Boys' Clothes: 16th Century

Figure 1.--This prince wears the bloomer-like truk hose (breeches) worn in the 16th Century. Trunk hise were short at the beginning of the century, but gradually became longer before evoving into 17th Century kneebreeches. Note the elaborate collar. I am not sure about the date of this portrait.

The 16th century in many ways can be seen as the first century of the modern era. Europeans begin to look and think like modern peoople, however, different the fashions may appeara at first glance. Europeans at mid-millennium had no concept of childhood as a distinct stage of development. Children were expected to assume adult roles at an early age. This was reflected in the lack of any specific styles of clothing designed to meet the needs of children. After breaching, children were dressed in essentially adult clothes scale down to fit there small frames. Modern concepts of childhood and the family did not begin to form until the 18th Century and are in many ways largely formulated in the 19th Century Victorian era. For many, their concepts of clothing during this century is largely set by Shakesperian plays that they have seen.

Historical Background

Most historians defines the modern era as beginning in the 16th century. It was a time of unprecedented change compared to the glacial rate of change during the Medieval era. The 16th century followed on the Renaissance which had opened the eyes of Medieval Europeans. The Italian Renaissance w\had passed its prime and was now spreading north, reaching realatively isolated kingdoms like England. Columbus had completed his voyages opening the New World and the era of discoveries. These and other developments were to lead to a European intellectual, economic, and military expansion that was to create our modern world. There were changes in vurtually every aspect of life. Europeans begin to look and think like modern peoople, however, different the fashions may appeara at first glance. At the time the gold and silver that flowed into Spain from its American colonies were seen as the basis of national power. In the long run, the most significant item obtained by the Spanish in the Americas may have been the humble potato. Life was still hard, but along with cultural change came economic growth. Europe was more prosperous in the 16th century than at any time since the fall of Rome. This economic growth was apparent in the evolution from Medieval Feudalism to a nascent capitalist economy. The modern mechanisms of international commerce are forming including banks and other financial institutions, maritime trading fleets, and most importantly an entrepreneurial bourgeois class. Some of the great minds which launched Western science appaered in the 16th century. Their work was not only of enormous economic and cultural importance, but also trans formed warfare. The invention of gunpowder was not only of military impotance, but had a huge cultural and political impact. The Feudal system had divided Europe into a number of small principalities. Many were dominated by castles which enabled them in some cases to amass power to resist the king and national government. (It is no acciddent that two of the most important European royal families were founded by Feudal lords with string castles: the Hapsburgs and the Hollenzollerns.) Gunpowder along with the Renaissance and other factors meant the demise of the Feudal system in Europe, althoghh it continued to play a major role in Eastern Europe, especially Russia. The inventiin of the printing press and moveable type in the 15th century had by the 16th century fueld the intelectual ferment set in motion by the Renaissance. The books that appeared were often printed in the vernaular giving rise to modern versions of European languages and launching the nationalism that would eventually transform the face of Europe. Another outcome of that ferment was the Reformation begun when Martin Luthur posted his 95 Thesis on the Church door in Worms. The Reformation along with the Renaisance transformed man's concept of himself and the universe. It also weakened the Catholic Church which had been the one unifying force much of Europe.


Europeans at mid-millennium had no concept of childhood as a distinct stage of development. Children were expected to assume adult roles at an early age. This was reflected in the lack of any specific styles of clothing designed to meet the needs of children. After breaching, children were dressed in essentially adult clothes scale down to fit there small frames. Modern concepts of childhood and the family did not begin to form until the 18th Century and are in many ways largely formulated in the 19th Century Victorian era. For many, their concepts of clothing during this century is largely set by Shakesperian plays that they have seen.

Clothing Styles

As there were no specialized children clothes in Europe since the Renaissance, the clothes children wore were a reflection of changing adult fashions. These changes occurred much more slowly than is the case in our more fast passed modern world. Some styles persisted for decades if not entire centuries.

Medieval fashion

Medieval fashion was characterized by the loose draping of garments based on classical styles. When young, children were clothed like their parents. There was no specially designed children's clothing. The type of garments worn were long stockings called "haut de chausse" with suspenders which went back in the 19th century as a boy clothing.

