England: 1950s-60s Boys' Clothing

I am a 50 year old Englishman born and brought up in the home counties (London area). My schooldays were between 1952 and 1964 which was a period during which changes were afoot influencing the way boys dressed. These were slowly happening in the 1950's and accelerated after about 1963 but they did not affect me.

I cannot remember what I wore before I went to school at five years old but at school I was certainly wearing grey flannel shorts on my first day and remained in them until I was nearly 14. I did not think of them as shorts. To me they were trousers. Every boy wore them. I only began to think of them as short trousers when I was about ten or so by which time a handful of boys that went to my primary school would wear jeans or long trousers of some description, not usually to school, but when out playing.

The influence that had undoubtedly introduced jeans to small boys was the cinema and TV, particularly cowboy films. I remember asking my mum for some but being firmly told to forget it. I had one friend who was luckier, to my mind then, who wore jeans all of the time including to school by the time he was eleven. I remember him boasting to me that the only pair of short trousers he owned were the ones for Scouts. For me though and nearly all boys of that age we stayed in short trousers always. The ones I wore were of grey flannel, unlined and with a button fly. They were loose fitting and cut off at a point just above my knees. My mother was one of those that always ensured she bought on the large size - to allow for growth. I was not that big anyway and quite thin. My shorts would not stay up properly without braces (suspenders) and I was always made to wear those. I hated braces and much preferred my snake belt. I always wore grey knee length turn over top socks with the grey shorts - never ankle socks. Some of my socks had coloured tops but they were mostly all grey. I was a boy that always kept them pulled up. I hated them falling down. I learned this quite young because my mother used to make me wear elastic gaiters under the turnovers and I hated those. As I proved I did not need them I was let off, but having thin legs I am sure I spent much time pulling my socks up.

As well as the grey flannel I had some corduroy shorts - grey, brown and green I remember. I hated the green ones. They were shorter than the grey flannel and I was only allowed to play in them. In the summer though, if the weather was decent and again not for school, I was put into khaki shorts and ankle socks. These were worn with Clark's school sandles (closed toe "T" strap sandals). The school sandals were mum's idea but were very common in the 1950's. I sometimes wore long socks by choice with my khaki shorts and sometimes the sandles to school but normally it was black lace up shoes. I had to clean those every morning. My dad had been in the Royal Marines and was a stickler for clean shoes. At primary school there was no compulsory uniform but an optional green blazer, striped tie and cap. I was sometimes made to wear the uniform by my mother but never the cap.

One other thing I remember from those days was having to put Brylcreem on my hair. Going out at weekends with the family in dad's car was always a big getting ready event. Smart clothes always, clean shoes, Brylcreem. I was travel sick as a youngster and I have always associated the smell of Brylcreem with a headache that would start as soon as I sat in the back of the big black Austin (British car). I used to also possess a grey flannel short trousers suit at this time and would put this on for the outings and sometimes wear it to school.

In 1958 at age eleven I moved up to grammar school (academically oriented secondary school) and was put into a strict uniform. I remember the visit to the department store and seeing a row of boy manikins all dressed in the different uniforms of the local schools. Every one in short trousers. Some had blazers of very bright colours, some all grey with just a hint of colour and some like mine in between. My uniform had a distinctive blue blazer, blue cap, blue and yellow striped tie, V neck long or short sleeve pullover with blue and yellow borders, grey flannel short trousers, grey socks with blue and yellow stripes on the turnovers, black shoes and navy-blue belted school raincoat. I can still smell the material of the new blazer and cap. The latter was a novelty and I wore it all the way home.

The first day at grammar school saw me merging with hundreds of other blue blazers and caps. Although there was no rule 98% of the first form boys wore short trousers and stayed in them through their first year. This dropped to about 70% in the second year (age 12/13) by the end of which it had dropped to about 25%. I returned in the third form (age 13/14) in short trousers and was part of about 7% or so that did. By the end of that year there may have been 2% remaining and that did not include me. Caps had to be worn be every boy in the school. Prefects had stripes on theirs to distinguish them.

Wearing shorts in the winter was no different than in the summer. We really did not notice. As we wore them all of the time and always had done our knees were totally immune from the elements. Obviously when it was very cold our knees got cold but so did our hands and face. I only ever became aware of draughts in buildings when in long trousers. Short trousers of a proper length worn with knee length socks do not leave very much exposed flesh anyway. The long socks gave one a feeling of warmth and security. In cold weather I always had to wear a school coat that just covered the knees in any case. You have an excellent picture of boys dressed that way going to church. You can just see their sock tops but their knees are covered or partially so. That picture reminds me of the way schools identified themselves with the uniform. Even dressed for arctic conditions a boy showed the world what school he went to. His cap badge was visible as was his scarf and sock tops. The only time I remember noticing feeling cold in shorts was at the time I was seeking to go into longs. The early morning paper round in cold wet weather was uncomfortable. As I was always having to jump on and off my bicycle to deliver the papers (we put them through peoples letterboxes in their front doors in England) my soggy wet coat would flap against my wet knees. It was a wonderful excuse to support my case for long trousers.

