Boys' Clothes: 17th Century

Figure 1.--Boys and girls continued to be both attired in dresses during the 17th Century. This is Peter Paul Rubens as painted by his father in 1635.

Society today is focused on issues of childhood--but the discussions often seem oddly posed. Millions are concerned about unborn babies, but then oppose Government programs to aid poor children. New definitions of the family are emerging. Politicians have taken up the ubiquitously termed "family values." Great concern is expressed over child abuse, yet Americans seem unconcerned that a quarter of our children grow up in poverty. We must remind ourselves that childhood and the family have not always been as we know them. Many of the attitudes we hold concerning children and their special importance and needs were inconceivable only 300 years ago in the 17th Century. Prior to the 18th Century, for example, the concept of childhood development was unheard of. Children then, while loved by their families, were viewed as economic assets and little more than small, vulnerable adults. Their clothes clearly reflected this societal view. Some thinkers of the day began to suggest a different view of childhood, but those view achieved little popular acceptance

Historical Background

The 16th century emerges with the Reformation and Counter-Reformation raging in Europe, especially Germany. Heritics are dealt with harshly by the Catholic Church's Holy Office of the Inquisition. Bruno is burned at the stake in Rome (1600). The Church punishes free thinkers harshly, insisting upon scripture even when it is counterdicted by observeable fact. The church issues edict against Copernicanism cosmology (1616). The Inquisition convicts Galileo of heresy (1633). The Church's supression of free thinkers plays no small role in shifting the quest for knowledge which began in Renissance Italy to the largely Protestant countries of northern Europe. Spain is beginning a long decline and France emerges as the dominat European cultural and political power. There is intense competition among European powers for control of trade. The British, Dutch and French charter competing East India Companies (1600-04). The 1618-48: Thirty Years' War breaks out in Germany (1618). The War is conducted with extreme brutality reflecting the passions often brought out by religion. Germany is devestated. The War is finally concluded with the Treaty of Westphalia (1648). This is one of several attempts in Europe to recreate an international systemn after a devestating War. The Treaty established the still conorstone of modern diplomacy that states are soverign. Before Westphalia there were other contending structures, most notably that of international religious organizations such as the Catholic Church. England begins to create an overseas empire with the founding of Jamestown in Virginia (1609). The first African slaves arrive a decade later (1619). A second English colony is founded at Plymouth by the Pilgrims with the arrival of the Mayflower (1620). Richelieu becomes prime minister in France (1624-42). Europe's first newspaper is published in France (1631). The issue of royal absolutism confronts Europe. England's Sturat kings like the Bourbon kings claim a divine right monary with absolute power. This leads to Civil War in England (1642-46). Cromwell has Charles I beheaded for treason (1649) and becomes Lord Protector (1643). Louis XIV takes the French throne (1643). He acts to establish a highly centralize absolute regime. He then laubnches a series of costly wars to expands France's borders. He succeeds in taking Alsace and moving France's borders eastward to the Rhine. In the north, the Dutch supported by the English managed to gain their independence from the Spanish. In England the Stuart king Charles II is restored (1662). The Great Plague strikes London (1665). Charles' brother James II has difficulty accepting the limits Parliament has placed on royal authority and dreams of a Catholic England. He is dethroned in the Glorious Revolution (1688). Peter the Great is crowned Tsar in Russia (1682). Peter begins an opening to the West and the Russia he helped fashion will play a major role in Europe during the 18th century.


Until the 17th century. Europeans still used mostly wool and linnen (made from flax). Cotton was known, but available onlt in the Middle East and difficult to harvest and weave. Silk was also known, but a luxury fabric as it had to be imported from China or the Middle East. Silk began to be profuced in the Mediterranean and the European voyages od discovery open a sea route to China that allowed access to Chinese silks at lower prices than available from the Silk Road with outlets dominsted by the Ottomans and Arabs. French and Flenish weavers were the most compertent at the time. They were best known for weaving raw wool, much of it imported from Scotland and England. French weavers also became very in working with silk. King Louis XIV's suppression of the Protestants (Huguenots) drove many skilled Frenchmen from their country. Among these were French weavers. Many settled in England accross the Channel, including the to the east end of London. Thus by the end of the century, Englans was no longer primarily a producer of raw wool, but an important country producing desorable textiles as well, including beautiful ornate designs that early had to be imported from Flemish and French weavers. And the English weavers began to produce inexpensive textiles, including cheaper silks. The Spitalfields area of London was known for this. wealthy parents dressed their children using the same lavish textiles they enjoyed. These can be seen in the portraits of the day. Less affluent children were dressed coarse woollens and rougher cottons or textile mixtures like fustian. The developing English textile indusdtry would be crucuble from which the Ibdustrial Revolution would emerge in the 18th century.

