*** boys clothes: early 18th century

Boys' Clothes: Early 18th Century (1700-40)

Much of the 18thcentury appeared on the surface a continuation of European social and cultural trends established in the 17th Century. European and American infants continued to be swaddled which mean being bound to a board or neck which kept the neck and back straight. Poweful change, however, were underway. These chanfes were to lead to war and revolution by the end of the Century--changes that shook the established social order to its roots. One part of the social ferment underway was the way Europeans looked at cildren and and childhood and by the end of the century a novel new fashion had become widely accepted, a belief that childhood was a special stage in human development and that children among other matters should have specialized clothing catering to their special needs.

Historical Background

The origin of spealized children's clothes and indeed our contemporary attitudes toward childhood itself can be found in Georgian Britain. The Georgian era (1714 to 1837, named for the first four King Georges and William IV who ruled consecutively) roughly correspond to the 18th century and the organizational thread of this web site.

The Georgian era was one of tremendous change. Society began reorganizing itself in ways that we have come to be perceived as distinctly modern: the advent of the industrial economy, growing power of the nation state and the strength

tri-cornered hats
Figure 1.--Boys throughout most of the 18th Century wore tri-cornered hats, long coats, and knee breeches. The long buttoned cuffs on the jackets are characteristic of the early 18th Century. Note the closed collar just like adults also wore.
of national identity, expanding urbanization, increasing emphasis on domestic life, the emergence of an important middle class with democratic aspirations, and perhaps most characteristic of the modern outlook on life--the cult of individuality.

Nowhere is this change more evident than in family relationships. The family came to be based for the first time on bonds of affection rather than economics. The child, once at the periphery, moved to the center of family affections as the Victorian era approached. This changing focus on children led to increasing attention to their needs and a growing recognition that childhood was a distinct period of human development and that a child had distinct needs. The development of specialized children's clothes during the 18th Century was one reflection of this growing recognition.

These changes were well under way during the early decades of the 18th Century. Only slowly, however, did these changes begin to affect the social order and the attitudes of the population. The changes were to bring about monentous changes in the European mind and social order. Among these changes were to be a new concept of childhood and the specialized clothing for children that will be assessed in this website.


John Locke launched the 18th Century debate on education when he published Some Thoughts Concerning Education (1693). Europeans in the Georgian period engaged in a profound debate over education. Locke had suggested that the goal of education was to prepare the child to achieve future independence in the world. Even so, this meant controlling the child's true, perhaps unruly, nature. Boys were to be educated outside the home, safely removed from the "pernicious" domestic sphere of women and servants. These ideas did not resonate with the population during the late 17 and early 18th Century. By mid-Century, however, increasing thought was being given to education and the nature of childhood. Some of the outcomes of the changes underway in the European mind were to be attempts to meets the needs of children and one aspect of that was specialized children's clothes. Such concerns and specialized clothing, however, were yet to be seen in the early part of the Cetury.

Men's Clothes

It is interesting to note that up until the late 18th century, it was often the man who dressed more flamboyantly than woman. Mens' wardrobes were filled with laces and bows as well as high-heeled shoes with shiny buckles. Even American presidents were not immune, as a sartorially splendid George Washington appeared at his first Inaugural wearing a brocade jacket, lace shirt, silver appointments, and high-heeled shoes with diamond buckles. This began to change in the later decades of the century, perhaps not coincidentally at the same time that special children's clothing styles developed.

The principal male garments were the long coats that had become popular in the 17th Century and the knee breeches that had appeared in the late 17th Century. Previously men and boys had worn long hose and breeches well above the knee. These coats and knee breeches would dominate men's fashions throughout the Century.


Many of our contemporary attitudes surrounding children began to develop in Georgian Britain. This period (1714 to 1837, named for four King Georges in sucession) stands out as one of tremendous change, as society reorganized itself in ways that we now recognize as distinctly modern: the growth of nation states, the advent of industrial economies, the emergengence of a middle class with democratic aspirations, increasing emphasis on domestic life, and the cult of individuality.

Parental attitudes toward children have changed remarkably in various historic epochs. Considerable evidence shows that parents have always prized their children, Georgian Britain led the way in Europe to viewing childhood as a special phase of human existence. Artists themselves participated in this movement as both recorders of contemporary values and as activists promoting change. Wider audiences come dramatically into play as well. The century saw the advent of the first opportunities in Britain for the public display of art (such as the founding of the Royal Academy in 1768) and the widespread popularity of inexpensive prints and illustrated books created expressly for children. Collectively, these works of art played public and private roles central to the creation of a new view of the child and provide many graphic depictions of children's clothes in the centuary before the development of photography.

