*** United States boys clothes : the early-20th Century

United States Boys' Clothes: The Early 20th Century (1900-19)

sailor suits 1910s
Figure 1.--Sailor suits continued to be popular after the turn of the century, but generally for younger boys. This photograph taken in the 1910s shows a standard sailor suit of the time and the dress simple dress style still worn by many younger boys.

The early 20th Century was an interesting period in the development of boys' clothing. In many ways it was a period of many varied styles. Late 19th century styles continued after the turn of the century. A few styles such as tunics and rompers are characteristic of the period, other styles were waning 19th century fashions such as kilt suits and Fauntleroy suits and emerging 20th Century styles like knickers and short pants. Long ringlet curls were still worn at the turn of the century, but gradualy became less fashionable. American parents still basically followed European fashions in through the early 20th century, altough two classic styles Fautleroy suits and Buster Brown suits did originate in America. These styles were still popular in 1900, but by the end of World War I (1914-18) had passed from the fashion scene. Younger boys from wealthy families, however, might still be dressed up in velvet suits.

Turn of the 20th Century Photography

The turn of the 20th century was the first such transition in which we have photogrphy to follow the transition. Studio photograohy was common by the 1890s, but amateur family photograohtg iyrside the studio was just beginning. This changed with the turn-of-the century when George Eastman unleashed the Brownie camera on American culture. So all of a sudden we have a vast numebr of snapshots as part of the photographic record. They snapshots are relatively easy to date. The studio portrairs are a little more complicated, but studios began offering all kinds of new mounts (desisns and sizes). A a kind of cosmic accident all of this occurred about 1900. There are ways of trying to date the images, not perfect but helpful. Some deal with photography, others deal with the fashions in flux.

Momentous Changes

The most abrupt change in boys' fashions probably occurred in the early-20th century (1900s-1910s). A more profound change in styles occured at this time than in any other period. The two decades were similar, but with imortan differences. The over riding difference was a shift from the formal, fancy styles of the late-19th century. This was especially the case for boys exemlified by the Little Lord Fauntleroy Craze (1885-1905). It was unusal for boys' styles to ne so falmboyent. What changed at the turn of the century was a shift toward informal, more practical clothing. Of course the new styles may look formal to us today, but it was a huge shuft from the etrene formality and highly decorative stykes of the late-19th century. Another majhor change was centuries-long convention if younger boys wearing dresses and skirted garments. The difference between the 1900s and 1910s is that new styles appeared in the 1900s, along with the old styles. By the 1910s the new styles become increasingly common and the old styles gradually disappear. We are not sure why the turn of the 20th century was such a turning point for fashion. Often there are larger societal developments which move fashions trends like wars and economic shifts. But this does not seem to be the case at the turn of the 20th century. Perhaps readers will have sime exolantiin as to what was occurring. of course World War I erupted (1914) and dominated the rest of the decade. The War was a powerful force for pushing practical plain clothing, but it furthered a fashion trend alreasy in motion rather than launching a new trend. While not ortiginating the change, the War was such a powerful driver that it transformed society fundamentally. Another shift occurred during this period. Boys shifted from the knee pants that they had been wearing for decades, to knickers. The change occurred suddenly and very quickly, about 1908-09. Again we have no idea what caused the change. It was not related to the trend toward plain, less fancy clothing. Younger boys continued to wear knee pants for a while, some shifting to short pants. But most boys began weraing knickers which like knee pants became essentially universal. Another development is that American and Eurooean fashions began to diverge Until the 1910s there was a lot of similarity between European and Aerican fashions. This changed when American boys began wearing lnickers. Eurooeam boys began wearin shirt pants. Some European boys wore knickerts, but it was not largely universal as in America. We are primarily looking at boys' fashions. but there were also changes in girls's fashions and adult fashions as well.


Late 19th century styles continued after the turn of the century. Little boys continued to wears dress, although not with as elaborate trim. The age of boys wearing dresses began to decline, especially in the 1910s. Tunic outfits were popular for pre-school boys or boys in the first year or two of primary school. Little Lord Fauntleroy suits were still popular. After the turn of the century Fauntleroy suits with short pants (rather than knee pants) began to appear and were increasingky worn with white stockings or white knee socks. The size of the jackets increased to cover the blouse entirely. In addition large lace collars began to be replaced with ruffled collars and smaller bows. Some ruffled collars were wore with open necks. Increasingly knee pants were replaced with knickers but were still mostly worn ith long stockings. Younger boys might wear knee pants with three-quarter socks furing the summer. Short pants became particularly popular in Britain and Europe while knickers became more popular in America during the 1910s. America was a much more rural society in the late 19th and early-20th century tha it is now. Many Americans live on the farm or in small rural towns. When they dressed up they followed the same dressy styles as boys in the cities wore--although the latest styles probably took a little longer to reach rural America in the days before television. Fashion magazines and mail order catalogs made sure that rural America was never to far removed from the latest fashions. Most of the time rural boys would be likely to wear work clothes like overalls. They would often wear such clothes to school--at least elementary school. They were not called jeans at the time, and of course the idea of designer jeans could not even be conceived in the early 20th century, but Levi Straus dungaree overalls were widely worn by men and boys.

