*** United States kilts : kilt suits

Kilts in America: Kilt Suits

Figure 1.--The two children at the sides are both boys. The younger boy at the left, still in curls, wears a kilt suit. The older boy wears a kneepants suit with an elaborate ruffled collar. Notice how both boys have large collars which spill over with a sailor-like flap at the back. I believe the younger boy's name is Charles Shaw.

While few American boys in the 19th Century wore proper Scottish kilts with Highland regalia, many more boys wore the kilt suits that were popular in the late 19th Century. While Higland kilts were most popular with families that had Scottish conections, there does not seem to have been any relationship between kilt suits and Scotland. Mothers of many varied ethnic backgrounds chose klit suits for their boys. These suits were only worn by boys. The kilt suit was a very popular American style. The kilt suit became one of the most popular styles for younger boys in the late-19th century. It suited mothers who thought their sons were growing to old for dresses, but were not yet ready to breech them. They were popular with affluent amd middle-class families .


We are just beginning to build a chronology of the kilt suits worn by American boys. I am not sure when the kilt suit first appeared in America. We do not note them in the 1850s and 60s, although we note a frew boys wearing what look like plaid tunics, especially in the 1850s. We do not note kilt suits in the 1860s. At the time dresses seemed more common for younger boys. The kilt suit does not appear to have been commonly worn until the 1870s. We note American boys wearing them very commonly in the 1880s. It was through the 1890s one of the most popular outfits for younger boys. Kilt suits were still worn after the turn of the century in the 1900s, but much less common in the 1910s. The age conventions changed slightly over time. We think the time line was similar to Britain, but may have appeared in America a few years later than Britain.


HBC had intially assumed that the kilt suit originated in Britain as did most Amnerican boys' fashions. Of course the kilt as a boy's gsarment did originaste in Briain. But the origins of thekilt suit are more elusive. HBC believes that the kilt suits were not worn in either England or Scotland to the extent they were worn in America. Thus the kilt suit may have been a home grown fashion. We do not know, however, just who in America created this fashion. We note boys wearing plaid skirts in the 1870s. The kilt suit may have developed from this early style. Here we are somewhat unsure as these plaid skirts may hasve been inexpensive efforts to replicate plaid suits.


There were two basic types of kilt suits. The first type was a jacketed style. This included a suit jacket/coat and optional vest. The jacket and vest were not distinctive to kilt suits and were the same style that could be worn with knee pants. We suspedct that when some boys were breeched that mother just bought the knee pants to relace the kilt skirt and not a whole new suit. The other type of kilt suit was a heavy blouse that was made in the same material as the kilt skirt. It looks like a heavy shirt and was not worn with either a jacket over it or shirt-like garment under it. We do not know if there were terms in the 19th century for these two different kilt suit types. Both were popular styles. We believe that the jacketed suit was the most popular, but we can not yet confirm this. These suits were done with both kilts and plain skirts. But we would call a suit made with a skirt rather than a kilt as a jacketed dress rather than a kilt suit.


There were various styles of kilt suits, including some destinctive styles. The style of kilt suit is primarily derived from the jacket style. The most destinctive was the Fauntleroy kilt suit. This of course was the most destinctibe of all American styles. Faunrleroy outdirs were primarily knee pants suits, but we also note kilt suits. Here we mean the classic cut-away jacket Fauntleroy suits worn with Fauntleroy blouses, but we also note standard jackets with various Faunteroy trim items. We also see various stles of sailor jackets. There were in addition standard suits, Other jackets were styled like standard lapel (sack) suit jackets that boys wore with pants. This included both single- and double-breasted jackets as well as other styles.


There were a range ofconventions associated with the kilt suit. American mothers used the kilt suit as an intermediate step between dresses and outfits with kneepants, such as Fauntleroy suits and sailor suits. These mothers were not yet ready to fully breech their sons, but felt that they were becoming to old to still wear dresses. By the same token, the kilt suit was an outfit that could be worn by a wider age range han dresses. Thus it was a garment which could be used for dressing boys identically past the age that boys could wear dresses. While Higland kilts were most popular with families that had Scottish conections, there does not seem to have been any relationship between kilt suits and Scotland. Mothers of many varied ethnic backgrounds choose kilt suits for their boys. Being Scottish had nothing to do with kiltsuits. One convention I am not sure about is what else boys wearing suit kilts wore. Was the kilt suit their party outfit? Did they wear kneepants or other outfits like smocks at home for casual wear. This is one question HBC hopes to unearth some information on.

National Trends

I know the kilt suit was a popular American style. Kilt suits do not appear to have been worn in England or even Scotland. It does not appear to have been a poopular style on continental Europe, although we still have limited information on France.