Men's Clothing

One notable observation with men's and boys clothes during the 15th and 16th centuries was how colorful and stylish clothing was, especially the clothing worn by aristocrats and rich merchantmen that could afford to have their portraits painted. Mens' and boys' clothing was highly individualistic and often exhibited considerable fashion flare. This began to change in the 17th century. Colorful fashionable dress continued, but a small minority rejected colorful, deciorative dress and plain often drab clotghing in dark colors, often black. We know these non-conformists who actually demanded conformity as Puritans. [Steele, p. 16.] This approach to men's fashions became more pronounced in future centuries, especially the 19th century.

Figure 2.--These two sons of Flemist master Rubens wear the same style of clothes as adults in this portrait painted about 1625. Note the pants-like garment are still well above the knee. This was not a children's fashion, but the same style worn by adults.

Children's Clothing

Children have not always been dressed in distinctive clothes. Children in the 17th century, once out of their swaddling clothes and baby/toddler dresses, were dressed virtually as miniature adults. This practice was virtually universal throughout the 17th Century The portraits of children show children wearing rich dress-up clothes, virtually indistinguishable from those of their parents. They look in effect like dwarf adults. One of the most famous paintings depicting how 17th century boys wore scaled-down versions of adult clothing was painted by W.F. Yeames in 1876?. He painted popular historical and genre pictures, with a lively sense of dramatic expression. His best known picture is And When Did You Last See Your Father?, showing Cromwellian soldiers questioning a captured Royalist boy. The costume the boy wears is of course the Caviler lace trimmed costume immortalized by Gainsbourgh in Blue Boy. It was to serve as a model for the Little Lord Fauntleroy velvet suits that late 19th century mothers enthusiastically bought for their sons.


The adult clothes reflect the lack of recognition of the modern concept of childhood. And adults is what their parents were trying to make of them, not only in appearance but mentally. European upper classes proceed to put very young children to study under tutors and governesses. Many parents would begin those lessons when the children reached about 3 years of age. Contemporary letters and diaries show that education was commenced so early and with such intensity that it was not unusual for a child of 4 or 5 to be able to read, write, and understand several languages.


As children wore adult styled clothes, developments in adult fashion affected what children wore. The 17th Century saw a major change in men's fashions, and fashions more easily viewed as modern developed.

Fashion trends

Some of the major developments in the 17th Century included:
Coat and vest: About the year 1660 the coat and vest were introduced in France and brought to England by Charles II when the monarchy was restored. The vest reached to the knees and had sleeves. The coat reached a little lower than the vest. From these garments the present-day coat and waistcoat gradually developed. As boys were dressed as their fathers, these fashion trends extended to them as well. A boy from a wealthy family of the era might wear a pailetted buff-colored velvet suit of the type that would have been a small version of his father's clothes.
Knee breeches: The knee breeches which dominated 18th century menswear developed in the mid-17th Century. Knee breeches replaced the trunk hose worn earlier in the century giving a more modern, if some what shorter look of modern men's trousers.

Figure 3.--This painting, "When did you last see your father?" by Yeames was set in the 17th century and shows how Caviler or Royalist boys were dressed. It is ceratinly a powerful piece, bring to mind Sadam Hussein and Stuart Lockwood.

Dress up clothes

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.

Children and Clothes

Little boys wore the incongruous busk-front doublet and little girls were dressed in the stiff stomacher of the period. Royal children were painted in buff-colored velvet suits similar to the type that worn by their royal kinsman. There were also colors. There were the same dark colors, principally green, and brown, and the same hard, board-like corset underneath. Corsets in those days were of heavy, boned canvas or of ocuir bouilli which was boiled leather. The first difference that is most noticeable in children of this time period is the clothing that they wear.

