Figure 1.--Some early suits with aspects of the skeleton suit were worn with knee breeches. Even so the open ruffled collar, like this one worn by Thomas John Clavering in 1777, is characteristic of skeleton suits. This looks to be a one-piece suit which younger boys wore. Note Thomas John's curls. Also note the bows in his slippers.
The skeleton suit was a fashion staple for boys. It came in one
and two piece styles with numerous buttons in necesary places. It
was worn during the French Empire period and the
British Regency era Skeleton suits were widely worn by boys througout
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. The style was most populare from about 1790 into the 1830s,
although it was still seen as late as the 1850s. Precursors to the
skeleton suits appeared even earlier during the 1770s--but entailed
knee breeches rather than long pantaloons. 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. The skeleton suit proved to be one of
the more enduring boyhood fashions and was worn by boys and was popular
for more than half a century.
The first skeleton suits had some of the features of the classic
skeleton suits. I have noticed the 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 distintive trousers
of 19th century suits.
The early skeleton 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.
Almost all existing images of skeleton suits are paintings or drawings.
As the earliest photographs of any quality date from the 1840s, this was
after the period of greatest popularity for skeleton suits.
George Romney's (1734-1802) painting of the Clavering Children in 1777
Thomas John and Catherine Mary, children of George
Clavering of Greencroft, in Durham provide insights in late 18th century
childrens dress (figure 1). The youngsters and their dogs move gently
through an undefined
landscape. When he painted it, Romney had just returned from a period
of study in Rome and the
graceful poses of the figures reflect his familiarity with classical
sculpture. The attitudes of the
children also effectively capture their juvenile state as well as
their gender roles as master of animals and nurturer. Thomas John's
open ruffled collar is
characteristic of the developing style of skeleton suits. Note that his
skeleton suit is a one-piece garment, a style popular for younger boys.
Thomas John still wears the knee breeches of the 18th century. His
sister's dress clearly shows the developing Empire dress fashion.
Figure 2.--Aristocratic families throughout Europe showed considerable similarities in their fashion. This aristocratic Spanish boy was painted by Goya about 1790. His skeleton suit looked much like that worn by an aristocratic or wealthy English boy. Note the long pantaloons which would not have been worn by his father.
The first long trouser skeleton suits appeared in the 1790s. Some
of the first suits were worn bu European royalty or aristocrats, but
this may be a function that these were the children most likely to
have their portraits painted.
Both Thomas John and the Spanish aristocrat painted by Goya about 1790, lack the very high waistline popular in the early decades of the 19th century have not yet appeared. (Notice the sash worn by the Spanish boy.) The Spanish boy does wear the long pants style well before the turn of the century. At this time adult aristocrats and wealthy Spanairds would not have considered wearing trousers--they were considered to be for peasants and workers. Thus it is clear that Europeans were increasingly adopting specialized fashions for children.
Figure 3.--This American boy in an undated painting wears a skeleton suit with matching jacket and trousers. Notice the puffed sleeves and ruffled collar.
Skeleton suits had many variations, but the classic suit had several
common fearures which varied only slightly over time. It was most
popular during the first three decades of the 19th Century. The
classic skeleton suit consisted of a tight, short jacket and usually
matching trousers. The trousers of these classic suits could have
extremely high waistlines. In some cases the waistlines of the trousers
could be halfway between the waist and the arm pits.
The skeleton suit declined in popularity after the 1830s, but it
continued to be worn through the 1850s. I'm not sure about the stylistic
details of these suits, but the waistine of the trousers fell to
normal waist levels.
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