The Renaissance

Dressing children in adult styles came about during the Renaissance. Increasing wealth began to be acquired groups other than aristocrats. With the increase of wealthy merchant families, especially in the cities, greater attention was given to clothes and fashion. Previously fashion had been the concern of a small number of aristocratic families. Thus developed love of finery that in earlier times had been accessible only to nobility. Since costly clothes were at the time a family's most important the outward sign of affluence, it was important that the children be as richly attired as their parents when appearing in public. Indoors "en famille," however, daily attire consisted of a coarse, unbleached linen chemise or smock which was the undergarment worn under a handsome outfit. This undergarment whether of linen or woolen cloth was the sole piece of underwear worn by men, women and children of both genders. As the general body garment for babies, it came to be known in the 13th century as the gertrude, the name still in use today for the flannel petticoat of the new baby. Some authors believe that this name stems from a Saint Gertrude of German birth. "Gertrude the Great," was an abbess of Nivelle in Brabant who lived from 1256 to 1311. She was reportedly famed for having received supernatural visions but certainly, too, must always have worn a woolen piece of underwear.

Major Fasion Chnges

Medieval fashions of loose draped clothes began giving way to more modern fashion during the mid-15th Century. These fashions became dominant by the 16th century. The new modern styles were garments tailored or closely adapting clothes to the body. The garments worn by nobles and wealthy merchants were tailored and then elaborately adorned, either with passemeteire or trimmings, or by quilting. Some of the major changes included:
Collar : Collars could be quite elaborate. Both men and boys as well as women could wear these elaborate collars. I'm not sure at this time what they were called.
Sleeves : During the Renaissance, sleeves took center stage in the fashion arena. This was a major departure from medieval dress which harkened back to basically Roman sleeveless tunics, rather surprising as the Renaissance in many ways was a rediscovery of classical learning. Both men and women don apparel with ordinary sleeves that are made glamorous by intricate dress sleeves worn over the dowdy ones. The fancier sleeves may be pleated, banded to form elaborate puffs up and down the arm, sewn like wings to the shoulders of the gown, or studded with ornaments and jewels.
Hose : The hose were the only article of clothing not adorned with decorations. By the 16th century the hose were divided into trunk hose or hauts-de-chausses , which consisted of a number of rings or puffs of material passing horizontally around the thigh; and stockings or bas-de-chausses . The trunk hose in time evolved into knee breeches that became the primary male garment in the 17th Century.
Coat/vest : The other major modern innovation was not introduced until the 17th Century.


Dress-up clothes were for occasions of entertaining and visiting and like those of the adults, were of satin, velvet, brocade and occasionally of white satin worked with gold and silver thread. Since the heavy fabrics were reinforced with buckram glued to the under side, underwear was of little consideration except as a protection for the gown in touching the body. The coif or bonnet of linen was always worn during the Middle Ages indoors and out because it was considered wise to keep the head of a child covered, a thought that applied to adults as well, the coif being worn for centuries.

Figure 2.-- There were no specialized children's clothing in the 16th Century. Men's and boy's trunk hose (breeches) were still well above the knee. Women covered their legs in voluminous long skirts.

Chronological Change in Fashions

Just as the 16th century was a century of unprcedented change in science, economics, and social thought, so did the pace of fashion change quicken. This is a common trend that fashions tend to change along with monentous politucal, cultural, and economic change. The expanding trade and commerce of the 15th century had an enormous impact on clothing and fashion. Increasingly commoiners could dress fashionanly. In fact some wealythy merchants could affofrd to dress better than the nobility, austensibly their social betters. At the beginning of the century we see rather dignified garments. Men might wear square-cutish hats. This style continues today in the squarish biretta worn by some modern clergymen. Men continued to wear long gowns, often trimmed with decorative fur that was highly practical during the Winters. Under their gowns they wore doublet and hose with square shoes Women and girls commonly appeared in square-gable headdresses (English hoods). Men commonly hung purses, keys and pomanders from their belts as pockets were not yet common. [Crush] With the fortunes being made in the expanding economies, Europeans by the 1540s could afford increasingly splendid clothes. The square look became ibcreasingly pronounced. Men wore flat hats with padded crowns, often decorated with flowers. There were increasingly large padded sleeves that were cut to display rich linings. [HBC note: Medieval clothes were often simple and high functional reflecting the economic conditions. When ever elabborate styles appear using extra materail for no practical reason, it is often the sign of a properous and expanding economy.] It was in the mid-16th century that the foreunners of modern trousers appeared. They did not look like trousers. In fact they looked more like children's rompers of the early 20th century. They were called trunk hose and were padded breeches, often padded and blouced out to the extreme. They were worn with colored hose. At the time men proudly displayed their legs, but women's legs were distretely hidden under long gowns. While long, women's skirts were cut to display richly embroidered underskirts. The round French hood increased in popularity. [Crush] It was in the 16th centuring that the term breaching appeared. Young boys were dressed in the same gowns an dresses that girls wore and did not begin wearing breeches until about 5-6 years of age, although this varied. Neck ruffs sometimes quite elaborate were fashionable by the 1570s. They were worn by both men and women as well as children. Stays or corsets were also sommon for both men and women as well as some children. Both men and boys wore a sleeveless jerkin over often stiffy padded doublets. Wonen wore long, often highly ornamented gowns with a padded bondice (stomacher). The skirts of women's dresses became wider and farthingales were introduced to hold them out. [Crush]