Boys and girls

Clothing as in all eras was very important. The way one dressed not only represented his wealth, but also signaled social status. If a child was dressed inappropriately, their family could be considered poor and poverty-stricken. On the other hand, if a child was dressed well, the family will be well-respected and dignified.
Girls: Girls were heavily dressed. Girls wore a chemise (a long, white garment resembling a nightdress), stockings, a leather corset, a bodice, waist-petticoats, and a gown over it. Girls and women always covered their hair, usually with a scarf or a hat.
Boys: Boys after breaching usually dressed to resemble their father. They wear shirts and a fitted jacked called a "doublet". They wear close fitting hoses (like tights) which are tied by lace, and breeches are worn over these.
Boys and girls: Both boys and girls wore cloaks when it was cold. With all of these tight fitting clothes on, play--when permitted--must have often been very uncomfortable for children.

Figure 4.--Velazquez painted this young Spanish nobel, Don Baltazar Carlos, about 1640. Here you can observe that pants are bginning to take the shape of the knee breeches that were so common in the 18th century. Note the hair cut into bangs.

Dresses for younger boys

A custom which continued throughout the 17th Century in Europe and the Colonies was that of dressing little tots, both boy and girl in the same ankle-length dress. Boys wore dresses until about 5 to 7 years of age, although the precise age of "breaching" was at the discression of their mothers. Some boys might continue wearing dresses well past 7 years of age. There was no widely accepted specific age. Some authors have suggested a boy's size may have been more important than his age. Older siblings were another factor, determining the type of hand-me-dowm clothes that were available. This was not a minor factor given the real cost of clothing in the 17th Century. The mother's emotional attitudes was another important factor. It is amazing to find when studying the contemporary portraits of children how difficult it is to determine the gender of children before breaching unless a name is available. Many children wore "pinafores" over elaborate frocks as protection. "Pinafores" were aprons pinned to the front, often of sheer linen, embroidered and lace-trimmed.

Swaddling clothes

Swaddling clothes or "bands" were what babies were bound up in. the new baby encased in a sort of pocket with board back, of quilted cotton cloth ornamented with frills and elaborately embroidered. The child's hands and feet were held in place and the ears held close to the head by its cap. The contraption resembled the American Indian's packsack for carrying around the papoose. One could carry the child on one's back, could place it on its back in the cradle or hang it on the wall.

Touches for children

While children primarily wore the same clothes as adults, there were some stylistic features adopted for children. While generally minor they did represent the beginning of styles specifically designed for children. A fashion of the days when fashions lasted for a hundred years or more was "hanging sleeves." An extra pair of sleeves often slashed, hung unused in back as a purely ornamental feature of the rich costume of man, woman or child. A mode of the Renaissance, it carried over into the seventeenth century, worn in Europe and in the Colonies. Hanging sleeves were seen longer in children's dress especially on the very young. After it passed, one would come upon the expression in literature of the eighteenth century, "hanging sleeves" being applied to an infant or an elderly person signifying either childhood or second childhood. In Europe, England and America there developed a tendency to brighten youngsters' clothes with touches of scarlet, a color which took hold among the subdued Quakers. It became a favorite accent especially in linings that revealed themselves as in capes and sleeves and in ribbon bow knots and tassels.

Figure 5.--The Nain brothers painted both elaborate Cavaelier fashions as well as genre paintings showing the clothing of French peasants in great detail during the 17th century. Note the cape that the elderly man wears. This was a garment worn by French school children into the 20th centuries.

Country Trends

Clothing was still very destinctive around the world in the 17th century. China, India, Europe, the Middle East, and other locations all had destinctive styles. Fashion in Europe as in other areas was primarily the oprovince of the airistocracy and well-to do. There were great similarities among elite fashions througout Europe. The clothing of the middle-class and peasantry did not change as much as the elite. The Spanish werethe first to plant colonies in themericas (16th century). The English began to plant colonies (17th century). Fashions in the colonial cities were largely based on fashions in the home country, but Frech fashion affected women's wear throughout Europe and the colonies. Men's fashions seem very odd with balooning panteloons, but by the end of the century we begin to ee fashions that are recognizeably modern. The importance of practicality made for a degree of uniformity among the peasantry abd yeoman farmers. HBC has just begun to develop separate country pages for the 17th century. There is, however, considerable information on 17th century life and fashions already available on HBC pages.


