*** boys tunics : stylistic features

Boys Tunics: Stylistic Features

Figure 1.--Sir Thomas Lawrence painted Mrs. Henry Bartig and children in 1817. Her son appears to be wearing a black velvet skeleton suit. I'm 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 breeched 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 distinguidhin feature is that tunics in the late 19th Century were worn with knicker-type pants just as they had been worn with pantallets earlier in the decade. Girls who wore dresses would never wear them with knickers. Some of the stylictic features of tunics included he following.

boys tunics
Figure 2.--This Ambrotype probably dates to the 1860s. It shows twin brothers. Apparently they are graduating from tunics to trousers. Rather than a drastic change, they were allowed to tuck their tunic into their trousers. They do seem to be acquiring long trousers. Notice the one boys wears abreviated trousers, probably nickers with white stockings and strap shoes. Note the small lace collars and ringlet curls.

Neck Line and Collar Styles

Early 19th Century tunics were worn with open necks, in both a square and rounded fashion. This comfortable looking open necked fashion went out of style at mid century and small collars appeared, including lace collars. The principal adornment on an early-19th century tunic was a ruffled or lace collar. Even older boys wearing plain pants rather than little boy lacey pantaletes, might wear elaborate lace collars. In some cases these collars were quite large, some extending to and covering the sholders. Boys' sleeves were as diversified in shape as were their sisters', slim, full and leg-o'-mutton. Tunics after mid-Century changed markedly. Open neck styles were no longer worn. Boys wore tunics with tight buttoning collars. The collars, unlike those worn with many other outfits were not fancy. Some were, however, quite broad white collars. They were sometimes worn with large bows.

Buttons and Closures

Buttons were used for both decoration and closures. This varied widely. As did the closures. We believe that tunics mostly had closings and were not poncho-like slip on garments. Tunics usually were closed with buttons. In fact they were often an imortant part of the styling of the tunic. This is a little difficult to tell because studio portraits are almost always taken from the front. And in the 19th century most photography was studio photography. Thus we casn not see the back of the available tunuic portraits. We believe that these were mostly back-closing garments. As best wee can tell the fitst tunics in the early-19th century were mostly back-buttoning. There were, howeverr, also side and front-closung tunics. A kind of angular/diagonal fastening was popular in the 1870s. This was primarily used for tunics. This was often done set off to the side rather than down the front. Buttons on one of the shoulders were a common feature.


Bows were of course only worn with tunuics that had collars--usually wide white collars. Buster Brown tunics were the most common ones worn with bows. A number of styles entailed collars. Russian blouse tunics did not have collars, but most other tunucs did. Not all collared tunics were worn with bows, but many were. The size, style, color, and pattern of these bows could vary greatly.

tunic collars
Figure 3.--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.

Tunic Jacket

The tunic jacket was vnormally very plain, but we do notice various destinctive styles. One of th nost destictive was the diagonal cut tunics of the 1870s. A German reader writes, "I notice many tunics in the photographic record during the 1870s that were styled with diagonal front cuts. I also noted that asymmetric cuts were popular in the 1870s." We notice them in America. We also see them in Germany. I am less sure about other countries.


Lengths of early 19th Century tunics varied. Some tunics were quite long. Many of the early tunics fell to mid-calf. The length became shorter as the century progressed. Many were worn short, well above the knees. Tunics were always worn with some sort of pants. The children wearing early 19th Century tunics always covered their legs, even very young children. Tunics by mid-century were less comminly worn and became shorter, roughly knee legth, although this varried. Tunics became much more popular at the turn of the 19th century. Lengths varied, but were generally slightly above the knee. They were worn with knickers, often above the knee knickers. Tunics were worn through the 1910s, but became much less common after World War I (1914-18) in the 1920s. Some boys in the 1920s wore very short tunics--almost like shirts.


Early tunics had long sleeves. Some of them were blouced out. Some had wrist cuffs, but thet were usually plain, only infrequently were ruffled collars matched with wrist ruffles. After mid-Century some tunics began to appleae with shorter sleeves. They were often cut between the wrist and elbows.

diagonal tunics
Figure 5.--This boy wears a tunic with a diagonal arrangement of buttons. I think the absence of a belt suggets it is a fairly early photograph, probably about thr 1870s. I'm unsure about the color.


We have very littke infotmtion about color as regards tunics. The tunics themselves tended to be quite plain. Tunics were often made in subdued colors such as dark blue and brown. We note a New York boy wearing a green plaid tunic about 1850. This was particularly common in the early 19th Century. Lighter colors were more common in the late 19th Century. White was a common color with colored trim. Striped materials, similar to those worn with stripped sailor suits.


Unlike the skeleton suit which was not belted, tunics (unlike true smocks), often were belted at the waist. Tunics in the early and mid-19th Century varied greatly. We have relatively few images of early 19th century tunics, so we can not yet assess the belts that may have been worn with them. Some had belts and some did not. Tunics in the 1870s more commonly had belts and by the 1880s they almost all came with belts. The belts on tunics were purely decorative. They had not practical purpose what so ever. We have noted them both in the same color and material as the tunic and otyhers in contrasdting colors. Most were oplain colors, but a fe had embroidery or other decorative elements. Belts by the late 19th Century were almost a necessary stlistic feature on all tunics. The belt was frequently quite broad. The belt was one of the principal stylistic features.

Figure 6.--This little boy's tunic has a stialized belt rather than an actual belt. Buttons were often important stylistic features on the tunic. Note the bloomer-style knickers this little boy wears with long stockings.


Some boys wore caps and hats like their fathers'. One popular style in the early 19th Century for older boys was a cap was a kind of military-looking cap with a peak, often worn with tassles. Latter in the 19th Century, broad brimmed sailor hats became the most common head gear for boys wearing tunics.

Hair Styles

As with dresses, mothers varied greatly as to the hair style of boys in tunics. Some mothers refused to have their boys' hair cut upon breeching. Thus some boys continued to wear long hair with breeches, even ringlet curls.


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Created: January 30, 1999
Last updated: 4:10 AM 2/17/2023