Boys' Clothes: Major Fashion Trends

Figure 1.--Little boys in the 19th Century commonly wore dresses until about 5 years of age, but this was up to the mother. Some mothers delayed breeching for several more years. American boys in dresses generally wore long dresses or stockings, French boys often wore short socks and strap shoes.

Three basic fashions have swirled around boys's fashions since specialized childrens fashions first appeared in the late 18thy Century. These issues were finally resolved in the period from 1920-60 as boys began to gain greater say over the clothes she wore. The three major issues have been:
First: When should a boy be breeched and his curls cut?
Second: what type of collar should a boy wear, open or closed and how fancy?
Third: Whether he should wear long or short pants?

The trends over time on these three basic questions were as follows:

Late 18th Century

Little boys in the late 18th Century continued to wear dresses like their mothers and sisters. Yjey tended to be long dresses worn at ankle or shoe length. A new compfortable style of open collars developed. While open the collars could be quite fancy ruffled ones. Boys like their fathers wore knee breeches and skeleton suits appeared in the late 18th Century. After the beginning of the French Revolution (1789), aristocratic fashions became less dominate, especially in France. Proletatrian long pants became associated with the Revolution. Boys in particular began wearing long pants with their skeleton suits, at a time when their well to do parents still wore knee breeches.

Early 19th Century

Little boys continued to wear long dresses. As dresses became shorter, boys wore pantalettes with them as bare knees even on children were considered inappropriate. Open ruffled collars continued to be worn, some quite prominate. Open collars were especially popular for younger boys. Some fashions used high closed collars. Bows were not much worn. Stiff white collars appeared at Eton school. Boys after breeching might wear tunics. Younger boys wore their tunics with pantalettes older boys with long pants. No fashions involved bare knees--except for a small number of Scottish boys wearing kilts.

Mid-19th Century

Dresses and curls

Little boys continued to wear dresses little fifferent than their sisters. Shorter dresses became common. At first boys and girls wore pantalettes to cover their legs. This began to change in the 1850s. I think one of the reasons for this was the kilt popularized by Queen Victoria for the princes. This was the first garment in which boys knees were allowed to appear. Apparently this made it possible for young children to wear their dresses with bare knees. Pantalettes were still worn, but now usually only to the hem of a boy'd dress, not below it.

While many little boys wore dresses, hair styles were less uniform. Many boys were kept in long, mostly unstyled curls. Other boys had their hair cut boyishly short while still in dresses. Short hair was particularly common after breeching. Most boys after when graduating to tunics and pants wore their hair short.


Boys wore closed collars at mid-century. Mostly collars were plain and often quite small. They were often worn with small bow ties. Older boys were increasingly wearing Eton collars, usually without ties.


Most boys wore long pants. Tunics passed out of style. Majorr new styles for boys were introduced for boys in the 1840s when Queen Victoria began dressing the princes in kilts. This was the first garment for boys that involved bare knees. Kilts were being worn by Scottish boys, but the Queen's choice popularized kilts in England, America, and even Europe.

Other styles for boys involved mostly long pants. Queen Victoria also popularized the sailor suit for boys and the early ones were worn with long pants--often the bell bottom trousers worn by British sailors.

Figure 2.--The sailor suit was one of the most popular styles for boys. In the 19th century American boys most commonly wore kneepants and long stockings.

Modern looking suits began to appear. The blazer which first appeared in 183? when the captain of the HMS Blazer decided to smarten up his seamen had by mid-century began to appear more commonly in civilian atire. Boys mostly wore their suits with long pants. Some boys wore knickers blouced at the knee. Some boys began to appear in kneepants, but until the 1870s the dominate style was long pants.

Late 19th Century

Dresses and curls

Little boys continued to be outfitted in dresses. Special dresses specifically for boys appeared which were somewhat less elabotately styles. Some mothers, however, preferred the fancier styles for girls. Other mothers hesitated to breech their sons chose the popular kilt suits. Mostly boys were breeched about 5 years of age, but this varied at the mothers disgression and much older boys sometimes wore dresses. Younger boys in dresses might wear short dresses and bare knees. Pantalettes were still worn but became much less common in the 1880s. Bare knees other than for younger boys in dresses were rare. Older French boys kept in dresses might have barevknees, but this was not common in Britain and America. English boys wearing Scottish-style kilts might have bare knees, but American boys in kilt suits always wore long stockings and not plaid kneesocks. boyswere

Figure 3.--Boys in the late 19th Century commonly wore Little Lord Fauntleroy suits with large lace collars and bows with knee pants and long stockings.

