** United States boys clothes : late-19th century

United States Boys' Clothes: Late-19th Century (1870s-90s)

Figure 1.--This photograph was undated, but we believe was taken in 1889. It was taken at Geneva College, a Phrespetryian school north of Pittsburgh. The boys were mostly children of the teaching staff. Click on the image for a discussion of the image and the clothes the boys are wearing.

Little American boys from 3 to 6 years, in the late 19th Centuery still wore skirted garments. Little boys wore dresses, although now dresses especially designed for boys appeared. Older boys wore kilts, sailor suits, Norfolk suits and other English fashions. Smocks were used for both boys and girls to protect expensive clothes, although they were not as popular as in Europe. Easy to care for fabrics were generations away. One new fashion appearing in America in the the 1880s was the Fauntleroy suit. It was the sailor suit, however, that proved to be most enduring of these fashions. It was popular with both mothers and boys, unlike some of the alternatives like Fauntleroy suits and kilts. Even girls in the 1880s began wearing sailor suits, middy blouses with skirts.

Historical Background

The late 19th century after the Civil War (1861-65) was a period of rapid growth in America as America emerged as an industrial giant. A huge railroad grid was created, spanning the continent in 1968. Industries led by the steel industry benefitted by plentiful natural resoyurces and a growing base of skilled workers. America began to match and then exceed Europe in technological inovations like the telephone, electrical energy, scre propellers, and many others. There was a steady growth of an affluent urban middle class. More and more mothers had the time and money to give increasing attention to fashion, both their own clothes and that of their children. Boys' fashion in fact became extronidarily elaborate, such as the classic Little Lord Fauntleroy suit with dark velves, huge frilly lace and ruffles, giant floppy bows, and satin sashes.


Until the late-19th century, American boys at least in the cities mostly fashiins developed in Europe. It was at this time that American fashions begn to appear. Several destintive boys' fashions became popular in America during the late-19th Century. Some of the most elaborate outfits ever designed for boys appeared. The more varied styles of mid-century America coalesed in more easily recognized styles. The skeleton suit was no longer worn. An older style, the tunic, appeared as a new style whicgh became enormously popular at the turn of the century. The new styles introduced, mostly in England, like kilts, sailor suits, and knee pants became widely worn.


American boys wore quite a wide range of clothes during the late-19th century. Some of the styles were destinctive to both the period and America. Other garments were a reflection of Europen styles. Younger boys commonly wore a range of skirted garmenr. Dresses and kilt suits were standard. Headwear was very common. We note both caps and hats, but hats were much more common than wpuld be tghe case in the 20th century. Mass production was beginning to sandardize boys' styles, but the diversity of styles could be starling to the modern reader. A 6-year old boy, for example, might wear a dress, kilt suit, a Fauntleroy suit, a sailor suit, or a knee pants or long pants suit. Here the dcession might vary widely from family to family. In most cases the decesion was up to the mother. Kilt suits nd Fauntleroy suits were virtually sinature styles for this period. Straight-leg knee pants at first worn only by younger boys gradually became standard for boys, although long pants persisted longer in rural areas. Long stockings were standard for both boys and girls. Children also wore mostly high-top shoes. After the turn of the century, a boy's fashion options would be much more limited.

Age Trends

We note destinctive age trends associated with boys clothes in the late-19th century. They vcaried from family to family with the mothr commonly deciding on the clothes for the girls and pre-teen boys. Social class was also a factor with more affluent families often more concerne with age grading, in part because they were more concerned about appearances social status and could afford to do something about it. Younger boys wore skirted garments. The kilt suit might be used as a traditional garment. The age of breaching varied from family to family. Garments included dresses, kilts, kilt suits, and tunics. After breeching the boys might wear Funtleroy suits, sailor uits, and a range of regular suits, including cut-away jacket and Norfolk suits. Younger boys wore the cut-awwy jacket and commonly progressed to more mature suits. Sailor suits ere also popular after a boy graduated from Fauntleroy suits. Some younger boys might have both, using the Fauntleroy outfit for paties or other dessy occassions. Neckwear often played a major role in age grading. The younger boys might wear large floppy bows. We note bows being added to a variety of outfits. Pre-teen boys wearing regular suits might wear floppy bows.

Hair Styles

Most American boys in the late-19th century wore short hair. This was in contrast to the longer hair styles popular at mid-century. While short hair was standard, there were other styles. The most famous were ringlet curls. This was part of the the Fauntleroy craze that Mrs. Burnett initiale with her book (1885). Some boys wore long shoulder-length hair done in runglets. American mothers especially liked to curl their son's long hair into fashionable ringlets. This style was not nearly a popular in Europe. While not as common as short hair, the Fauntleroy ringlet curls was widely worn by American boys. It was an established style in the 1890s.


Figure 2.--These Missouri (mid-western) boys and their parents were photographed in the late 1890s. They wear less expensice ruffled collars, rather than lace collars, and no wrist trim. They wear inexpensive versions of the classic velvet Fauntleroy suit which could be quite expensive. Note the very small bows.

Decade Chronolgies

The proliferation and falling cost of photography provide us far greater information about fashion than ever before. Of course there are many more images from the 1890s than the early decades, in part because of rising income levels and falling costs of studio portrits. Even so there are substantial numbers of photograps availablr from the 1870s andc80s. Most of the images, especially of children, were studio images--almost always dressed up in their best outfits. Images of everyday clothes do not begin until the development of amateur snapshots at the turn of the century. Fashion magazines continue to expand, including the publication of patterns. Magazines achieved runs that can be called mass circulation by the 1890s.

Youth Culture

The Civil War (1861-65) was a great empetus to the growt of industry in the northern satates tomsupport the war effort. This accentuated earlier demographic and social trends like urbanization and industrialization. By the 1870s these trends had significantly changed America from the agrarian andcraft-based economy of the 18th century. By the 1890s, America had become one of the world's industrial powers, on an economic par with the major European powers. The impact was far reaching. Youth were now spending considerable time in school. Almost all children received at least some schooling and increasing numbers were now finishing primary school, although secondary school was still largely for urban children from affluent families. This meant that children were much more dependent on their parents for a longer period. Until the early 19th century, most boys lived on the farm or were apreticed at about age 12. Boys were still apprenticed in the mid-19th century, but many more boys continued their education for longer periods. This development was giving rise to a new phemomenon--youth culture that was to have a great impact on fashion and dress. It was to have other benign consequences. Pre-Civil War newspapers report youth "gangs" and "juvenile delinquency" in the larger cities. High school fraternities and sororities, though not as violent as gangs, were a matter of concern and prohibited by a number of states in the Progressive Era. [Graebner, pp. 11-13.]


William Graebner, Coming of Age in Buffalo: Youth and Authority in the Postwar Era (Temple University Press, 1990).


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Created: June 12, 1999
Last updated: 4:39 PM 3/8/2013