Sources of Information

Fashion magazines as we now know them did not exist in the 14th-16th Centuries. This was in part due to the limitations and expense of printing. Including illustrations, a particularly important aspect of fashion publishing, was an especial problem. Another problem was the still relatively small number of people who could afford to indulge an interest in fashion. The still limited number of people who could read was another problem.

The major developments during this period was to revolutionize Europe leading to publishing, eventually including fashion publications. Interestingly, two of the events occurred in Germany.
Printing: The first developed occurred in Mainz. Johann Gutenberg pioneered the use of moveable type, significantly reducing the cost of books and eventually leading to magazines. For the first time, books could be purchased by individuals who were not enormously wealthy. Gutenberg's first book was the Bible which he began printing about 1450, but an explosion of printing covering a host of subjects was a major factor in the explosion of European learning and power.
Protestantism : The second factor was the Protestant Revolution. Martin Luther wrote scathing condemnations of the Catholic Church and in 1517 nailed his 95 Theses on the door, which served as a kind of bulletin board of the Wittenberg church. Although Protestants without the guiding hand of Rome splintered into many sects, one common theme was a responsibility of the individual to seek salvation--which necessitated a study of the Bible . Thus more and more Europeans learned to read.
Wealth : A third factor was the growing wealth of Europe. Many European countries by the 16th Century were beginning to experience quickening economic growth. This and the expanding knowledge of maritime technology and firearms enabled them to expand outward, acquiring riches which further aided Europe's economic development. The result was a steady growth in the bourgeoisie and the number of people who could indulge an interest in fashion.

While these developments were to change the face of Europe, there were still no fashion magazines through the 16th Century. The major source of fashion information was paintings and drawings as well as private journals.

Social Class

Society in the 16th century continued to be divided into four principal groups: the nobility, merchants, the landowning farmer, and the landless mostly agricultural laborers. The clothes people wore clrly identified thir social position. The nobility at court set the fashion. They wore expensive clothing made of rich fabrics to demonstrate their position and importance. They wore intricately brocaded or embroided clothes. Fabrics included expensive silks and satins. Their clothing was heavily decorated with frills and delicate lace as well as massive ruffs. Only the very rich could afford these clothes.

Country Trends

Our coverage of 16th century trends is still very limited. We have developed some limited information in individual countries. The Renaisance which began in Italy in the 13th century had by the 15th century reached the norther countries of Western Europe. The art was, however, still strongly influenced by the Church. Depictioins of children other than scions of Italian princely fa,milies are still quite rare, especially early in the century. There was in the 16th century considerable continuity accross countries, especially with the privlidged classes. Some European countries, however, were notably different. One of these was Poland whose King King Ladislaus Vasa in the 16th century promoted traditional national styles instead of the fashions popular in Western Europe. e note a fascinating German painting depicting the children of a mother who had 53 children, few who actually survived.

Vintage Clothing

Vintage clothing from the 16th century is of course very rare. HBC has not yet acquired any images of vintage 16th century clothing. We do have some information on reproductions made for theatrical purposes. Such items of course do not have same authenticity of actual vintage clothing. They do look like acurate reproductions. The costume images that we have acquired is of an English Tudor boy' costume that was used in Shakesperian plays.


Crush, Margaret. Piccolo Book of Costume (Pan Books: London, 1973). The book has vert nicely done illustrations by Faith Jaques.


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Created: March 2, 1999
Spell checked: April 7, 2002
Last updated: August 27, 2003