Boys' Play Clothes

Figure 1.--Many 19th Century mothers did not conceive of the modern concept of play clothes. Childern were often expected to be neat and tidy at all times.

The idea of play clothes is a relatively modern concept. Affluent mothers dressed boys through much of the 19th Century in rather elaborate dressy clothes and expected to stay neat and pesentable. Less affluent boys would be likely to wear their fathers hand down clothes, often for work as poorer children had to enter the workforce at a very early age. Protective clothes like pinafores and smocks served the purpose of modern play clothes, protecting a child's clothes. Modern play clothes did not begin to appear until the turn of the century with the appearance of rompers. Play clothes came in to their own in the 1920s as short pants became commonly worn by boys. The modern boy does not dress up in formal clothes 'to the extent that was common in early era. Thus casual clothes are the order of the day, bluring the distinction between play and normal styles.


Information on play clothing and the concept of childhood play is available for the following eras:

The 18th Century

The concept of specialized children's clothes of any type only began to develop during the late 18th Century. Parents in the 18th Century tended to think of childhood as wasteful and something to be discouraged about the time when the child had began to read.

Early 19th Century (1800-37)

Specialized children's clothes became increasingly common during the early 19th century. Many of the styles were well suited for children, open collars and non-restrictive outfits. Working class children entered the workforce at an early age and wore the same clothes as their fathers, often his hand-me-downs. Farm children attending rural schools wore mostly miniature versions of their parents' work garments, including denim overalls. Paintings by Winslow Homer and other contemporaty artists depict school yard play scenes of America in the latter 19th century.

Victorian Era (1837-1890)

Specialized children's styles continued to develop during the Victorian era. The styles in the 1870s, however, began to become increasingly formal and often restrictive, highly elaborate styles. Smocks and pinafores were worn in the nursery to protect clothes.

Edwardian/World War I Era (1890-1918)

The Victorian Era of course lasted until 1900, but many destinctly modern attitudes had begun to emerge in the 1890s so the Edwardian era in many ways begins in the decade before Victoria's death. The idea of specialized children's clothes made and worn just for play appears to have developed only in the late and become popular from the 1890s forward. Rompers and short pants appeared at the turn of the Century and gradually began to replace the more formal Victorian styles. These modern precursors of play clothes became oncreasingly popular after the turn of the century. Rompers became especially popular for younger boys and above the knee knickers, usually worn with full-length stockings, for older boys.

Interwar/World War II Years (1919-45)

Play clothes emerged in the 1920s as the standard wear for children. Easier to care for fabrics making washing less arduous, helping to promote the idea of play clothes. Play clothes came in to their own in the 1920s as one-piece "jump suits," in long and short pants. Overalls marketed as coveralls became popular with boys. Shorts were worn by quite old boys in Britain and Europe, but older American boys wore knickers. Some boys wore older clothes for play. Other boys had special play clothes Sometimes older boys would wear knickers to school, but shiorts for play.

Postwar Era (1945-1969)

After World War II America moved to the suburbs. The idea of a casual life style was increasingly reflected in the clothes worn by adults and children. For boys, "T" shorts and jeans were the order of the day. In addition, the modern psychological concept that there is great value in children's play and that it should be incouraged became increasingly accepted.

Late 20th Century (1970-99)

American boys no longer wanted to dress up and many did so only under considreable duress. The casual clothes they wore were in most cases little different from their play clothes.


Several childrens styles were created for play or a least to protect clothes whiler the child was playing or working.


Smocks or a garment appearing in the 19th Century which were originally worn by farmers and workers and eventually children to protect their clothes. They were never as popular in America as in Europe.


Pinafores also appeared in the early 19th Century. While originally worn by younger children, both boys and girls, to protect clothes, they eventually becasme a garment worn by girls of all ages. Unlike play suits, some pinafores could be quite fancy.


Rompers were the first true play suits. Ecentually some gany dressy rompers appeared, but the original rompers were practical functional garments for younger childen. They were worn by both boys and girls. They appeared as the fashion of dressing young boys in dresses were declining.


Levi Strauss in 1912 introduced its first playsuits for children, known as Koveralls. Simon Davis, the son of Jacob Davis designed the Koverall. Davis was the superintendent of the Levi Strauss Valencia Street factory. Levi Strauss & Co. advertised the Koveralls widely and the Koveralls became the first product sold nationwide by Levi's the 1920s introduced "Koveralls", a denim play garment. This was quite a novel idea at the time. For the first timev in America, some affluent city boys were esentially wearing overalls. Levi Strauss in the 1920s introduced "Koveralls", a denim play garment. They were conceivedf of by ??? Davis, son of Jacob Davis This was quite a novel idea at the time. For the first timev in America, some affluent city boys were esentially wearing overalls.

Play suits

Play suits appeared after the turn of the century. Some of the early ones wore short pants suits that appear rather dressy to our modern eyes, but were much less elaborate than 19th Century children's clothes. More practical short pants play suits appeared in the 1920s. Long pants play suits appeared in the 1910s, but did not become popular until after World War I (1914-18) in the 1920s. They were particularly popular in America.


Jeans were developed in the mid=19th Century in America as work clothes. They did not become widely used as boys play clothes until after World War II (1945) and only in America.

Short pants

Short pants were first worn by the British military in tropical postings. They became popular for boys in Europe after the turn of the 20th Century, especially after they were adopted by the Boy Scouts. They were worn for both play and dress clothes. Many different styles of short pants have been developed.


A latter outfit developed I believed in the 1950s were shortalls. They may have evolved from the concept of bin-front overalls. They were initially a play outfit, but were often worn for dressy, but not formal occasions. Shortalls are a one-piece short pants garmet worn by small boys in the 1960s-70s.


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Created: November 20, 1998
Spell checked: November 20, 1998
Last updated: October 21, 1999