*** United States boys clothes : garments

United States Boys' Clothes: Garments

American boys' garments
Figure 1.--This little American boy, probably in the 1890s wears a knee pants suit with fancy embroidered trim and a ruffled collar and matching sleeve wrist trim. Note the heavy long stockings. The boy is unidentified, but the portrait was taken in Grand Rapids, Michigan.

The basic garments worn by American and European boys are fairly standard: caps, suits, jackets, sweaters, shirts, pants, hosiery, and shoes are fairly standard. The styles of these garments have of course widely varied over time and from country to country. Styles were at first basically set in Europe, such as skeleton suits, tunics, knee pants, sailor suits, and much else. American fahions began to diverge in the 1880s, although European fashions were still important. The Fauntleroy style was the first major destibctive American domestic American boys' fashion. We see Fauntleroy suits in other countries, but no where was Fauntleroy styling more popular than in America. Kilt suits were also especially popular in America. And knee pants became very popular in America during the 1890s, more popular than in Europe and worn by older boys. Knickers were not at first very common in America, but became standard boys' wear (1910s). It is at this time American and European fashions sugnificantly diverge. Knickers were worn in Europe during the 19th century, but were never as popular in Europe during the 20th century as in America. European boys began wraring short pants as a fashion standard. Shorts were never quite as common in America and had social class connotations. After World War II American casual fashions beginning with jeans became increasingly popular around the worldand not just in Europe. American blue jeans first penetrated the Iron Current years before American political and social ideas were able do so. American-styled garments are now highly influential around the world. It use to be possible to identify European children by the way they dressed. This is no longer posdible as Pan-European garments based largely on American styles are widely worm not only in Europe, but around the world.


American boys in the 18th century wore three-corner hats just like their dads. Boys on the frontier may have worn coon-skin caps like Davy Crockett, but this was not a specialized boy's style. The first specialized children's hat was probably the wide-brimmed sailor hat made popular in England and worn by American boys through the early 20th century. Tams were popular for a while, but became seen as more of a girl's garments as did berets which for a while were worn by younger boys. The flat cap which appeard at the turn of the century became a universally popular style for boys after World War I (1914-18) in the 1920s. There were specialized winter styles with ear flaps and fur. Stocking caps became popular winter caps. Affluent boys might wear English-styled peaked caps with short pants suits. A few younger boys wore berets. Cowboy hats were popular with boys, but more as a novely or play cap. Coon-skin caps made a brief appearane in the 1950s. The principal development after World War II (1939-45) was the declining popularity of caps and hats of all kinds. American boys who once never left home without a cap, now commonly did so. The emergence of the baseball cap, complete with the athletic team logo of choice, in the 1970s as the head covering of choice for the American boy was a fashion statement which has now spread around the world.

Skirted Garments

American boys like boys in other countries have worn a variety of skirted garments. The conventions involved was essentially brought to America by European immigrants. Thus fashion trends in Britain, Ireland, and Germany were especially important. There were substantial differences among families as to the conventions. Social class was an important influence. The styles and conventions involved have varied over time. It was very common for younger boys to werars dresses and other skirted garmens. The skirted garments have inclided dresses, skirts, kilts, and tunics as well as smocks and pinafores. For many years the styles worn by boys and girls were essentially identical, but in the late 19th century you begin to see boy-styled dresses. Boys still wore these garments in the late 19th century, but they rapidly went out of fashion after the turn of the 20th century and were no longer commonly seen after World War I. Dresses disappered first. Tunics were worn a lottlke longer. It is not entirely clear why a convention that persisted for so many years disappeared so quickly. The garment that persisted the longest was the tunic. Kilts are occassionally worn, but primarily at ethnic events like Scottish Highland gatterings, Irish feishes, and Greek celebrations.

Seasonal and Inclement Weather Garments

Seasonality is an important factor in clothing, especially in countries like the United States located in temperate areas subject to significant annual seasonal weather changes. Americans have to be prepared for both hot summer weather and cold, snowy winters and all the various intermedite seasonal changes. This has varied over time. Boys in the 19th century unless from wealthy families did not tend to have large wardbrobes. Thus seaonal clothing was more limited. Warm clothing for winter was a necesity. Sweaters, coats, gloves, hats, and thermals were necessary, especially in the northern states. Lighter-weight clothing for summer was comfortable, but not nearly as essential as cold weather clothing for winter. As the 19th century unfolded and American became affluent, we find boys acquiring larger wardrobes with more seasonal garments. Of course seasonal wardrobes became even extensive in the 20th century. In particular, summer wear became much more important. And rainwear was developed and became important items.