Differentiating Decades

Because most photographs are not dated, we are forced to estimate decades or discard 95 percent of the available photographic record. Some decades are fairly each to identify, others more complicated. Two decades that are a bit tricky or the 1900s and 10s. There is a good deal of fashion overlap over the two decade early-20 century period. There are some differences as well. The similarities and differences include both fashion and photographic formats. Here we want to go over some of these indicators. As HBC expands we hope to acquire sufficent dated images to be able to better differentiate between the two decades. As it stands today we often can not differentiate between the two decades. The one very powerful indicator tool is boys' pants. American boys in the 1900s mostly wore straight leg knee pants. Suddently for reasins we do not understnd, boys about 1908 began wearing knickers. Knee pants had been the dominant type of boys trousers since the 1880s, but in the space of a year or two were suddently replaced by knickers. This as a general rule, if the boys are wearing knee pants, it is a 1900s image and if they are wearing knickers it is a 1910s. The trend is a little complicated by the fact that younger boys into the early primary years tended to wear knee pants a little longer than older boys and this trend continued after the World War I in the 1920s when short pants appeared. We see fewer older boys wearing shortened-length pnts inthe 1910s, but this trend was not nearly as pronounced as in the 1900s. As with any fashion indicator, this is not an absolute rule, but it is a very string indicator which can be used. We have not yet found a similar strong indicator associated with girls' fashions. In working on this dating effort, we of course invite readers to comment.

Figure 2.--This American family in the 1910s has outfitted their boys in age-appropriare clothes at the time. The youngest boy in Dutch boy bangs wears a tunic-style sailor suit with a jaunty kerchief. The outfit for the middle boy is a correctly styled blue sailor suit. The oldest brother wears a Norfolk knicker suit. Notice that they are bucled above the knee.

Decade Chronologies

The photographic record provides us a very detailed record of childrens styles during the early 20th century. The 1900s styles were much the same as the 1890s, especially in the early 1900s. We continue to see boys wearing formally fancy clothing in the 1900s. The most signicant new style was the tunic suit. Very signicant changes begin to appear by the end of the decade. By the 1910s very notable changes had begun in boys clothes. We see more informal styles, especially by the end of the decade. These trends continued in the 1920s when many rather modern styles began to emerge. Condiderable differences are obsrerveable between the 1900s and 1910s. Of course the major event shaping the era was the catestrophy of World War I (1914-18). Many changes were noteable during the war, but the fashions that later emerged after the War in the 1920s revolutionized boys fashions, although the fashions adopted were mostly first developed in the pre-War era.


We note some of the major garments worn by American boys in the early 20th century. We see some major changed in headwear during the early 20th century. The wide-brimmed sailor cap popular in the late 19th Century continued to be worn with formal outfits for younger boys after the turn of the century. We no longer see boys commonly wearing the rounded crown hats popular in rural areas. Some boys wore boaters and we see a felt hat that had an only slightly peaked crown. The major development was the increasing popularity of caps. There were everal styles, but gradually gthe flat cap emerged by the 1910s as the standard American boys' cap. The fashion of outfitting boys in dresses continued to be quite common at the turn of the century. Little boys in 1900 continued to wears dress, although as the decade progressed they no longer wore the more girlish styles with elaborate lace and ruffle trim. The age of boys wearing dresses began to decline. While the practice of outfitting boys in dresses, continued in the 1910s, it was becoming much less common. Rompers were widely worn by boys after the turn of the century. They may have appeared before 1900, but they were not widely worn in the 1980s. They were a style for generally younger boys. Many of the boys outfitted in rompers might have worn dresses before the turn of the century. American boys mostly wore kneepants at the turn of the Century. As the decacde progressed knickers became increasingly popular and were the dominant by the 1910s. Short pants began to appear in the 1910s, but they were not nearly as popular in America as they proved to be in Europe. American boys in the 1900s mostly wore long stockings with knee pants, even during the summer. Dark black stockings were the most common, but dark brown was also worn. Light-colored long stockings were not common. Younger boys might wear white long stockings on dressy occasions, but black was more common. Younger boys might wear their kneepants with socks, usually three-quater length socks, especially during the summer. Older boys, however, did not wear such socks with either knee pants or knickers.

silor uit knickers
Figure 3.--Sailor suits were increasingly being worn with knickers, especially by the 1910s. They were also becoming a style for younger boys. This boy wears dark stockings with his white tunic sailor suit.


There are some particularly notable styles worn by American boys in the early-20th century. The early 1900s was a watershed period in American boys' fashions. The old formal styles were still worn at the turn of the century, but the new more casual styles had begun to appear by the 1910s. We see boys wearing a range of caps and some hats in the 1900s, but by 1910 the flat cap had become the standard style. We still see boys wearing dresses and kilt-suits at the turn of the century, but both styles were rapidly declining. Tunics were very popular, especially for pre-school boys. They were done in a range of styles. Fauntleroy suits wete still worn, but like kilt-suits were rapidly passing out of style. Sailor suits, however, cbntunued to be very popular in the early-20th century. The sailor stle by the lare-1910sas was beginining to be seen as a style for little boys. Boys in the 1900s still wore knee pants as thry had done for several decades. The knee pants that predominated before the war had began to be replaced with knickers and to a lesser extent short pants. Most boys continued wearing knee pants suits during the 1900s, but this changed rther abtuptly about 1908-10. Suddenly boys began wearing knickers which became as standard as knee pants had become. And at about the same time we see boys wearing overalls. Coveralls appeared for city boys. Both boys and girls continued wearing long stockings. Closed-toe sandals appeared, but did not prove as populr as in Britain. Younger boys wore strap shoes like girls. High-top shoes continued to be worn by school age boys.

