*** boys clothing during the 18th century

Boys' Clothes During the 1800s Decade

The turn of the century saw major changes in fashions for men women and children. Fashions changes often follow major poltical, social, and military crisis. The social changes unleased by the French Revolution have profound reverbreations throughout Europe. One of the major changes was in fashions which moved toward a freer more open style and away from the elaborate aristocratic fashions of the late 18th century. In past years, boys would have simply followed the fashion changes for men. The principle of distinct fashions for children had become firmly established by 1800 and continues to this day. Some of the most important styles were dresses (for little boys) and tunics and skeleton suits (for older boys).

Historical Background

The 1800s were dominated by the Napoleonic Wars ranging in Europe. Napoleon proclaims the Code Napoleon (1803) and himself emperor (1804). Napoleon on the continent secured victory after victory, Marengo (1800), Austerlitz (1805), Jena (1806), Friedland (1807), and Wagram (1809). Only in the Peninsular Campaigns where Wellington commands a small British foirce do French armies fail to sweep the opposition. Nelson secured his great victory at Trafalgur (1805), gaining command of the seas for the British which they mainatained througout the century. After Trafalgur, to bring the British to heel, Napoleon introduced the Continental System (1807-08). The British abloish slavery, but independent America is unaffected (1807). One outcome of the Napoleonic Wars was in America. After securing the Louisana Territory from Spain. Napoleon sought to recreate an overseas French Empire. The first step was to defeat a slave rebdellion in Haiti. When his army was defeated there by the slaves led by Toussaint-Louvertureand disease, Napoleon instead sold Louisana to America (1803), virrtually guaranteeing that America would become a continental power. The new centuray ushered in the Romantic movement in Europe and literature and art begins a rebelion against rationalism, reason, and classicism. The silhouette begins to become popular and continue until photograph begins to catch hold in the 1840s.

Men's Fashions

French fashions had dominated Europe, especially by the reign of the glorious Louis XIV. This began to change with the Napoleonic Wars. The English and others in Europe began to hold all things French suspect. As a result England began to be seen as the trend setter in men's fashions. It is at this time that Beau Brummel, an assocuate of the Prince Reagant, plays a major role in setting the standard for English men's fashions. Women's fashions, however, were not similarly affected. Men's garments, despite the shift to London of the fashion as the fashion center, was powerfully affected by the French Revolution. Following the example of the civilian male attire of the French Revolution, developed simple forms much better adapted to a life of activity than the elaborate costumes of the past. As social attitudes in Western Europe and america changed, so did clothing styles. With the emphasis on democracy and the glorification of the common man, clothing became less ornate, less ostentatious. In America, by the time Thomas Jefferson was inaugurated (1801), he followed the fashion of his time by taking the oath wearing a plain blue coat, drab colored waistcoat, green velveteen breeches with pearl buttons, yarn stockings, and slippers. The most important development of the century was the transformation of men's knee breeches into trousers, and the creation of the lounge suit, which today is worn for almost all occasions. Several factors in the 1800s contributed to the increasing popularity of trousers. By this time many boys who had worn long trouser skeleton suits were growing up and they had come to prefer trousers. Large numbers of men were drawn ingto the Napoleoinic Wars and there the uniforms, especially for the enlisted men, were trousers. In addition, Beau Brummel in England helped to make trousers fashionable for men. Men's fashions as the century proigressed in the 19th century developed into relatively plain suits compared to the increasing elaboration, especially after the first few decades of the century.

boy clothes 1800s
Figure 1.--This Sir Thomas Lawrence painting painting of Lady Mary Templeton and her eldest son Henry was executed in 1802. Henry was 2 years old. Note that his dress is worn with a blue sash.

Boys' Fashions

Many see the early 19th century as one of the happiest times for boys' fashions. The temper of the times were for specailized boys' clothing. Clothes were made to allow for freedom of movement. The odea was to see that a boy's clothing did not restrict movement. Boys wore comfortable open-necked blouses woth pants that buttoned onto their blouse or jacket. The same was true of infants. Girls dresses also moved in this direction, although the long relatively narroy Directory dresses did not make rinning easy.