Toddler Styles

Toddler styles are a relatively modern creation. The moddern conception of the toddler is children from anout infancy to age 3 years or 1-3 years of age. There were no real toddler styles in the 19th century until the very late-19th century. Toddler age boys generally wore dresses like their sisters. Many boys wore dresses and other skirted garments beyond the toddler years. Here social class was a factor. Some boys wre breeched and began wearing older boys styles in their toddler years. This was more common in working-class than more affluent families. We note juvelie styles such as Little Lord Fauntleroy styles in the late-19th century. These were styles worn by toddlers and younger boys, especiall pre-school boys although we see some school-age boys weaing them as well. The first dedicated toddle garments appear to be rompers. These were garments almost excusively worn by todlers, in America both boys and girls. Tunics were also popular, but not exclusively worn by toddlers. We still see younger boys, including todlers, wearing dresses in the late-19th century. After the turn-of-the 20th century, dresses becanme less cimmon for boys, but some toddlers still wore them. We begin to see more toddler outfits in the early-20th century, especially by the 1910s. In addition to rompers we see a variety of button-on outfits, although these styles such as Oliver Twist outfits ahd sailor suits were also worn by older boys. After World War I we begin to see a variety of play wear styles worn by todlers. Shortalls began to become popular in the 1930s as were bif-front shorts and longs. After Wotld War II, basic T-shirts and shorts in bright colors became very common for toddlers. .

Juvenile Styles (Suits/Outfits)

We notice a range of styles for younger boys. These are often called suits (Fauntleroy, sailor, tunic, Oliver Twist, and others). For HBC we tend to use suits for the basic outfits style around the sack suit (Single-breated, double-breasted, Norfolk, and others). No where was the Fauntleroy suit more popular than in America. Quite a number of boys wore formal velvet Fauntleroy suits, but many more boys wore less expensive suits with large lace or ruffled collars. American boys generally wore Fauntleroy suits with wide-brimmed sailor hats. Other head gear was worn, but was not nearly as popular as in Europe. Someboys wore their Fauntleroy suits with long ringlet curls. Most of the American boys with long hair wore ringlets. I was not common for boys to have long uncurled hair. One of the most destinctive elements of the American Fauntleroy suit was that it was worn with large, carefully tied bows. The sailor suit is one of the most suceesful boys styles of all time. It was one of those rare coincidences of an outfit which both boys amd mothers liked. The style was conceived in England, but proved popular in America and coincided with the emergence iof America on the world scene as it was building a powerful navy. Paradoxically, the sailor suit continued popular in the anti-war environment of the post-World War I era and mothers continued willingness to dress small boys in the sailor suit. As sailor styles became increasingly popular with girls, fewer boys wanted to wear them. Buster Brown suits were popular for younger children in the early 20th Century. I'm not sure who introduced the style or precisely when. I'm not sure if it was a style picked up by the Buster Brown comic strip or an entirely new style created by the cartoonist. It does appear, however, to have been most popular after the turn of the century. Toddlers at that time often wore dresses or smocks. One of a boy's first suits was often a Buster Brown suit. Buster Brown suits were worn by boys from about 5 to 8 years of age, but some mothers dressed older boys in them for a few additional years.


Playwear was a category of boys clothes that did not even exist in the 19th century. The very idea of play was a concept which only slowly developed in the 19th century. Puritanical Americans saw play as a kind of idelness that was not good for either boys or adults. Generally speaking as play became more asccepted in th later-half of the 19h century we see children wearing old clothes for play rather than specially designed playwear. There were also ptotective garments like pinafores and smocks to protect clothing, but more from work than play. At the turn of the century, the tunics suits younger boys wore were often used as play suits, although there were also dressier tunic suits. We bein to see all kinds of playwear in the early-20th century. Early item were rompers and coveralls. Much more playwear appeared after World War I in the 1920s. These were mostly light-weight summer outfits. They were often called wash suits. Most were doimne with short pants. We see some sleeveless shots sets. Younger boys might wear rompers, but they rather merged with bloomers to become more populasr for girls. Most girls cotinued to wear frresses, including light-weight summer dresses, but we see some girls wearing rompers and short pants by the 1920s as casual play outfits.


Rompers first appeared in America during the 1890s as dresses became less common for younger children. Rompers were mostly worn by boys who previously still worn dresses. I do not know the origins of rompers, but assume they were an imported European fashion. Boys wearing rompers commonly wore them with short socks. Long stockings were still common, and rompers were one of the first garments, except dresses, to be worn with short socks in America. Some of the early rompers appeared to have been dressier than was commonly the case by the 1900s. Dressy rompers may be made of velvet and have embroidered trim and smocking. Rompers in America, however, were mostly play clothes. They were worn by both girls and boys. I do not know if there was any difference between boys and girls rompers or if they were more commonly worn by one gender. Rompers in America were most common in the 1910s and 20s. They were commonly worn with strap shoes.

