The skeleton suit was a fashion staple for boys. It came in one and two piece styles with numerous buttons in necessary places. It was worn during the French Empire period and the British Regency era Skeleton suits were widely worn by boys throughout Western Europe and America. Well dressed boys wore skeleton suits in
the last decade of the 18th Century and the early decades of the 19th Century, about 1790 into the 1830s. Precursors to the skeleton suits appeared even earlier during the 1770s. The skeleton suit was
one of the first specialized styles worn by children as opposed to scaled down version of the styles
worn by one's fathers. They were apparently called skeleton suits because the boys at the age the suits were worn were so slender. The suits thought this period had two primary features: high-waist, and front buttons. An open neck blouse trimmed with lace or other elegant trimming was another feature on many suits. It was one of the more enduring boyhood fashions
and was worn by boys for more than half a century.
Skeleton suits had several common features which varied only slightly over time. Some of the features of a skeleton suit and other available information on the style included high-buttoned waists, long pantaloons, and the copious use of buttons. The high waist was the single most prominent feature of the suit. It reflected the high waists in clothing for men, women, and girls. The first two decades of the 19th century were the period in which the Empire fashion raised waistlines of mother, daughter, and small boy up under the arms. Men's fashions also had high waists, but not generally as high as those of children and men. This basically classic high-waist style was loosely patterned on ancient Greek fashions. Buttons were a conspicuous part of most skeleton suits. Many classic skeleton suits had two rows of ornamental buttons in front, often ascending over the shoulders. The pantaloons also had elaborate buttons, both as a front opening and to attach to a blouse to hold it up. The skeleton suit was also a practical garment for a child. The open collar style was comfortable. The suit was generally styled with enough fullness to allow movement, but trim enough to maintain a reasonably tidy appearance. The skeleton suit is considered by some students of clothing design to charming and artistic and periodically influences fashions, although not to the degree of the early 19th century. Some view it and concurrent high-waist dress styles for girls as some of the most charming children's costumes ever designed. While the high waist was present in all skeleton suits, other features of the suit varied over time such as collars and pants length.
The first skeleton suits had some of the features of the classic
style. I have noticed some slightly higher waisted suits
as early as the 1770s, but the style may have originated earlier. These early suits were commonly worn with open ruffled, but not usually lace, collars and front waist buttons. The primary distinguishing feature of the early skeleton suits in the late 18th century were the knee breeches (figure 1). Trousers were not
commonly worn until well into the 19th century. Thus the early precursors to the skeleton suit had knee breeches rather than the distinctive trousers of 19th century suits (figure 3). The early skeletons suits appeared to have evolved from the jacket and kneebreeches commonly worn by men and boys throughout
the 18th Century. The high-waisted pants and one-piece suits for younger boys were the first important specialized boys' fashions. Sailor suits for boys also appeared in the late 18th Century, but until adopted by Queen Victoria in the 1840s were not widely worn by boys. Until the late 18th Century boys oncebreeched
just wore smaller versions of their fathers clothes. The skeleton suits were specifically for boys.
Skeleton suits appeared in one-piece and two-piece styles. The one-piece suits were rather like jumper outfit with the jacket and trousers combined in one front buttoning outfit. Such suits jumpers might be made of brown linen or kerseymere white cambric. As they were for younger boys there were generally white frills at the collar and even the ankles as young boys might wear pantalettes.
Skeleton suits had many variations, but the classic suit consisted of a jacket, pantaloons, and blouse. Actual skeleton suit consisted of a tight, short jacket and usually matching trousers. The colors could be contrasting, but this was unusual. The short jacket contrasted to the longer jackets worn by adults. This was the precursor for short jackets as a juvenile fashion. Presumably the short Eton jackets for new boys at Eton College derived from this fashion. Some of the jackets instead of fastening to the pantaloons were worn with one-piece suits. Sometimes boys just wore a blouse without a jacket. Deep frilled turned down, ruffled collars were especially elaborate for the younger boys. Ruffles were also often employed at the he wrist. While ruffled collars were common, lace was rarely employed--perhaps because of cost. The blouses were always long sleeved. Young boys might wear dresses with short sleeves, but never short-sleeved shirts and blouses. Older boys might wear plainer collars. In the latter period of skeleton suits, a large Eton collar might be added for older boys who would soon graduate to Eton suits.
The skeleton suit consisted of both jacket and pantaloons as trousers were first called. The pantaloons which began to be worn in the 1790s
replaced knee breeches which men of status continued to wear well into the 19th century. The pantaloons were usually cut to be relatively tight and form fitting. The pantaloons were long, but usually did
not cover the boy's ankles.
