*** boys' tunics

Boys' Tunics

boys tunics
Figure 1.--Sir Thomas Lawrence painted Mrs. Henry Bartig and children in 1817. Her son appears to be wearing a black velvet skeleton suit. We are not sure what he is wearing over it, perhaps a white tunic or perhaps a front buttoning pinafore.

Tunics were one of the more enduring 19th century styles for boys. As the 19th Century progressed, another garment was added to the small boy's wardrobe--a smock-like tunic. The tunic suit was a form of jacket, close-fitting to the waist, with a gathered or pleated skirt below the waist. It was often the first boyish garment purchased for a boy after he was breehed and allowed to stop wearing dresses. Some tunics look like simple dresses. At first gance it is sometimes difficult to distinguish tunics from dresses. The tunic is very plain, often the same cloth--in many cases of a dark or muted color. Tunics are generally styled very simply. Some did have dress liked puffed sleeves. The major distinguishing feature is that tunics in the late 19th Century were worn with knicker-type pants just as they has een worn with pantallets earlier in the decade. Girls who wore dresses would never wear them with knickers.

Stylistic Features

Boys tunics have been very simplly styled, much more simplly than girls dresses. There are, however, several important stylistic elements to boys' tunics which have varied over time. One of the most important is the neck line and collar styles. They have varied comfortable open necks to closed collars that varied from lace and ruffles to wide white collars worn with bows. Lengths of tunics have varied from mid-calf to knee. Tunics were not worn in ankle lengt or above the knee lengths. Tunics usually were closed with buttons. They commonly buttoned down the front, although often off to the side rather than down the front center of the tunic. The tunics themselves tended to be quite plain, often in subdued colors such as dark blue and brown. Unlike the skeleton suit which was not belted, tunics unlike true smocks, often were belted at the waist. The belt was frequently quite broad. The belt was one of the principal stylistic features.

boy's tunic suit
Figure 2.--This boy in a Dagurotype probaby taken in the 1850s shows a boy wearing a kind of stripped tunic with a modest ruffled collar. Notice the wide belt wore outside the tunic.

Accompanying Garments

Tunic outfits were worn with several accompanying garments. The most important was some kind of pants, including pantalettes, long trousers, and knickers. The popularity and style of these pants have varied over time. Caps were also an important feature of a tunic suit. One popular style in the early 19th Century was a kind of military-looking cap with a peak, often worn with tassles. Eventually broad-brim sailor hats with elastic chin straps and trailing streemer proved the most popular in the late 19th Centuruy.


Tunics were very flexible garments. We note them being worn on a wide range of occasions. We notice them being worn both as play garments as well as dress up occassions. Althigh they seem less common fo really formal events. We are less sure about the tunics worn in the early 19th century. We do not note many boys weaing tunics for photographic portraits in the mod-19th century. We are guessing that this was their dress up outfit, but are not entirely sure about this. We know much more about the tunics worn at the turn of the 20th century. Tunic suits were very popular at this time and throughout the ealy 20th century. And with the appearance of the Kodak Browmie and the uniquitoussnap shot, we see many boys wearing them for play and other casual wear. We also note quite a few boys wearing them for dress up occassions and in orml portaits.

Hair Styles

As with dresses, mothers varied greatly as to the hair style of boys in tunics. Boys in tunics wore hair styles ranging from long ringlet curls to crew cuts and even shaved heads. Some mothers refused to have their boys' hair cut upon breeching. Thus some boys continued to wear long hair with breeches, even ringlet curls. Most boys wearing tunics in the late 19th and early 20th Century appear to have had their curls cut and wore short hair. But there were many mothers who just could not bare to cut their sons's hair yet.

doubke-breasted tunic suit
Figure 4.--This is a difficult image to assess. It looks like a simple dress made with double breasted styling. The fact that he is wearing knicker-like pants suggests that it is a tunic. I'm not sure how to date it, but would guess the 1880s.