The kilt was a male garment. Girls did not wear kilts in Scotland. The Kilt suits wjich evolved from kilts in the 1870s were also a boy's garment. We only note them being worn by boys. We note huge numbers of portraits of American boys wearing kilt suits done in a range of styles. American girls in the 19th Century wore dresses and not kilt or kilt suits. We do note thm wearing plaid dresses, but not kilts. The plaid skirt which is similar to the kilt and sometimes called a kilt became very common for girls in the 20th century, but we do not see Americam girls wearing them in the 19th century. We have never noted an image of an American girl wearing a kilt suit. That is not to say that none ever did, but we can say that it would have been very rare. As far as we can tell this was a dstinctive garment for younger boys. We do note some children wearing what look to be dresses styled like kilt suits. While gaving a vague simililarity to a kilt suit, these dresses were generally done with all kinds of fashion flourishes and fancy detailing. This contrasted with the kilt suit which in many ways was a very plain garment. It is not always possible to tell just who is wearing them.


Younger boys also wore dressess, but beginning in the 1870s when kilt suits became popular, many boys wore the kilt suits rather than dresses. Most of of our images come from formal studio portraits. What we are unsure about is if the boys wearing these kilt suits also wore dresses. Kilt suits are rather a heavy formal outfit. Presumably the boys involved had lighter more casual outfits for everyday wear and play, especially during the summer. But here we are not yet sure.


There were three major garments associated with kilt suits. Kilt suits were done as both two and three-piece suits. The major garments were the jacket and kilt and there were a range of variations for these garments. Some suits also came with vests. Boys commonly, but not always wore the jackets. The jackets came in a variety of styles. Early suits came with cut-away jackets. These jackets commonly did not match the kilt-skirt which were commonly done in plaid patterns. We note different styled kilt-skirts. Many were done as long, pleated kilts with a unpleated front pannel. They were a range of other stles, including what look obstensibly like skirts. We klnow less aout the vests as they were normally covered by the jacket. Some suits were worn with vests. Others might have lace and ruffled trimed blouses. Blouses were necessary with the bodice kilts. The kilts worn with vests usually had prominent collars, but usually less fancy than those worn with blouses. The fancy collars were not only worn with kilt suits, but boys often continued wearing them after being breeched and a kneepants sit purchased. Of course Fauntleroy suits were worn with large lace collars, but they were worn with other less fancy suits as well.

Accompanying Clothes

Kilt suits were worn with a variety of accompanying clothes. Unfortunately we do not often see the headwear. American boys wore Kilt suits were worn with a variety of headwear, both caps and hats. We are not entirely sure about the different varities of headwear worn or their relative importance. Headwear was commonly worn in the 19th century, so most boys would have had a hat or cap worn wih his kilt suit. Part of the reason that our information is incomplete is that outdoor photography was not yet common place and studio portraits commonly do not show the head wear. We have begun to collect some images. Given the time that kilt suits were popular, we suspect that at least some boys wore rounded-crown hats. As sailor styles became more popular, some boys must have worn wide-brimmed sailor hats. Sailor styles were so popular that they were often worn with other stylles than sailor suits. Another option surely were Scotish styles like balmorals and glengarys. We see boys wearing lace and ruffled trimed blouses. This was affected some what by vests. Blouses were necessary with the bodice kilts. The kilts worn with vests usually had prominent collars, but usually less fancy than those worn with blouses. The fancy collars were not only worn with kilt suits, but boys often continued wearing them after being breeched and a kneepants sit purchased. Of course Fauntleroy suits were worn with large lace collars, but they were worn with other less fancy suits as well. The kilt suit was popular at a time when younger boys generally wore large floppy bows of different colors and patterns. These bows were not peculiar to kilt suits, but rather commonly worn with Fauntkeroy suits and other outfits as well. Kilt suits, unlike Higland kilts, were always worn with long stockings, never with kneesocks. This is certaonly the case in the United States, we are less sure for Britain at the time. This is a little surprising as one reason kilt suits became popular was that they were based on a skirted garment worn by men. Yet we have not yet found a portrait of an American boy wearing a kilt suit with knee socks. We do note a few American boys wearing Highland kilts and they do wear knee socks. But kiltsuits were always worn with long stockings. I am not sure just why these conventiobs were so strong. Normally there is a degree of diversity when large numbers of people were involved. But unlike most popular fasions, these conventiins were very strictly followed. Kilts were mostly worn in the late 19th Century. By this time pantalettes had become much less common for children, especially for boys. While they were still worm as late as the 1890s, they were rarely worn with kilt suits as far as we can tell.


We do not have much information on the material used for kilt suits. Most seem to be a variety of wool suiting fabrics, including tweeds. It is a little difficult to tell much about the fabric from the photographic record. We do notice some velvet suits. This is a fabric that can often be identified from photographs. We hope to eventually draw some information from the catalog section we are building. Often they look like fabrics more suitablre for winter than summer, but of course mother could leave off the jacket for summer wear. Some phototgraphs show a lighter material with a harder surface. I do not know if any were made out of cotton fabrics, but perhaps mixed blend suitings.