Long hair became much more common than earlier. Some mothers styled their sons hair into long ringle curls. Some boys had their hair cut before breeching. Other boys wore long hair until 11 or 12 years of age, depending on their mothers' preferences.


The late 19th Century was the era of the collar. Boys might wear huge lace and ruffled collars, sometimes spilling over their shoulders. They were worn with large bows of various colors and patterns. Stiff Eton collars became the syandard for older boys.


Boys in the late 19th Century wore kneepants, mostly with long stockings. At first in the 1860s and 1870s it was mostly younger boys. By the end of the century, however, quite old boys wore kneepants although this varied more than for younger boys. Boys wore kneepants with most styles, velvet Little Lord Fauntleroy suits, sailor suits, Norfolk suits and others. Some boys wore their sailor suits with lonf pants, but kneepants were most common. Kneepants were mostly worn with long dark stiockings. Some boys might wear kneepants without shoes and stockings in the summer--especially in the South. Boys did not, however, wear above the knee pants. The kneepants style was the most common, but boys also wore knickers blouced at the knee. This knickers style was more common in England than America.

Early 20th Century

Dresses and curls

The first of the three major issues of boys fashions was settled in the early 20th Century. Little boys in the first decade of the 20th Century were still outfitted in dresses, but this became less common in the 1910s and for all practical purposes, except for very little boys, disappeared in the 1920s. Thus after centuries of dressing small boys like their sisters, it was decided that boys--event little boys would from now own be dresses in distinctly boyish styles. While by mid-century girls were allowed to wear boyish styles it became absolutely unfashionable for boys to wear anything that looked remotely like a girlish style.

The same fate awaited long hair for boys. After the first decade, long ringlet curls became much less common, although little boys still commonly had long hair. Most boys in the new Century wanted short hair like their fathers. Short hair cuts were common for boys of 5 or 6 years by the 1920s. This continued until the 1970s when long hair reappeared. However, this time it was the boys who wanted their hair long and the parents who wanted short hair. Fashion at times is difficult to fathom.


Lace collars became less common after the turn of the century, although large ruffled collars were still worn in the early 1920s. The Fauntleroy after the turn of the century were more commnly worn with open ruffled collars. Little boys might wear Peter Pan collars, but by the 1930s the second basic issue of boys' clothes was settled. Boys except for very little chaps would no longer wear large, fancy collars. Instead they would wear what ever their fathers wore, be it straight or button downed.

Figure 4.--Many American mothers wanted their sons to wear their knickers above the knee. As kneesocks were replacing long stockings this meant that boys would have bareknees even though they were wearing knickers..


The issue of pants continued unresolved in the first several decades of the 20th Cetury. Kneepants generally disappeared after the first decade. Some boys wore long pants, but most boys even older boys wore knickers or the developing new style of short pants with bare knees. With the exception of little boys in dresses, boys for centuries had covered their knees. Boys in the 19th Century had covered them with long pants, pantalettes, or stockings--but bares knees were rarely seen on older boys unless wearing the kilt. Styles and conventions in the early 20th Century varied greatly from country to country. British boys of all ages wore shorts. Some schools insisted on shorts for even older teenagers. British boys wore shorts with kneesocks all year round. Many French and German boys also wore shorts, but it was not required by schools which did not generally have uniforms. Some parents insisted on shorts throughout the year, but many allowed longpants during the winter. Short pants were not popular in Americsa fo older boys. Many did not like the idea of bare knees. Rather American boys wore knickers.

Mid-20th Century

Dresses and curls


Figure 5.--Boys in the 20th Century have worn short pants of every conceveable length. The French schoolboys wear short cut short pants as part of their school uniform.


The issue of pants was in a state of flux during the mid-19th Century and styles varied substantially from country to country. British and European boys, even older boys commonly wore short pants and kneesocks. Thiswas especially true in England as many schools had uniforms requiring short pants. Some private secondary schools eve required older boys to ear them. Mosy boys by the 1960s wanted to wear long pants. Only little boys, with some exception wore shorts. The genera trend was the declining use of short pants with suits. American boys in the 1960s began to wear shorts as casual wear.

Late 20th Century

Dresses and curls


Figure 6.--French boys generally wore short pants suits in first part of the 20th Century, but by the 1970s long pants suits had become more common.


The 21st Century

Christopher Wagner

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Created: November 3, 1998
Last updated: July 23, 1999