Tunics were made in many different materials. This of course depends on wether the tunic was made for play or for more formal occassions. We note formal tunics done in velvet. An example is an unidentified American boy about 1905.

Historical Era

Boys' tunics were one of the most enduring styles for boys. They were often the first boyish garment worn after breeching. They appeared before the turn of the 19th Century and were commonly worn through the first two decades of the 20th Century. No other fashion endured for such a long time. The styles of the tunics, the neckline and collar, and the pants worn under the tunic changed sognificantly over time. The tunic appeared in the late 17th Century, buy were not commonly worn until the early 19th Century. They were at first mostly worn with open neck styles. Square openings were popular. the middle. Some of the tunics buttoned from neck to hem, but others only opened partly. I have little information about mid-19th Century tunics. I believe that after the 1840s they became less popular until reappearing in the 1890s. However, my knowledge on tunics during this period is very limited. The increasing number of available photographic images in the 1850s, however, is a good indicator. Many boys appear to be wearing blouse-like tunics, but these are not really tunics per se. As the century progresed, tunics for boys got progressively shorter. They appear to be little worn by the 1860s. It was not until the nid-1890s that they began to reappear. Some of the most popular styles at this time were Russian box-pleated tunics, sailor tunics, and American Buster Brown suits. with matching blomers and/or knickers.


Throughout the 19th Century small boys were outfitted in dresses just like their sisters. In the early and mid-19th century there was virtually no difference in the dresses worn by girls and boys. In fact a boy might wear his older sister's hand-me-downs. When the boy reached about 5 years of age, sometimes later, his mother began to consider breeching him. She then had to decide upon his first boyish outfit. This varied widely, but for many mothers the choice was a tunic. This was probably the case because the tuic itself looked much like a dress. The tunic was the costume in all-white linen or merino that American boys were put into when "breeched," an event which visually took place about the age of 4-5 years of age, but some doting mothers might delay until 5 or even 6. Little Victorian boys, after they graduated from their toddler dresses wore a variety of these smock-like garments before they began wearing more boyish skeleton suits or Eton suits.


We have little informtion as to conventions for wearing tunics. We are not sure they were a dreyy outfit, but they do not seem to have been a play outfit either. Available images suggest that in the early-19th centuy that boys wore them to school. We also see them being worn around the home. The photographic record suggest at mid-century that tunics were standard wear for boys, at least middle-class boys. We notice many American boys having portaits done wearing tunics in the late-19th century. This suggests that they were dress wear. We see few boys wearing tunics in American school portraits which became increasinglky common in the late-19th century. We also do not see English boys wearing thm to school, but here our archive is limited. We think tht they were commonly worn to school in the early-19th century throughout Europe. This was before public chool sysrems wre commob except in Germany and America. This is difficult to follow in detil because it was before the invention of photography. As photography appeared at mid-century, we see Europen boys still wearing tunics to school, although this was not so common in America. We do notice French and German boys wearing tunics to school. We note German boy Albert Boelerke wearing a tam and velvet-trimmed tunic for his first day of school in 1892.

boy's long tunic
Figure 5.--The poet Alfred Lord Tennyson (1809-92) poet Laureate of England) and his wife Emily Sarah Sellwod with their sons Lionel and Hallam. Their two boys wear tunic suits with below the knee knickers. Notice the front buttons and lace collars. The photograph was taken in 1862. 'Pen' Browning wore a similar tunic costume.

Romantic Versions

During the Romantic Period in the 1830's there was quite a flare for dressing boys in historical costume, especially in Europe. They were garbed in doublets, hussar tunics, Spanish dress, the Van Dyck style and Turkish too. In many cases the tunics were done up in romantic versions of these outfits, in other occasions complete outfits were worn. The trend in America was to emulate preceived British styles. American mothers often chose Scottish kilt and the sailor suit, both an influence of Queen Victoria's love for Balmoral Castle and the baby Prince of Wales.