Infant wear

The tightly restrictive swaddling of 18th century infants gave way to soft, loosely fitting garments for infants. Modern mothers would be quite willing to dress their babies in some of the new comfortablr garments that emerged in the late 18th century.


Little boys all through the 19th Century were dressed in dresses and petticoats like girls, especially in affluent families. Small children of both genders might include chintz dresses and gay, printed cottons in the French Empire style of long full-length style of classic Greek inspiration. They were worn with small white caps. While this changed as the century progressed, in the early 19th century there was virtually no differences between dresses for boys and girls, perhaps only the color of the sash. Empire style directory dressesm heavily influecenced by the classical gowns of ancient Greece, tended to have very hifh waist lines. Dresses in the early 19th century might include chintz and gay, printed cottons in the Empire style. These were worn with small white caps and long ruffled pantaloons. The dresses. Many fashions of the early 19th century seemingly come directly out of the pages of a story-book.


Pantalettes appeared in the early 1800s. HBC does not notice them in the 1790s. The long dresses worn by little boys and the long trousered skeleton suits did not require them, but during the 1800s one begins to see pantalettes peaking out at the hem of Empire dresses and skeleton suits. Pantalettes became more common in the 1810s as dress hems began to rise. Some boys, however, as the end of the 1800s decade wore pantalettes which peaked out at the hem of long dresses and at the ankles of skeleton suits.


The age at which a boy was breeched (allowed to wear breeches or trousers) varied from family to family. Some boys as young as 4 might be dressed in more boyish skeleton suits, or later in the decade tunics. Often boys as old as 5 or 6 years continued to wear dresses, some boys for several more years. While the age boys wore girlish dresses varried, The fashion of dressing children in juveile fashions was well esablished by the beginning of the Century. Boys would wear distinctive juvenile fashions until reaching their teens.


The tunic was a major style for young boys during the early 19th century. Some mothers decided on somewhat more boyish tunic once a boy was breeched. A typical tunic might be made of earth brown sateen trimmed with dark blue braid. I do not yet have a complete timeline, but believe thaey began to become popuilar in the 1800s.

Skeleton Suits

Skeleton suits for breeched boys were common from anout 1790 to the 1830s. The skeleton suit consisted of a tight jacket, often with two rows of ornamental buttons in front ascending over the shoulders. High waisted ankle-length trousers buttoned to and over the jacket round the waist. (Most of the boys's fathers still wore knee breeches.) The skeleton suits were usually worn with white bouses that had open knecked ruffled collars. The size of the collar varied, but some were quite large. One writer of the time described the style:

A skeleton suit, one of those straight blue cloth cases in which small boys used to be confined before belts and tunics had come in . . . . An ingenious contrivance for displaying the symmetry of a boy's figure by fastening him into a very tight jacket, with an ornamental row of buttons over each shoulder and then buttoning his trousers over it so as to give his legs the appearance of being hooked on just under

As the 19th century progressed the skeleton suits gradually disappeared and more modern-looking styles appeared. By the 1840s the high waistlines had passed, but suit pants sometimes retained the button fronts. Ruffled collars also continued to be used with boys' suits.


Information and images of early 19th century boys' fashions are somewhat limited. This is due to a variety of reasons. Images in these pre-photographic were much more limited. Generally only wealthy people could afford painted portraits. Fashion magazines, but in the early 19th century publishing even drawings was very expensive until lithography was developed. Fashion magazines existed in the 1800s, but press runs were very limited and extensive distribution did not begin until the 1840s. One very important source of information on the 1800s, was art work. Some of the recognized masters depicting boys' fashions, mostly in Europe, were (Boilly, Lawrence, Raeburn, and West) of the era provide wonderful images of boys' fashions. One extremely valuable source on American boys clothes were primitive artists. These mostly untrained artists look primitive because of the lack of technical skills like perspective and handling light and shadow, but they did accurately depict clothing and hair styles--often in great detail. As a result these primitive, often called "naive" artists are one of the best sources of information on early 19th century fashions. Some of these artists were intenerate moving from town to town, in some cases doing portraits for room and board or supplies. This mean that many portraits were done of more humble families and not primarily the wealthy as is the case of recognized European artists.


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Created: October 8, 1998
Last updated: August 27, 2003