The fashion of dressing children like their parents reflected the prevailing view of childhood. It may be difficult for the modern reader to understand, focused as we are on on issues of childhood-including new definitions of the family. The nuclear family symbolized by June and Ward Cleaver for those of us who grew up in 1950s America no longer exists for millions of American children. The ubiquitously termed "family values," and child abuse-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 to 18th century Europeans. Prior to the 18th Century, for example, the concept of childhood development and teen-age culture were unheard of. Children then, while loved by their families, were viewed as little more than small, vulnerable adults.

Childrens Clothes

While powerful economic and social changes were underway in the early 18th Century, they were not yet reflected in chidren's clothing. Children in the early 18th Century as well as most children until the later decades of the Century continued to wear clothes that were simply scaled-down versions of their parents clothes.

European parents like generations of parents before them so no benefit in providing less restrictive clothing than adults. In fact babies' swandling clothes were designed to restrict as were the corsets worn by girls. European and American infants for much of the 18th century were normally swaddled which mean being bound to a board or neck which kept the neck and back straight. This was just the opposite of the modern concept of stimualting and developing activities to exercize an infants mind and body. Swadling was seen as benefecicial to both the child's moral character as well as his physical development. Swadling continued until about 2 years of age when boys anf girls alike were put into ankle-length dresses with leading strings. Adult clothing such as tightly fitted knee breeches, heeled shoes, and jackets fitted tightly at the waist and around the arm were judged perfectly suited for boys as well. Such attitudes did not begin to change until after the mid-18th Century.

There were no specialize styles for chidren, but they wore quite a lot of clothes, especially if they came from wealthy families. Girls in particularly were heavily dresses which could be quite stiflng. Many wore enormous hairdos and or bonnets. Elaborate dresses were worn over what one 18th Century writer recalls as "A tightly constructed constructed harness of whalebone--sticks, sufficiently firm and stiff to with stand a bullet, violently pushed back arms and shoulders, pushed the chest forward and constricted the waist about the hips to wasp-like prpportions." [Johanna Schopenhauer] Boys were less likely to be so confined, but their dress outfits could also be quite elaborate.


Infants' swaddling clothes lasted well into the eighteenth century. The baby also owned a complete set of dress clothes which were worn for the christening ceremony and any other public occasion. Such garments were exquisitely made and beautifully embroidered. The skirts attached to the tiny bodices were invariably a good four feet in length. Yellow was the traditional color for the christening dress with embroidery in silk, or gold for an "upper class baby."


Boys at the beginning of the century continued to be attired in dresses just like those of their sisters. In fact if they had older sisters they probably wore their hand-me-down dresses. There were no special styles for the dresses worn by boys. Indeed there were no special styles for girls' dresses. Children simply wore scaled-down versions of the styles worn by their mothers.

Boys wore dresses until they were about 4 or 6 years old, although I am not sure about the precise age and circumstances of breeching. There appears to have been considerable lattitude as to the age. Period portraits show quite young boys in breeches as well as older boys in dresses.

One utilitarian element still employed on children's dresses were leading strings. They were still common on dresses for young children in the early 18th Century and were sometimes employed as a fashion element on dresses for older un-married girls.

Coats and breeches

Boys after they were breached from dressed were just like their fathers in the early 18th century. After emerging from dresses, boys were atired in minature versions of their fathers' clothes, just as before breeching they wore minature versions of their mothers' dresses.

Elaborate and formal finery for the young gentleman of the 18th century might be a fine damask suit with pleated jabot, cuffs and stock--just like the outfit that might be worn by his farther. Men's coats were made with full skirts, and the sleeves were made with wide cuffs. The sleeved vest became shorter than in the 17th Century and was often richly embroidered; after a time the vest was made without sleeves.

An 18th-Century addition to male costume was the buckled knee breeches. Older boys for most of the Century wore knee breeches. Boys knee breeches were scaled down versions of their father's breeches. There was no children's styles for knee breeches.

Other articles of clothing worn by boys were virtually identical to that of their parents. Boys also wore the same tri-corned hats worn by their fathers.

Country Differences


Early American clothes for children were basically similar to Engkish styles, perhaps simpler and sturdier.



Sources of Information

Much more is know about fashion in the 18th Century than any previous century. This is in part because rising incomes in an increasingly wealthy and educated Europe mean that there was more and more interest in fashion and more and more was being written about it. The major development, however, occured in the latter part of the Century with the appearance of fashion magazines. Information on fashion early in the Century was still confined to paintings and other artwork and personal journals.

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Created: February 29, 1999
Last updated: November 26, 2001