Tunic Types

Tunics in the early 19th Century were quite uniform although there were considerable differerences in the neckline and collar. They were also worn with a wide variety of pants. Tunics declined in popularity in the mid-19th Century, but by the late 19th and early 20th Century they had again become very popular with for boys. They came in several distinctive styles, including sailor tunics, Russian box pleated tunics, and American Buster Brown suits. They were mostly worn with bloomer-like knickers and long stockings. HBC has even noted one tuuic which appears to have been made with shorts rather than a skirted hem--rather like an early romper suit.


Tunics and the bloomer knickers boys wore under them were worn at different lengths over time. We have limited information on the length of tunics in the early 19th century. Our information on 19th century tunics is too limited to reasonably assess length, but we have not noticed them being worn at lenhths below the knee. Tunics at the turn of the 20th century were worn at a length ending just above the knee. The bloomer knicker boys wore with these were worn at almost the same length, often just barely visible below the hem of the tunic. They were generally worn bloused just above the knee. We note that some of the later tunics were shorter and the boys more clearly wear knickers rather than bloomer knickers that are mostly covered by the tunics.


Several garments besides the actual tunic suit garments were commonly worn with tunics These were not commonly part of the suit like the pants. Some of he hats may have matched the suit, but this was usually not the case. There was no cap or hat made especially for different styles of tunic suits. The most common headgear for boys wearing tunic suits were wide-brimmed sailor hats. While the styles of the hats were rather basic, they varied a good deal in the width of the brim. The combination of sailor hats and tunic suits appears to have been essentially a coincidence. Some boys wore their tunics with belts of widely varying widths. These appears to have been decorative without any practical purpose. Normally they match the material of the tunic both in msaterial and color. Boys in tunic suits wore mostly ankle socks or long stockings. Knee socks were not common. The long stockings were both white and colored. The ankle socks were mostly white, but colored socks were not unknown. Boys wore a great variety of shoes and stockings, primarily depending on the formality of the activity involved. For the first time boys appeared in bare feat without giving the impression of poverty. Boys by the time that tunic suits became popular were no longer wearing heavy hightop shoes. Rather more comfortable oxfords or even sandals were more common.

National Styles

HBC does not yet kmow where the fashion of tunics for boys originated, probably England or France. We also do not have full details on tunic styles in different countries. They appear to have been widely worn by American and European boys in the early-19th Century. The tunic suits that appeared at the 20th Century appear to have been very popular in America, France and Italy. I am less clear about the popularity in other countries. Tunics along with skeleton suits were some of the most popular boys outfits in the early 19th Century. I have no infornmation at this time on the relative popularity and stylistic differences in various countries. Tunics declined in popularity at mid-century, but they never entirely disappeared. I have no infornmation at this time on the relative popularity and stylistic differences in various countries. Tunic suits appeared at the turn of the century. They may have been worn in Europe during the late 1890s, but were most popular from about 1900 to about 1915. The style was little seen after the Firsrt World War (1914-18) in the 1920s. It appears to have been a particularly popular style in America and France, but was worn throughout Europe.

American tunic suit
Figure 6.--Tunics suits came in various styles. This boy's tunic dates to about 1900. This boys mother has bought a large size he can wear for several years. Note belt and strap shoes.

After Tunics

The idea of specializized fashions for children had become well established by the early 19th century. Soon parents were making substle differences in the way they dressed their children of differing ages. Boys in the early 19th Century might wear skeleton suits after emerging from tunics. By the 1840s as the skeleton suit wained, boys would were more modern looking suit and by mid-Century the Eton suit or various jackets were worn with Eton collars. The suits of older boys comprising trousers, short jackets, waistcoat and white shirt with lay-down collar was known to Americans as the Eton because it was worn by boys at England's prestigious Eton College, England. The Eton suit set a fashion standard for a generations of English schoolboys.