We have very little information about the colors in which kilt suits were done. We note a wide range of shades in the photographic records. Many suits were done in muted plaids. Plaids were used in part because they were associated with kilts. The plaids for kilt suits, however, seen more muted than those used for Higland kilts. We have no real idea about the sactul colors. We have, however, found very little color information. Most of of our information sabout likt suits comes from the photographic record and portraits in the late-19th century were black-and=white photogrphs. We note very few paintings showing boys wearing kilt suits, despite the popularity of the style as demostrated by the photographic record. We hope to acquire some vintage garments or other useful informsation to throw some insight on the subject of color.

Fabric Patterns

We note kilt suits sone in a wide range of patterns. Some were done in flat or solid colored material. Unfortunately the black abd white photgrapht of the day provides little information as to the colors. We note, however, a wide range of shades from black (often velvet) to white and all shades in between. We also note many patterns. Plaid patterns were very common becuse of the association with Scottish kilts. We note very few patterns other than plaid. Ejile tghere was not a large diversity of patterns, there certainly were many different plaid patterns, including bold, medium, and muted. Some of the bold patterns are striking. And some mothers even added striped stockings. Some of the plaid patterns were so muted that they appear to be dark solid patterns in the portraits. These dark muted ptterns would only show in a closeup of the suit.

Fashion Articles

Period fashion magazines provide a great deal of useful information about fashion trends and conventions. The fashion writers in Harper's Bazaar provided some advice to mothers about boys' dresses and kilts--"Small boy's clothes" (1877).

Hair Styles

Many skirted garments were worn by both boys and girls. Kilt suits were, however, only for boys. The kilt suit was a very popular boys' outfit in the late-19th century, especially for American boys. Highland kilt outfits were worn, butt were not very common. Kilt suits were much more common which is one reason why we see so many boys wearing them with ringlet curls. Hair styles actually varied from short hair to long ringlet curls. Some mothers cut their sons hair while he was still wearing dresses and kilts, but others boys continued wearing curls even after breeching. Not all boys with long hair wore it in ringles, but after the publication of Little Lord Fauntleroy in 1886, ringlets became very popular for boys in America. Most boys we see wearing kilt suits have short hair, but quite a number have ringlets. The kilt suit was a major style for pre-school boys. The number of boys wearing kilt suits is a factor in the number of images showing boys wearing ringlets with them. Some boys even wore kilt suots after they began school, although not to school. Quite a few of the images we have found of boys wearing ringlets show them wearing kilt suits rather than Fauntleroy suits. Amd unlike dresses, we can be sure the child is a boy if he is wearing a kilt suit. Girls wore dresses and not kilt suits. We begin to see kilt suits in the 1870s and they are much less common after the turn-of-the 20th century. This isvery close to the time time frame that ringlets were popular for boys. And with kilt suits we do not have the difficulty with gender identification because girks did not wear them.


Kilt suits were a very popular style for younger boys, but for a realtively narrow age range. We have begun to develop some age information. They were typically made for boys from about 3 to 6 years of age. Availavle catalogs provide detaoils as to the ages for which these suits were made. We also have escriptions on portraits. While they were primarily made for pre-school boys, we do see some older boys wearing them. Sometimes boys as old as 7 or 8 might still wear them, perhaps a few boys even older. Many mothers considered a boys size rather than his age to be the determining factor. The age of boys wearing these suits changed somewhat in the 1890s and after the turn-of-the century when kilts suits were going out of style. We see younger boys wearing them during this period.


Our archive of kilt suits as it mostly 19th century images is almost entirely studio portaits. This meant that adoring mothers dressed the children up for the portrait. Family snapshots were not common before the turn-of-the 20th century which is when kilt suits were mostly worn. As aesult we are not sure just how and when kilt suits were worn when the boys were not done up for their portraits. Whilr most photographs were studio portrits, we have found a few snap shots. Mot many, but a few. Photogrphy was too complicated fir most people until the Kodalk Brownie appeared (1900). But there were afew photograpjy enthuiasts. This usully meant eople wth money. So many of the early snapshot images are of relatibely affluent children. And there was a social-class component to kilt suits. Children from affluent families ir at lest the comfortable middle class wore them. We see fewer working-class children wearing them. And the few snap-shot type images we have found show the boys in play situation and not just dress up sutuations. These look to be mostly 1890s images, so we have a narrow window here. This suggesrs that the kilt suit was everyday wear. Of course there may have been ailt suit worn for special occasions and another for play. But our archive here is too limited to make any firm assessments.


Often the boy continued to wear the jacket to his kilt suit, even after he was breeched. Thus the kilt suit was a wise choice for thrify mothers.

Individual Boys

Chicago boys: about 1880

Massachessetts boy: about 1890


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Created: July 25, 1999
Last updated: 10:51 AM 10/28/2020