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). 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. The 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.

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 thirteen and three-quarters I put on a pair of grey flannel (you guessed it) long trousers 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 school ones so I kept pulling them up all day under 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.

Christopher Wagner


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