. Certainly in 1958 when I first went to grammar school it was common for those that went to a secondary modern school to do so in shorts at least to start with. After all the boys were only eleven and that was still normal dress. The tendency though was for less of them to do so and it would be rare for a boy to go into the second year still in shorts. If the secondary school had a uniform and his parents wanted him to wear it a boy was more likely to go in shorts to begin with. At the time I originally thought that that this was not the case and had been told my many boys in my final year of primary school that they would be wearing longs to secondary. I remember my older sister had a boyfriend with a young brother of my age, eleven. The family came to visit us for tea one Sunday just after I had started grammar school and I made a bit of a fuss about being made to wear my school uniform. I think then my suit was getting a bit old and my uniform was the smartest outfit I had. My argument (totally rejected) was that the brother would not be wearing school uniform and would probably be in jeans or something. He turned up with his family in his maroon secondary school uniform in smart short trousers and maroon topped socks (but there was no cap). He looked as smart as I did in my uniform. I think though by the time I left school there would hardly be any secondary schoolboys still on shorts. Certainly at thirteen I used to be careful when travelling to and from school to avoid boys from secondary schools. My shorts and cap would certainly be reason for teasing and that would happen from time to time. We learned to ignore it.

Let me tell you about my school cap. In the first and second years caps were accepted by the boys as perfectly normal and most would wear them when they had to. By the third year a few boys used to remove them at any opportunity and older boys did not like wearing them at all. They were however compulsory throughout. The uniform was not complete without it. Older boys would wear them on the backs of their heads as they thought it looked "cool" to use a modern term. Younger boys wore them properly. They had to be worn at all times when outside of a building except that we did not have to put them on to go outside in the playground at break time. We had to wear them to and from school - including on the bus or on a bicycle (we had no helmets then). They stayed on our heads in shops but were removed if going in any house or church. We were taught to raise them when meeting any master or important person in the street. There was a routine at school where at the beginning of the day we would line up in the playground when the bell went and file into school. Caps were removed as we entered the building, not before and not afterwards. They were a problem to us boys as they were easily lost but we were punished if seen without them. By the time I arrived in the sixth form although caps were still compulsory it was overlooked. That was not the case when I first started at grammar school.

We were not regular church goers at that time as a family but when we did I would have to put my best clothes on which was the suit. I also remember having a sports jacket that I wore with my grey shorts when I was older. I did not have a suit after about eleven until many years later well after I had graduated to long trousers. Church attendance on school occasions obviously meant uniform.

Boys who remained in short trousers to thirteen or so were not teased as it was common and considered normal. I was one who stayed in them longer than many but never had any problem in that direction. I was ragged a bit for mine being old fashioned. They were a bit long and baggy and grey flannel was fast being superseded by other materials - notably Terylene. I remember one boy in particular, older and bigger than me who always wore quite short ones and he used to ask why I didn't get some like his. Shorts should be short he said but he didn't have my mum buying clothes for him. Those that remained in short trousers after fourteen were unusual but there were a handful. I think there was some teasing there although it depended how they handled it. If it was apparently their choice it was O.K. but if obviously a parental rule that was different. I remember a boy who stayed in short trousers right up to seventeen. He was though short in stature and would have been taken as no older than fourteen then. We younger boys would ask him when he was going to get some long trousers. He always replied "when I'm long enough for 'em". He was though a popular boy and often getting into scrapes and I was left with the impression he liked to stay in shorts. I bet though that his parents made him.

I started a paper round in the winter of 1960/61 and was very aware of my short trousers as I delivered the papers. I put pressure on my mother to be allowed my first long trousers and offered to buy them myself. She used to always have a clothing catalogue and I remember the pages of boys clothing. I used to look at the shorts and noticed that they were then made of Terylene/ wool and other materials as well as of grey flannel. They were also lined in white cotton and looked smarter than the ones I wore. Mine were never lined although you could get grey flannel ones that were. Some had double seats that I learned was an extra patch of material sewn in at the seat to save wear. I noticed boys who had those as you could just see the stitching around the patch. I thought they must be perfect if you were going to get the cane. I also noticed that my shorts were on the long and baggy side compared with many boys. Before I ever tried to be allowed to wear long trousers I wanted some Terylene shorts but as they were more expensive I was never given any. Always grey flannel for me. I remember offering to buy some with my paper round money if I was not allowed long trousers. My mother told me that she would buy me any short trousers I needed but if it was to be long trousers I would have to pay. She relented in the end and ordered some long trousers for me.

So in February 1961 aged 13 3/4 I put on a pair of grey flannel (you guessed it) long trous ers for the first time. It was the first time I had ever put on any pair of long trousers. They were baggy, uncomfortable and tickled my knees. I had to wear cycle clips to ride to the nearest town where I caught the bus to school. They were not made for cycling. The only socks I had were my s chool ones so I kept pulling them up all day und er my long trousers out of habit. I remember walking to the bus stop and feeling so odd that I very nearly turned round to go back home and change back into my short trousers. I actually felt shorter in the long trousers. Fear of being late for school and loss of face prevented me. I really did not like those first long trousers. I even nearly swapped them for another boy's shorts at school. We even changed into each other's in the toilets at break time but he thought he would get into trouble with his parents and we changed back. I was disappointed as he had some smart and very comfortable shorts made of Terylene/wool worsted material with a cotton lining. They felt so comfortable for the three minutes I wore them. I would very happily have done the swap then. They fitted me so well - so much better than the old flannel ones I wore. They had a zip fly and self-supporting side tabs that had two positions to button them.

No I don't remember going to buy my last shorts. That was because my mother used to shop from a home catalogue at that time or would pick up a pair for me at a chain store such as Marks & Spencer. That is one of the reasons they were always a bit big for me.
Richard, London

Christopher Wagner


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Created: April 25, 1998
Last updated: April 25, 1998