HBC believes that the tunic has been a primarily boys' garment, although our information has been admittedly limited. Cerainly tunics in the 19th century, as far as we can tell, were boys' garments. We have few written sources to substantiate this. Based on the images we have seen, however, the tunic certainly seems to be a boys' garment. We are less sure, however, about the 20th century. Some images uggest that in the early 1900s that tunics were also worn by girls, at least in America. We are not sure, however, how common this was and we hope HBC will be able to add further insights on this matter.

boy's white tunuc suit
Figure 7.--This boys wears a classic white tunic with knickers. The knickers with tunics were usually worn above the knee. I think this boy's mother bought a large size so he could wear it a couple years. As with most tunics, it has off center buttons and colored trimming. The grey shade suggests possibly red trim. Note the boy's sandals and hats which I believe help date the image to the 1910s.

Age Conventions

There were definite age conventions associated with tunics and tunic suits. This varied from family to family as well as among countries. Again we have little information about early 19th century tunics. We believe that they were worn by school boys. We know more about the mid-19th cenbtury after photographywas developed. By the turn of the 20th century, however, they were mostly worn by pre-school boys. A good example is 5-year old Hewett Lindsley, an American boy in 1910. We also see some boys wearing them for a year or so after beginning school, but not so commoinly to school. Here social class factors may be involved as we don't see to many children wearing tunics in school portraits.

Related Early 19th Century Styles

Another feature of the 1830s was the apron, pinafore, and smock for little girls and small boys. One reads that those of fine white muslin, white cross-barred cambric and printed calico were not as fashionable as aprons of silk, green in color and made with brettelles, the whole edged with self-ruching. The crinoline ranges between 18-10 and 1865 and was the silhouette of the period for all females large and small. Like that of the grown-ups, the crinoline of the 1840s was a full petticoat corded and stiffened with crin, the French word for horsehair braid. The crinoline was also bolstered by several starched skirts over one of flannel. In the 1850s came the petticoat of wire hoops held together by tapes, an American invention called the American cage in Europe. It was very light in weight and a wonderful relief after the wearing of such a clutter of muslin underskirts. By the 1860s the skirt fullness was being pushed toward the back in the trend to the bustle of the 1870s. Regardless of full skirts, pantalets were still in the picture but very often they had turned into long frilled drawers. Stockings striped round the legs in bright colors came into vogue for boys and girls. Shoes for both were the flat-soled strap slipper, while for outdoors an ankle-high shoe with elastic sides was proper and popular.


Some smocks have a resemblance to tunics. There are, however, some significant differences. One of the most important is the material from which they were made. Tunicswere made from good quality cloth like cloth for shirts and jackets such as wool . Smocks tended to be made from lesser quality materials and were usyally light-weight material such as cotton ginham. The tunic was an actual outfit with the pants coordinated or matching the tunic in the early 19th century and even more so in the late 19th century with tunic suits. A smock need not match or be coordinated with the other clothes, it was simply to cover and protect the other clothes. A tunic could be worn as a formal outfit. A smock was an informal garment simply worn to protect clothes around the house or at school.

Actual Vintage Suits

There are important museum collections of vintage clothing as well as private collections. Some information is also available from internet and other auctions. These collections are of special interest to HBC because they allow a much more careful inspection of garments than is possible in a photographic image. We are collecting information on different kinds of tunics and tunic suits. These actual garments provide information on material, color, construction, embroidery, manufacturer, and a host of other details. Some readers have kindly provided us information about the garments in their collections.

Individual Boys

Some of the individual boys we have noted wearing tunics have included the following:

1818: Denmark, the Nathanson family
The 1830s: England, Jethro Scowcroft
1832: France, the Hugo children
The 1850s: England, Pen Browning
The 1850s-60s: England, the Tenneyson boys
The 1900s: America, An Ohio boyhood


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Created: January 30, 1999
Last updated: 1:23 AM 5/5/2015