Norfolk suits
Figure 2.--Flat caps and knicker suits along with black long stockings were standard for American boys in the 1910s and 20s. Notice the Norfolk styling.


The first suits specifically made for boys in America as in Europe were sketon suits. We notice suits with short jackets and often contrasting pants in the 1840s. At this time younger boys began wearing fancy suits, often heavily embridered and with vloomer knickers. Modern looking suits began to be worn in the 1860s. Younger boys in fashionable families might wear kneepants suits, but long trousers were more common until the 1890s when older boys began wearing them as well. Younger boys by the 1870s commonly wore kiltsuits by the 1870s and Fauntleroy suits by the 1880s. Sailor suits were another popular choice. Older boys wore more modern suis. Many destinctive styles appeared such as Norfolk suits. There were aldso single and doublr breasted suits. After the turn of the 20th century, knickers began replacing knepants, especially after the 1910s. After World War I, short pants suits appeared, but knocker suits were more common. Afrer World war II long pants suits becamev increasingly common. Boys also wore sports jackets and blazers. The increasingly popular more casua; life style meant boys were wearing suits less and less commonly.

Torso Tops (Shirts and Blouses)

Torso tops varied significantly over time. Shirt-like garments were not yje major grment worn in the 19th century. Shirts, blouses and other tops were commonly civered upwith suits jckets. After the turn-of the 20th century, suitjackets began to decline in importanxe abd the shirt emerged as the most important garment. There were only a few choices in the 19th century, Manu more choices for boys appeared in the 20th centuryThe basic types of torso tops worn by American boys are collared and non-collared types. The collared types are shirts and blouses. Blouses are today seen as a girls' garment, but in the 19th and early-20th century, thet were commonly worn by boys. The non-collared types are shirt-waists in the 19th century. They were very common as the collar is the element that gets the most wear and gets dirty the fastes. Thus detacle collars that appeared in the mod-19th century made a lot of sence. T-shirts, and singlets appeared in the 20th century and with the increasinly casual era became very common. After World War II, T-shirts become increasingly important. The elements of these tops are collars, sleeves, plackets and wrist treatment with collars being especially importnt. Sleeves for boys were long sleeved in the 19th century with short sleeves only appearing in the 20th century.

Decorative Items

Decorative clothing is often not associated with boyswear. There are, however, several decorative items that boys have worn when dressing up and ahave at times been important boyswear items. The most important is various types of neckwear. Neckwear was once avery important clothing item for boys, especially when more formal dress was expected. And we have noted several important neckwear types over time. Neckties and bowties were particularly important in the 20th century. Stocks and floppy bows and other neckwear were popular in the 19th century. Bows are generally seen as neckwear, but actually they were used for other decorative purposes. We note hair bows, dress bows, shoulder bows, and shoe bows. A less common decorative item was sashes which were initially a military style. As childrenswear has become increasingly casual, these decorative items have become less important.


The most popular knitted garment as in most countries is the sweater. American boys have worn many different styles of sweaters. There are many other knitted garments, mostly cold weather garments like socking caps, scarves, and mittens. We have also noted knitted snow suits, especilly in the northern state near Canada. Stockings were once popular knitted garments, but are now almost never knitted. Some of the fashionable French knit garments like short pants outfits were not nearly as popular as in America.


American boys have worn a wide variety of pants, including knee breeches, kneepants. knickers, short pants, and long pants. The were the basic types of pants worn by boys, but there were stylistic differents over time. Kneepans were worn at different lengths. Knickers were of varying fullness. Short pants were worn at different lenths. Long pants were also worn at different lengths and with or without cuffs. Some elements like suspension, belt loops, pleating, flies, and pockets were elements in different kinds of pants. The popularity and conventions for wearing these different styles of pants has varied over time. There have also been regional and social class differences. Fashionable styles in Europe and America were quite similar during the 19th century. We note differences developing in the 20th century, especially after World War I.


We notice portraits of many American boys wearing uniforms. The most common uniform in the years before school uniforms became common was the Boy Scout and other youth group uniforms. We also note boys wearing costume uniforms of various kinds. These uniforms were commonly carried in the major mail order catalogs. Uniforms were not common in American schools, except at military schools. They were adopted at parochial schools and now are becoming increasingly common, especially at primary (elementary) schools and junior highschools.


The union suits and combination suits discussed here were worn by American children. A good deal of information is available on the underwear worn by Ameeican children, especially beginning in the 1880s because of the popular mail order catalogs. A 1923 Montgomery Wards mail order catalog shows the varied styles of combination suits available for boys and girls in 1923. I am not sure at this time if there were actual differences between a combinatin suit and a union suit or if they were just different terms for the same garment. A HBC reader writes, "I think the combination suit was very specific. It combined the union suit with a hose supporter or waist supporter that we saw earlier. In 1915 Stewart's catalogue there is a reference to a combination suit but it is called an "alheneeds" it was for younger boys as listed in the site. Notice it was also for summer when the extra layer of a waist to hold up stockings would be very hot!" We note changes in American underwear styles after World War, to adapt to changes in juvenile clothing such as short pants. American children for many years wore support garments years to hold up various garments, especially long stockings. These were different support garments worn in America and Europe.