English settlers founed their first colonies along the Atlantic coast of North America (17th century). There were substantial differences between the North and South. The first colony was Jamestown (1609). The clothes the settlers wore were the fashions commonly worn in England at the time. Many of the settler were gentleman looking for gold nd thus reflected the fashions of the upper crust. There were few families among the early settlers. Settlement in the North began differently. Plymouth Colony was founded by the Pilgrims (1620). King James attemptd to prevent this, but once they reached Plymouth, made little effort to control them. They were religious disidents who believed in austerity in both life and clothings. Their clothing was thus very plain, especially in comprisons to the Jamestown settlers. In contrast to Jamestown, there were many Families among the Plymouth settlers. Their goal was to create a pure, devote Christian society. Gradually the sharp destintions between Jamestown and Plymouth declined. The Pilgrims found it difficult to control the faithfull and many diverse groups arrived to settle the middle colonies, including Quakers and Catholics. And this mean that overtime two trends developed. Fashion became more relective of English styles in general. And the pratical extingencies of the New World made for practicAl, easy to sew clothing. Clothing on the Frontier was affectedby Nativ American styles. Of course when the English settlers arrived, North America already had a vibrant Native American population. There were destintive attire and decoration fro tribe to tribe, but also many similarities because of the materials available and the importance of utility. The most important tribe encountered by the Pilgrims was the Wampanoag. The standard garment for men, older boys, young girls and women was the basic breechcloth. This was common among Native Americans because of the basic clothing technology. Breechcloths were made from easily available dear leatther. Soft deerskin was chosen and worn between the legs with each end tucked under a belt. The ends hung down and as flaps in both the front and back. Boys did not commonly bother with clothing until they were about 10 years of age. Of course this varied seasonally. There were dearskin garments to get the Wampanoag through the cold winter weather.


Some information on England during the 17th century is avilable on a Sudbury Hall page.


HBC has only limited information on French fashions during the 17th century. The best known fashions are the rich, elaborate Cavelier fashions of the nobility. Less well known are the course clothing of flax and wool worn by the poorer classess. Cotton which in the 18th century was produced by the increasingly efficent processes of the Industrial Revolution became an important fabric for the humble classess, was still reltively expensive in the 17th century. Period artists provide detailed depictions of both classes. We note portraits of Louis XIV and his retinue which included youthful nobels, all dressed in the same elaborate Cavalier style. Some of the most detailed depictions of peasant dress were genre paintings by the Nain brothers. Here we do not note any destinctive age-graded children's clothing. Children were more likely to go barefoot than adults.

(The) Netherlands

Some of the best glimses of the 17th century come from Dutch art. The Dutch artusts were fascinated by little detils of every-day life, including clothing. . Several other artists provide important depictions of 17th century clothing, including Antoon Van Dyck and Abraham Bosse.

Chronological Trends

Many of the garments worn by modern boys and men began to appaer in the 17th century. Women in the early 17th century wore exagereted, wide dresses neceesitaing larger farthingdales. Dresses were worn at ankle length with stiff fan-shaped collars and long necklaces. Decorative strips of material hanging from the shoulder were the remainder of the hanging sleeves worn in the 16th century. Men and boys continued to wear trunk hises in the fornm of the longer breeches that were fashionable in the late 16th century. Downturned collars called a falling band were fashionable. [Crush]

Sources of Information

Fashion magazines as we now know them still did not exist in the 17th Century. There were still technical limitations on producing illustrations. The expense of printing , however, had declined significantly from the previous centuries. Printing with moveable print was well established. It was becoming increasingly common for even people of modest means to learn to read. Charity schools like the blue coat hospital schools were established in England and other countries. The expanding European economy also promoted education and increasing levels of dispoable personal income, fueling a greater interest in fashion on the part of an increasing number of people. These developments were changing the face of Europe, but there were still no fashion magazines through the 17th Century. The major source of fashion information was paintings and drawings as well as private journals.


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

Steele, Valerie. "Appearance and Identity," in Men and Women: Dressing the Part, ed. Claudia Brush Kidwell and Valerie Steele (Washington, D.C.: Smithsonian Institution Press, 1989).


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Created: March 1, 1999
Last updated: 2:27 AM 9/22/2012