The jacket or blouse was often tucked into the trousers and buttoned well above the waist. The trousers
buttoned on to the jacket to hold then up, sometimes with a multi-buttoned front panel. Boys never belts with skeleton suits. Interestingly their fathers at the time wore knee length pants and looked down on long trousers as plebeian. The boy's trousers and jacket might have been made of silk or velvet. Men and boys in the 18th Century wore kneebreeches with white stockings. The new pantaloons covered most of the leg, but not the ankle. As the 19th Century progressed, it was not considered appropriate for either boys or girls to show their legs. Some reports suggest that the pantaloons for younger boys were trimmed with lace. This probably refers to pantalettes that younger boys, girls, and women. Little boys wore them with both dresses, tunics, and skeleton suits.
Boys did not wear belts, but colorful sashes for decorative effect were sometimes added for dress occasions. This was the only common use of the sash with boys' clothes until the Fauntleroy craze of the 1880s. Skeleton suits were worn with white stockings. In the late 19th-century a fancy flat slipper might be worn on them, often decorated with bows. After the turn of the century flat-soled strap slippers or pumps, usually
black were the most common, especially for little boys. I have little information on head gear. Many of the available paintings do not picture caps. This may have been to allow the painter to depict the boy's hair. I think that when children or adults went outside, they commonly wore caps or hats. One source suggests military-style cap was often added to skeleton suits for effect.
I am not sure what colors skeleton suits came in or how colors changed over time. Many paintings are rather muted colors. Some paintings show that bright colors were also used in boys' skeleton suits. These seem to
be for aristocratic boys, I'm not sure if commoners were so conspicuously outfitted. In fact until
after the mid-19th century I don't know of any other boy's dress suit in which such bright colors were used.
Dressy skeleton suits might be made out of velvet. Play clothes were more likely made of muslin and nankeen.
One interesting question is what age boys wore skeleton suits. We know little boys wore dresses in the 18th and 19th centuries. I'm not sure at what age they were breeches and allowed to wear trousers. There was not set age and it in most cases up to the mother. It is likely that most boys were breeched at about 5 years of age, but image exists of boys 3 and 4 years old in skeleton suits, so we know that some boys were breeched earlier. In contrast, there are also accounts of boys as old as 11 still wearing dresses, so we know that breeching could be delayed well beyond 5 yeas of
age. British boys going away to school appear to have worn skeleton suits during the first decades of the 18th century. Younger boys who had worn tunics would wear skeleton suits for school. Unfortunately this does not tell us much about age as there was not set age at the time to enroll in the great public (private) schools. Schools accepted boys of widely varying ages. Only much later did the schools
set upon about 13 years to standardize entry. Most boys probably began wearing skeleton suits at about 5 year of age after breeching. Certainly there are many images of boys wearing skeleton suits at about 5 or 6 years of age. Some mothers may have employed skirted garments like smocks or tunics, before choosing a suit with pantaloons. Some boys may have worn smocks or pinafores over there skeleton suits, but I have little information on this. Presumably if a boy was to have his portrait painted, he would not have worn informal garments like smocks and pinafores.
Skeleton suits were widely worn througout Europe and America in the late 18th and early 19th century. I am not sure yet in which country they first appeared or who designed them. I believe that it was probably France, but they were also very popular in England. Many basic styles had a variety of stylistic variations among the different countries where they were worn. HBC has not yet, however, been able to detect stylistic differences aming different countries. HBC's initial conclusion is that the skeketon was a kind of pan-European style for boys. The topic of national differences in skeleton suits, however, requires much further investigation.
Charles Dickens described a boy in the early 19th century wearing a skeleton suit:
"A skeleton suit, one of those straight blue cloth cases in which small boys used to be confined before belts and tunics had come
in ... An ingenious contrivance for displaying the symmetry of a
boy's figure by fastening him into a very tight jacket, with an
ornamental row of buttons over each shoulder and then buttoning his
trousers over it so as to give his legs the appearance of being
hooked on just under his arm pits." (Charles Dickens, Sketches by
During the wig period of the 18th century it was not unusual to dress a boy's hair like a wig and dust it with powder. Now the hair was cropped instead of the former tortuous curl-papers, curling iron
and pomade. The boys with skeleton suits look to b wearing naturally styled hair. The hair length of the boys in skeleton suits appears to have varried over time.
