Boys' Clothes During the 1820s

Figure 1.--This painting by John R. Wildman was probably painted in the 1820s. The children are John Strange Williams and Sarah Ann Williams. Note that the boys collar is closed rather than open like most ruffled collars worn in the 1800s and 1810s with skeleton suits.

The 1820s was a time of peace after the tumultuous years of the French Revolution and the Napoleonic Wars. Peace and the Congress of Vienna meant reaction. The changes underway as a result of the Industrial Revolution, however, meant that a return to the Amcien Regime was not possible. The 1820s in terms of fashion was perhaps the most significant of the 19th century. The 1820s is in many ways similar to the 1920s. Both decades were a period of piece following major European wars. And in both decades, momentous changes were noted in fashions. Dress hems continued to rise and the shorter dress were commonly worn with lacy pantalettes. Older boys wore tunics with long pants and skeleton suits with ankle length long trousers. Knee breches for men diappeared except for the most formal occasions and they were never worn by boys. So far I have collected little information cpecifically on the 1820s, but have alittle information and would be interested in any insights HBC readers might have.

Historical Background

The 1820s was a time of peace after the tumultuous years of the French Revolution and the Napoleonic Wars. Peace and the Congress of Vienna meant reaction. The Bourbons were returned to the French throne, bringing about an era of reaction. European monarchs were, however, working against time. The Industrial Revolution was changing Europe and it would prove impossible to reserect the Ancien Regime. Louis Philippe in France replaces Charles X and his insistance on Royal absolutism and attempt to maintain the ancien regime. The Prince Regenct becomes George IV in England giving rise to the Regency period. Like the Edwardian era, hoever, the influence of the Prince Regent began well before he actually rose to the throne. The Missouri Compromise is reached in America, effectively postponing a decissoom on slavdery and Civil War. (This was a crucial development, because in 1820, the South probably would have prevailed in a Civil War dividing America into two searate republics with very different values.) Bolívar prevails in battles with the Spanish, ensuring the independence of South American republics. Turkish atrocities in Greece result in European intervention in and an independent Greece. Lord Byron dies in Greece. The Decembrist revolt in crushed in Russia--leading to reactionary repression. Near the end of the decade, Andrew Jackson is elected president and a new era of democratic reform begins in America in contrast to the reactionary trends in Europe. British settler began arriving in Cape Colony (South Africa) during the 1820s.

Major Fashion Shifts

The 1820s in terms of fashion was perhaps the most significant of the 19th century. The 1820s is in many ways similar to the 1920s. Both decades were a period of piece following major European wars. And in both decades, momentous changes were noted in fashions. It was during the 1820s that the long pants initally worn by boys in skeleton suits became widely adopted by adult men. Even more significantly, a profound change was notable in men's fashions. Until the 1820s, European men dressed flaboyantly with rich materials and colorful clothes. There were times in fact that men dressed more famboyantly and more provactively than women. This varied over time. There were eras and places where dressed was restrained, such as the Puritans and the Dutch Protestants of the 17th century. For the mos part, however, men's fashions were often flamboyant. This change in the 1820s. The increasingly successful middle class being created by the Industrial Revolution began dressing in somber black suits. There wealth begoinning in the 1820s would be displayed through their wives and children, who did not adopt the black and other somber colors of their husbands.

Hair Styles

One interesting reference comes from the rearch on the romantic Elizabeth Barett Browning. She grew up in a large, wealthy family. She reportedly was upset as a young woman when her father decided to cut the long hair of two of her younger brothers, 9 and 11 years old. I'm not positive if the boys were still wearing dresses at the time, but the boys in the family definites wore dresses. I'm not sure when they were breeched or what type of boys' clothes they wore after breeching. It is interesting that tbeir father made the decision. It was usually left to the mother to make such decisions, although the father might intervene as a boy got older. In the case of Elizabeth's two younger brothers, the father's decision may have been associated with the untimely death of his wife. She liked to keep her boys in long hair and perhaps even dresses. Once she passed away the father decided that boyish attire and haircuts were more appropriate. Interestingly, Elizabeth in the 1850s insisted on long hair and curls and dresses and pantalettes for her son Pen. It was not until his mother's untimely death that he, ike his uncles before him, was allowed to have his hair cut and wear more boyish clothes.



