantage of the success of her book launched into theatrical productions which proved to be enormously successful. After the turn of the century, movie productions appeared. The first was in the 1920s, but there have been many subsequent productions. Following up on the success of her book in 1886, Mrs. Burnett immediately began to produce a stage production which proved enormously successful in London and Paris as well as elsewhere in Europe. The boys went with her to Europe and were erolled in schools there. She was soon involved in law suits against unauthorized productions. The costuming in these plays involved very elaborate, frilly Fauntleroy suits and ringlet curls. Latter in the 20th century there were many movie and television productions of Mrs. Burnett's classic story. Most were serious productions. Movie producers have dealt with the costuming in different ways. Some productions have even put Cedric in modern clothes. Parodies eventually appeared, but in the 19th Century Little Lord Fauntleroy was considered serious literature, admired by British prime ministers and American presidents.

The Real Little Lord Fauntleroy

Mrs. Burnett's youngest son Vivian was in many ways the inspiration for her literary creation. Vivian was born in France and Mrs. Burnett's stay there must have affected her fashion sense. The boy was born in 1876 and in 1885 when the story first appeared was still being dressed in fancy velvet suits and had long curls. In fact, a photograph of Vivian was used by the illustrator Reginald Birch to draw the many acclaimed illustrations for the book.

National Styles

The velvet Fauntleroy suit was first and foremost an American style, no where was it as popular as it came to be in America. The suits Mrs. Burnett created, however, must have been influenced by her English birth and upbringing and the time she spent in France where her youngest son, Vivian, was born. The style was also very popular in England, France, Italy, and other countries as well. Much of the information I have on the style is American and British. I think this is primarily because most of my sources are English language sources. I am hoping that our European HBC viewers will contribute information about the popularity of the style on the continent. Notably, American boys' fashions have notably, with the exception of the Fauntleroy suit and associated ringlet curls, been much less fancy than French or Italian styles.

Fauntleroy Merchandise and Advertising

A wide variety of merchandise was made with images of Little Lord Fauntleroy. Some were authorized and some were not. Toys and dolls were some of the most popular items. Paper dolls were particularly popular. Paper dolls for little girls appeared in the early 19th century. Contemporary sets provide some colorful illustrations of The Fauntleroy blouses, suits, and hats worn by boys in the late 19th and 20th centuries. Many other styles were illustrated. Some products for adults were also made with Fauntleroy images. Greeting cards and scrapbook cutouts were also very popular. Fauntleroy images were also used in advertisements.


Figure 7.--Putting on a Fauntleroy suit was complicated. Most boys needed assistance. The most difficult part was tying the collar bow.

Dressing Up

Getting dressed up in a Fauntleroy suit could be quite complicated. Boys wearing ringlet curls had to endure the tedious process have their curls done up in paper curlers at night and then fixed in the morning. Then the boy had to put on his long stockings and stocking supporters. The blouse had to be buttoned on to the kneepants or kilt. Then there was the matter of tying the collar bows. Some boys had sashes which were difficult to tie and a few little bows at the hem of the kneepants. Most boys had to have help getting dressed.

School

Fauntleroy suits were not worn just for formal dress up occassions. HBC notes that boys commonly wore Fauntlroy suits or Fauntleroy-type outfits to school in the 1880s and 90s and the early 1900s. We note, however, that they did not commonly bwear long hair and ringlets to school. We have viewed large numbers of school class portraits and this seems to be a very common pattern. A good example is a urban U.S. school in the 1890.

Boys' Views

As popular as Fauntleroy suits were with mothers, the same can not be said for their sons. Boys in the late 19th Century had much less to say about their clothes than is the case of the modern boy. That is not to say that they did not have their opinions on the matter and the opinions were almost universally negative. This was especially true if. as was popular in America, ringlet curls were added to the velvet suit and lace collar.

Satorial Impact

The long-term impact of the velvet Fauntleroy suit, lace collar, and large floppy bow is difficult to assess. There is some reason to believe, however, that these suits had a major impact and was in fact a dividing point between historic and modern boys' clothing styles. The passions inspired by the suit on the part of mothers and sons may have had a lasting impact on fashion.

Just What Was a Fauntleroy Suit?

The initial Fauntleroy suit in the late 1880s had a fairly specific meaning. It was a kneepants velvet suit with a small jacket worn with a frilly blouse. Soon the term Fauntleroy suit was being used to describe a much wider range of boys' dress suits. Thus the question arises as to just what a Fauntleroy suit was.

Reorganization

A HBC contributor provided this comment: "I wonder if all young boys' velvet and lace suits should be lumped together under the portmanteau term "Little Lord Fauntleroy suit". Perhaps there should be a generic term 'Boys' velvet and lace suits' with a sub-division 'Van Dyck suits' and a further sub-division under the latter sub-division of "Little Lord Fauntleroy suits"--i.e. those directly inspired by the book illustrations."

Actual Suits

Some HBC readers collect historical clothing. These collections are of special interest to HBC because they allow a much more careful inspection of garments than is possible in a photographic image. We have information on both Fauntleroy blouses and suits. These actual garments provide information on material, color, construction, embroidery, manucturer, and a host of other details. Some readers have kindly provided us information about the garments in their collections. Some information is also available from internet and other auctions.

Personal Experiences

Some details are available on the experiences of some boys concerning the Fauntleroy suit that they had to wear-in some cases under considerable duress. To say the least, the Fauntleroy suits that their mothers so tenderly outfitted them in sid not prove very popular with the boys themselves.

Additional Information

Some interesting information is available on Fauntleroy suits, ranging from period fashion articles to biographical information. There is also information available on book editions, illustrators, and plays and movies.

Sources

Barraclough Paoletti, Jo. "Little Lord Fauntleroy and His Dad: The Transformation of Masculine Dress in America, 1880-1900, " Sally Queen & Assocites.

Burnett, Francis Hodgson. Little Lord Fauntleroy (1885).

Wilson, A. "Little Lord Fauntleroy: The Darling of Mothers and the Abomination of a Generation," American Lit. History (1996), Vol. 8, pp. 232-258.







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HBC Fauntleroy Related Pages:
[Fauntleroy dresses] [Fauntleroy blouses] [Fauntleroy movies] [Lace collars] [Collar bows] [Vivian Benett]
[Fauntleroy patterns] [Literary characters: Cedric Erol]



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Created: March 30, 1999
Spell checked: July 23, 2001
Last updated: 1:51 AM 10/17/2014