Late 18th century: Boys' hair during the late 18th century could be quite long, down to shoulder length, although most boys appear to have worn it off the shoulders.
Turn of the century: Boys at the turn of the century seem to have generally worn their hair at ear level or over the ear. Fewer boys wore shoulder-length hair.
Early 19th century: Skeleton suits were widely worn through the 1830s and were still seen in the 1840s. Boys in the 1800s commonly wore over thecears hair, but as the century progressed shorter hair styles became increasingly common for boys after breeching. There do not appear during this period to have been a lot of boys in skeleton suits wearing either very short hair or long shoulder-length hair.
Little girls were freed of the boned, corset body, wearing instead a soft muslin dress sash-bound in place of lined silks and velvets. A slip was worn under the slim frock and as the style shortened, frilled lace-trimmed tubes or "false pantaletts" tied at the knees were designed a modesty pieces to conceal the legs. These were also worn by younger boys. Occasionally noted in the new fashion journals that had come into existence, such illustrations shocked many to see legs featured in this manner. Seemingly, folks grew accustomed to the fact that females do have legs because by the 1830's, both young girls and women did wear drawers. But it required a quarter century for the garment to become custom in feminine dress. In America the fashion prevailed from about 1810-1850, that is the fashion of pantaletts showing below the skirts. Pantaletts were also worn by young boys instead of long trousers. A contemporary fashion note indicates that pantaletts for day wear were of nankeen or calico and that those worn during a period of mourning were of black crepe.
In America during the first quarter of the century caps were commonly worn in the house and outdoors by children and women. Upon going out, a hat or bonnet of straw or beaver, according to the season, was put on over the cap and tied under the chin, a very becoming fashion to all females. Infants were wrapped in long cloaks of merino, painstakingly and lovingly embroidered, wadded and lined with soft silk and edged with swansdown, a baby's garment for most of the century. In the 1820s the waistline for girls and boys went back to normal. Skirts and boys' trousers grew fuller and puffed sleeves appeared in the leg-o'-mutton style. Fashion swung from the simplicity of the earlier mode to as much ruffling, ribbon, ruching, embroidery and trimming as the garment would hold. Hats and bonnets were decked with all the bow knots they could carry. The dainty white and tinted muslins, lawns, percales and gauges gave way to organdie) gingham and taffeta In deeper colors. From here on into the first decade of the twentieth century design in costumes was doomed to clutter and fussiness.
Some of the best known illustrations of children's clothes during this period was Kate Greenaway. Her drawings show boys in long pants suits and jumpers with charming open-necked ruffled collars. Kate Greenaway (1846-1901) was particularly charmed by the juvenile fashions of the Empire period. She chose that period, rather than her more drab period, for her lovely illustrations. A famous Pears' soap ad pictured a curly-headed boy about eight or so in a skeleton suit and elaborate collar ruffles, foreshadowing the lace collars employed in the Fauntleroy suits
of the later 19th Century. Some of the best known illustrations of the children's fashion of the early 19th Century Empire periodwere drawn by Kate Greenaway. She drew during the Victorian period after mid-Century, but the drawings appear extremely accurate--if idealized. They serve as the basis for endless valentines and sentimental drawings and porcelain reproductions. As mentioned earlier, it was in the 1880's that Kate Greenaway's charming drawings of children met with tremendous success. In her little birthday books and cards which were first published in 1873 she adapted the Empire style to her own taste producing little figures that appealed to everyone. The costumes were simple, artistic designs that were more suitable to little tots than the current over-decorated mode. She became famous in Europe and America and her little boys and girls have come down to us in the dress of the small pages and ring bearers as well as flower bearers in wedding pageants. Note that none of the children in her drawings have bare legs. Rather the boys wear high wasted trousers with frilly trim. Some times she drew the boys with ruffled, open necked blouses, but generally not the pantaletts in which some boys were dressed.
Interestingly, the very first dedicated boys' garment, the skeleton suit, employed button on styling. These suits were commonly worn by boys from about 1780-1830. After that button-on styling appears to have virtually disappeared until button-on shirts and shorts became popular in the 1920s. HBC is not sure why button-on styling went out of fashion and was not commonly used for such a long period.
Many portraits of boys in skeleton suits are classic images. The painters are well known and the identity of their subjectes well documented. There are, however, many American primitives (naive) portraits that are unknown. There are also many unidentified European portarits. We will post some of these imagers here. We would be very interested in reader comments as to the date and country of the portraits. We would also be imnterested in the artist, but realize that in manu cases he will be unknown,
Lord Byron: England in the 1790s
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