There continuedto be virtually no differences between dresses worn by girls and little boys. Some clues like the color of the sash might provide some clues as to gender. Boys sashes might, for example be blue--although such clues are not always fool proof. The age at which a boy was commonly breeched varies from family to family. Some boys as young as 4 might be dressed in more boyish skeletonsuits, or tunics. It was not unusual for boys as old as 5 or 6 might continue wearing dresses. After thatbage it became less common. However, boys from affluent families might be kept in long hair and dresses much longer. Elizabeth Browning's younger brothers as noted above had long hair and may have worn dresses up to the age of 9-11 years. Romantic influences began to appear in the details of women's clothing after 1820. The waistline went from the "Empire" style back to its natural location. The Grecian gown gave way to a bell-shaped skirt, which became progressively more voluminous with each decade, until, by the 1850s, hoops or crinolines were once again used to support them.


Women, girls and little boys continued to wear pantalettes under their dresses. Pantalettes were long ruffled pantaloons. Little boys wore them with dresses, just like their sisters. Older boys graduating to tunics might also wear them before they were old enough to wear proper trousers. The custom of having pantalettes peak out at the ankles of a boy wearing a skeleton suit disappeared during the 1820s.


Some mothers decided on tunics when it was determined that a boy was to old to continue wearing girlish dresses. A typical tunic might be made of earth brown sateen trimmed with dark blue braid. Many fashions of the early 19th century seemingly come directly out of the pages of a story-book.

Pants and Trousers

It was un the 1820s that knee breeches disappeared and that ling trousers became the main male dress, for both men and boys.
Mens' trousers: The changes in men's garments during the 1820s, followed on the changes in civilian male attire began during the French Revolution. Clothes became increasingly simple, better adapted to a life of activity than the elaborate costumes of 18th century. Changing social attitudes symbolized in Western Europe and America with the American and French Revolutiions had affected all areas of society, including clothing. It was the 1820s that the new emphasis on democracy and the glorification of the common man really took hold in Europe and America. Clothing became increasingly less ornate, less ostentatious. One of the indicators of these changes was men's pants and trousers. In this area clearly the sans-culottes had won. Long trousers were once asociated contemptuosly with the uneducated working class. After the French Revolution (1789), knee breeches began to become associated with the aristocracy. Gradually the rising middle class adopted trousers. The wearing of knee breeches declined in the 1810s, but it was the 1820s when trousers became the accepted dress of Western European and American men.
Boys' trousers: Adult men of means were actually superceeded in wearing trousers by boys. Beginning around the new century, boys once breeched and graduating from tunics, might begin wearing longpants skeleton suits. Some boys still in tunics by the 1820s wore long pants. Fashions changed somewhat from previous decades. By the 1820s it became rare to see a boy in long pants skeleton suits wearing pantalettes to modestly cover ankles. Also the collars were beginning to change. The comfortable open ruffled collars were becoming less common as boys began to wear closed collars. By the 1820-30s the high waistlines had passed, but suit pants sometimes retained the button fronts. Ruffled collars also continued to be used with boys' suits.

Country Trends

We do not yet have individual country pages for the 1820s. There are several HBC pages, however, which have information on the 1820s. A interesing glimse of Regency England in the 1810s is available on the Ripingille artist page. Another look at Englanf about 1820 is available in a probable Steele minature. We only have a general early 19th century page for America, England, and France.


As the 1820s was still the period before photography, we have to rely on art works for fashion imagery. We still see skeleton suits being worn in the 1820s. One of Sir Thomas Lawrence's most recognizable child portrait was painted during the decade, Master Charles Lambton (1828).


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Created: October 15, 1999
Last updated: 4:01 AM 7/31/2010