American boys in the late 19th century as the kneepants fashion became a convenbtion for boys commonly wore long sdtockings, except for the very youngest boys. Striped long stockins were fashionable in the 1860s and 70s, but solid colored stockings were increasingly common by the 1880s, especially black stockings. After the turn of the 20th century three-quarter socks became more common for boys. Long stockings were worn during the winter and for dress occassions. Dark stockings were the most common, but sirls and younger boys also wore white long stckings. Basen Powell's Boy Scouts helped to popularize kneesocks in the 1910s. After World War I, black long stockings brecame less common and tan colors became the standard. Kneesocks and ankle socks gradually replaced long stockings, although they did not disappear until the 1940s.


We note American boys wearing a range of different footwear. Footwear in the 19th century seems similar in both Anerica and Europe. We have only limited information on the early 19th century. We note mosrly high-top shoes in the late 19th century. Some younger children wore low-cut strap shoes. Going barefoot was probably more common in America. We notice various styles of strap shoes and sandals in the early 20th century. They were at first worn by both boys and girls. Here there were social class factors involved. Sandals became less common for boys after World War I and the early 20s and do not reappear as a major style for boys until sports sandals in the 1990s. American and European footwear styles begin to significantly differ after World War I. The Briish school sandal never became popular in America. nerican sneakers did bot become popular in Europe until the 1970s. We do see American boys wearing sneakers in the 1920s. They were discouraged at scgool until well after World war II, but eventually become the primary style for children., especially boys. Most boys wore low-cut leather shoes by the 1920s, although high-top shoes were still worn in the 1920s.

Other Items

There are a range of other items that need to be mentioned in our fashion discussion. A variety of items are exactly garments, but need to be considered. These include glasses, gloves, and jewelry. We have just begun out assessment here. We do have a page on gloves worn with suits.


We do not know a great deal about costume trends in different countries. Here our experience is largely American. A reader writes, "I have seen many pictures of acrobat/circus performers dressed in strange costumes from the mid-19th century 1800s--about as unlike typical Victorian dress as one could get. I read somewhere that they may have been dressed this way to appear like court jesters from medieval times. Do you think there is any truth in this?" We have seen those portraits as well. The first we have seen were CDVs from the 1860s. These costumes may have been worn earlier and we don't see them because because was not as common. We do not think that these were medieval costumes, but rather circus or theatrical performers, but we have very little actual information. A good example is Basil Kite, an American boy, probably during the 1870s. we begin to see well-to-do people wearing fancy dress costumes in the late-19th century. These were elaborate, probably bery expensive costumes. This probably reflects the increasing affluence of industrial America. We are not entirely sure how they were selected. Nor do we know just how they were used. Some people may have dressed up primasrily for a hotograph. We think, however, that the primasry purpose was fancy dress parties. And many people wanted a permanent momento. A good example is Howard Lee in 1892. Another interesting aspect of the American fancy costumes we have seen is their un-Anerican nature. We don't see many Ameriucan characters like the Pilgrims, Native Asmericans are historical fifures. We do see mostly European figures and foreign costumes. We also begin to see ready-made costumes in the mail order catalogs. They were generial characters such as: clowns, firemen, Indians, policemen, soldiers, ect. We note Uncle Sam costumes in the early 20th century. Most seem home made. There were more offerings for boys than girls. This changed further after World War I with the growth of the radio and movie industries. Children wanted costumes of favorite characters. The preminent American holiday for which costumes are worn is Halloween trick or treating. This was, however, a destinctly American celebration, although in recent years it has begun to become popular in other countries. An early popular costume was Palmer Cox's Brownies. Nost Halloween costumes were home made, but we begin to see stire-brought costumes in the early 20th century.

Miscelaneous Items

We are developing information on a variety of miscelaneous items. One such item is jewelry. This is more associsated with girls, but we do note boys wearing arange of jelelry. Another item is eyeglasses.

Unknowm Garments

We have found some images that we just do not understand. This is often the case with unidentified images. Most images can be easily classified, especially in the 20th century with the prevalence of ready made clothing. When clothes were jand made in the 19th century, there was more variability. Some images are hard to identify because the image is not well exposed. But we find well exposed images that provide conflicting signals, some times because we can't tell mif the child is a boy or girl. . We post these images that we have had a difficult time assessing in the hope that readers will have some insights to offer.


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Created: January 26, 2001
Last updated: 12:52 AM 11/5/2022