Dressing Up

We still see a lot of formality in dress during the early-20th century. There was the beginning of the movement toward informality that wouldcominte the 20th century. At this was most available with boys' wear, more so than girls' wear and adult fshions. Both the Fauntleroy suit and the kilt suit hadbasically gone out of style by the end of the 19th century, but we see a few younger boys wearing them after the turn-of-the 20th century. Fauntleroy styling, however, had not run it course, but we see mostly blouses rather than the classic suits. Boys up to their early-teens might wear the blouss, often done in colors or prints. The tunic suit became enormously popular in the early-20th century, both for play and dressing up. White in parucular was popular for dress up summer clothing. The tunic suit was a basically plain garment in sharp contrast to the Fauntleroy suit and kilt suit boys commonly worn when dressing up. Younger oys mifgt wear hite long stockings for formality. Older girls might also wear white longg stckings, but not older boys. Younger boys ad girls might wear strap shoes. Boys might One element of informality, although some of the tunics had fancy detailing. Older boys wore suits, although until the teen years, ablouse or shirtwaist would do during the summer another accepted informl step. Boys mostly wore suits when dessing up, including parties and school. Knee pants suits were worn during the 1900s and knicker suits during the 1910s, always with long stockings. Black long tockings were especially common.

Regional Differences

America was a much more rural society in the late 19th and early 20th century tha it is now. Many Americans live on the farm or in small rural towns. When they dressed up they followed the same dressy styles as boys in the cuties wore--although the latest styles probably took a little longer to reach rural America in the days before television. Fashion magazines and mail order catalogs made sure that rural America was never to far removed from the latest fashions. Most of the time rural boys would be likely to wear work clothes like overalls. They would often wear such clothes to school--at least elementary school. They were not called jeans at the time, and of course the idea of designer jeans could not even be conceived in the early 20th century, but Levi Straus dungaree overalls were widely worn by men and boys.


Major changes occurred in the 1900s that significantly affected the images available on boys' clothing. The major development of course was the introduction of the inexpensive Brownie camera by Kodak in 1900. Suddenly anyone could take snap shots at home. As a result, we photography leaps outside thecstudio and we begin to have large number of images showing how the average person lived and dressed from day to day. Kodak in 1908 began printing the images with postcard backs so customers would want more prints to send to realtives and friends. Colorized images also appear, but actual color images are very rare.

Youth Culture

The United States emerged from the 19th century as an increasingly urbanized and industrial society. America in 1900 still had a large rural population, but most Americans now lived in the rapidly expanding cities. American industry was steadily surpassing the output of even the largest European countries. The impact was far reaching. Youth were now spending considerable time in school. Almost all children were now finishing primary school, although secondary school was still largely for urban children from affluent families. This meant that children were increasingly dependent on their parents into their teens, in many cases their late teens. This development had given rise to a youth culture that was affecting fashion and dress. It was to have other benign consequences. Newspapers reported on youth "gangs" and "juvenile delinquency" in the larger cities. Thus concern over youth and juvdenile delinquency gave rise to the Boy Scouts and other youth groups. 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.]


Sports by the turn of the 20th century had become a major interest for American children. The dominant sport was baseball. Kids not only played baseball more than any other sport, but they followed the exploits of their favorite baseball stars. Toward the end of this period, pehaps the greatest sports star of all time, Babe Ruth, appeared on the national scene. Some atheletes disappointed, one of the most famous quotes in sports history ocuured--"Say it ain't so Joe." A disappointed boy asked the disgraced White Soxs star--Shoeless Joe Jackson. For most American boys, sports was an informal activity played in a field or vacant lot. Only in highschool were formal teams formed with uniforms--but thi was only for the best atheletes. Stick ball was a substitute for baseball in the restructed big city streets. Some efforts to provide organized sport were being made. The YMCA was becoming increasingly important. But for the most part organized sport was for wealthy children whose parents mighht help them form athletic clubs. One example here is Westmoreland Athletic Club.


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

Personal Accounts and Articles

The 1870s: Joseph Breckinridge
The 1880s: Breeching
The 1880s: Dresses (Frank Schoonover)
The 1890s: The hated Fauntleroy suit
The 1890s: Heywould Broun
The 1890s: Dresses and Fauntleroy suits (Sammy Morrison)
The 1900s: Brother/sister outfits (Ernest Hemmingway)
The 1900s: An Ohio boyhood
The 1920s: First long pants suit
The 1930s: Kindergarten


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Created: May 31, 1999
Last updated: 8:44 AM 2/15/2022