Boys Historical Clothing Essays: Country Differences in the Wearing of Short Pants

Figure 1.--Notice that all the boys in this English primary school during the 1940s is wearing short pants. This was not a school requirement, just a reflection of the contemporary fashions.

It is interesting to speculate as to why differences in fashion developed and wheter they are accidental, random developments or rather reflections of deeper aetetic or social values. Some differences are practical. Thus climate dictates that boys in Russian and the Caribbean dress differently. Sometimes fashion overides practical matters. School boys and Scouts, for example, on many Caribbean islands insist on wearing long pants. One intreaguing question is did American and Europeans boys dress so differently during much of the 20th century. European boys commonly wore short pants while American boys mostly wore knickers and long pants.

Fashion Differences

One intriguing question is why American and European boys for much of the 20th century dressed so differently. American boys in the 19th century generally wore clothing based on European fashions, primarily British and French fashions. Beginning in the 1900s, short pants appseared first in England and then in France and other European countries. Shorts were based on the short trouser uniforms worn by the British Army in tropical postings. The style was picked up by Boy Scout founder Lord Baden Powell, himself a majpr general in the British Army, for the nascent Scout movement. Short pants and kneesocks were much more practical for camping than keepants, hose supporters, and long stockings. Short pants rapidly spread across Europe, first adopted by the Scout Associations and then by parents. By the end of World War I, short pants had become the dominate style of bots trousers throughout Europe and remained until boys fashions shifted more to jeans and casual long pants during the 1960s. The interesting phenomenon is that a similar development did not occur in America. American boys never took to short pants like their European counterparts. American boys as kneepants were going out of style mostly wore knickers. Merchandisers beginning about 1920 began touting shorts. At about this time the Scouts were encouraging troops in the US to adopt shorts. The reaction, however, was largely negative in the United States. Shorts were worn in America, but mostly by younger boys and affluent families that looked more to Europe for fashion direction. Short pants in America became regarded as appropriate for younger boys only. Some American boys in the late 1920s-early 1930s wore short pants suits and they were regarded as fashiinable for younger boys, those up to about age 10. Many mothers prefrred the short pants style. The Boy Scouts promoted shorts and even required them at Nation Jamborees at Scout camps. All to little avail. Most American boys just didn't like them. Those boys that did like them or at least weren't bothered, often got teased and also began asking for long pants. The extent of the differences can be quite striking. Whole schools in America are often pictured wearing knickers or long pants without a pair of short pants in site. In contrast whole schools in Britiain and Europe show boys wearing short pants even when not required by the school. The differences can be over stated. Some American boys did wear short pants and some European boys did wear long pants. The common pattern on the two sides of the Atlantic, however, was very different.


Just why did such different styles of boys clothing develop in America and Europe in the early 20th century. Was it just hapinstance or were there actual discernable factors at play. Cultural differences? Different cultural icons? A variety of reasons has been suggested for the difference between the popularity of short pants in America and Europe. HBC will present the various factors presented. Please let us know what you think of these theories and whether you know of any other pertient factors. The following are some initial thoughts. Some nay be unrelated factors, but others may have impacted fashion to varying degrees. At this time we are unsure about casuality, but hopefully as we consider the various factors that a better understanding of the fashion trends will emerge.

The Late 20th Century

Also intriguing, is why have the Americans and Europeans seemed to have reversed themselves in the late 20th century after the 1960s. Young people in America began to favor shorts more so than European lads today, at least casual shorts for summer wear. This diference is notable, especially in view of how everything else American seems to have found favor worldwide--Dallas Cowboys or Chicago Bulls athletic gear worn by young people everywhere, for instance!

Reader Comments

HBC readers have provided various comments on the question as to why there was such a difference between the popularity of short pants in Europe and Amerca.

Short shorts

American boys during the 1960s often shyed from wearing very short shorts other than cut-off jeans. What is your cultural theory as to why European boys actually enjoyed wearing very short shorts especially as part school uniforms?


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Created: March 17, 1999
Last updated: 4:07 PM 3/25/2007