French Boys Clothes: 19th Century

Figure 1.--This color plate from a 19th century French fashion magazine shows the fashions worn by French girls and boys. The boy seems to be wearing a burgandy dress or kilt suit, its a bit difficult to make out. La Couturière Parisienne which has a wonderful fashion site tells HBC that this plate dates to the 1880s, probably 1884/85, but not before 1882 or after 1886, judging from the size of the ladies' bustles. For comparison with a 1885 dress at the La Couturière Parisienne website, click on the image.

Younger boys throughout the century wore dresses, in many cases just like the ones worn by their sisters. Many of the classic styles worn by boys appeared in the 19th century or are based on 19th century styles. The first popular style for boys was the skeleton suit. By mid-century other popular styles were kilts and sailor suits, imports from Britain. One French fashion was the crispin suit, the forerunner of the Fauntleroy suit. Another important French style for boys was the smock which was widely worn by school boys in the late 19th century.

Early 19th Century (1800-40)

French children wore directory styles clothes for the first decades of the 19th century. Younger boys wore classic Empire dresses, many with low neck lines. White was a popular color. Dresses were commonly worn with pantalletes. All through the Napoleonic period boys commonly wore skeleton suits, a popular style for boys throughout western Europe and America. Boys also commonly wore tunics, although we have only limited informaion on early tunics. Boys wore quite a diverse range of cap and hat styles. We are not sure to what extent some important French styles like smocks and berets were worn during this period. We have not noticed images of boys wearing them, but our information on this period is still very limited. One reason we know less about the early than the mid and late 19th century is that photography only appeared in the 1840s. While France was a leader in the early development of photography, there are only a few surviving images from the the 1830s. Photography was very expensive and studios had just begun to appear.

Mid-19th Century (1840-70)

While the fashion industry was important in France even in the 18th century, it was after the mid-19th century, however, that the industry began to explode. There were in 1850 about 25 Parisian dressmakers and ready to wear (confection) houses. That had increased four fold to 800 by 1863 and 1,090 by 1870. This was partly due to the expanding bourgeois and increasingly wealth of late 19th century France. More consumers with available disposable income could support the expanding industry. In addition, technological improvements were reducing the real costs of material and garments. Individuals beyond a handful of rich artistocrats and merchants who formerly might have had only a few changes of clothes, might now have a whole wardrobe. Not only could more people afford more clothes, but the clothes were increasingly well made and fitted. Increasing information on French boys' fashions becomes available at mid-century. The increasingly proliferation of fashion magazines provides a wealth of information. Many focused primarily on women's clothes, but some like La Mode Ilustree had a wealth of information on children's fashions as it positiioned itself editorially as a family magazine. In addition, the development of commercial photography in the late 1830s providedan invaluable new source of information. The expanding availability of fashionable garb for children was in part a reflection of the expanding production of ready made garments that could be bought for much less than tailored hand-sewn garments. Gaston Worth, son of the celebrated couturier, reports that by the 1850s there was at least one Parisian ready made shop, Mme. Roger, offering women's dresses and children's clothes. From this early point, children's clothes were commonly sold along with women's clothes. This was understandable as it was the mother who normally cared for the children and was responsible for purchasing their clothing. The editior of La Mode Illustree reported in the 1860s that there were several styles of robes toutes faites which could be bought at the Magasins du Louve This early department store may have well been the model for Au Bonheur des Dames in Zola's 1883 novel of that name. By the 1880s the department store had become an accepted institution in France as well a other European countries and America. As early as the 1860s, Magasins du Louve was offering free baloons bearing its name to attract boys and girls along with their mothers.

Late 19th Century (1870-1900)

The late 19th century was a time of great self-examination for France. It began with the disastrous defeat by the Germans in the Franco-Prussian War (1870-71). The new Third Republic ushered in major reforms. The poorly fitted garments of the early and mid-19th century, by the 1870s had become increasingly well-tailored garments. The look of fashionably dressed childern in the 1870s and especially the 1880s contrasts dramatically to the poorly fitted baggy garments still common in the 1850s and even the 1860s. The advent of commercial photography, perfected in France, during the late 1830s and rapidly appearing throughout Europe and the Americas in the 1840s, dramatically chronicled this shift. Paintings often depicted wealthy clients whose often expensive clothes were either well-fitted or drawn to give that affect. Much less expensive photographic images were available to an ever increasing clientel as the cost of photographs declined and the earnings in the new industrial economy increased.


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Created: November 6, 1998
Last updated: 2:35 AM 1/4/2014