Francis Hodgson Burnett, an English-born American, helped popularize a style of dress for boys that proved exceedingly popular among romantically inclined, doting mothers. The author modeled her famous fictional creation,
Cedric Errol, after her own son, Vivian, and thereby condemned a generation of 'manly little chaps' in America and Britain to elaborate, picturesque outfits. Most boys were too young to remember the experience, but many were not. The actual description of Cedie's suits were rather brief in her book, Little Lord Fauntleroy. Perhaps even more influential than her text in popularizing the style were the lavishly detailed drawings by Reginald Birch, the artist who illustrated Mrs. Burnett's story. Whether it was the book or the illustrations, combined they were responsible for an enduring vogue of boy's clothes in the romantic style of the Cavalier/Restoration or Van Dyck Period worn by the young American hero of
Fancy velvet suits for boys was not a style created by Frances Hodgson Burnett. In fact, the style was an anomaly in American boys' clothing, which was generally much less fancy than European styles. Mrs. Burnett's book, however, helped make the style the height of fashion for a generation of American boys. While fancy velvet suits were available before Mrs. Burnett published her book, there was nothing like the outpouring of belaced and beruffled suits that filled clothing stores after the publication of the book. I am unsure as to just what was Mrs. Burnett's inspiration for the imaginative styles in which she dressed her boys. The fancy velvet suits appear to be a version of Cavalier or Royalist costume of the 17th century English Civil War. Interesting nearly a decade before the publication of Mrs. Burnett's book, the Yeames painting of a brave little boy in the light blue suit (And when did you last see your father?) appeared. Mrs Burnett did not invent the costume. Elegant velvet suits had become recognized dress for small boys as a variant from the ubiquitous sailor for every day wear. [Roger Lancelyn Green (Tellers of Tales, 1946.] Velvet suits were being worn in the 1860s, although not will all the Fauntleroy trimmings. Velvet suits can be seen in illustrations in Aunt Judy's Magazine and Little Folk from the beginning of the 1880s. The clothing styles popularized in Mrs. Burnett's book were based on the clothes that she personally designed and sewed for her two sons, Vivian and his older brother Lionel. She personally hand sewed much of the boys' clothing herself. At first when they were young, is was primarily to economize. It eventually, however, became a labor of love and continued as the boys grew older. The young Mrs. Burnett's sewing skills were enhanced by the young woman author's romantic imagination.
Mrs. Burnett's story first appeared in St Nicholas Magazine, published as installments (November 1885). It was for some unfathomable reason an instant success. It was the most American of books. An innocent American boy of pure character and common origins reforming an old cynical English aristocrat. That was how Americans saw themselves, a young, innocent pure country in a world still dominated by the old world, cynical and corrupt European society. We doubt if Ms. Burnett envisioned Cedric and the Earl in that fashion, but that was precisely how American mothers, and not a few men including President Harrison saw it. The first book edition of Little Lord Fauntleroy was published in 1886. She described Cedric's appearance in the book:
What the Earl saw was a graceful, childish figure in a black velvet suit, with a lace collar, and with love locks waving about the handsome, manly little face, whose eyes met his with a look of innocent good-fellowship.The story was an instant success raising Mrs. Burnett to the status of a major American author and more importantly indelibly popularized these romantic, elaborate velvet suits. Mothers were soon trying to outdo each other on rich velvets and elaborate lace, not to mention the sausage curls for their boys. And the rapidly rising prosperity of industrializing America meant that countless American mothers had the money and time to devote to this project. The prevalence probably relates to the number of affluent middle-class women at home with little to do and a great deal of time on their hands. Middle and upper-class mothers rarely had jobs outside the home. So apparently many decided to devoted their energies to dress their sons in elaborate fashions.
Velvet suits with lace collars were worn by small boys as party dress before
the publication of Ms. Burnett's novel. Most boys' suits of the era, both kilt and
knee-length suits, however, before the
publication of her book were rather plain. Some of the fashions include jackets
that older boys or even men might have worn without comment. Mrs. Burnett's
book changed that almost over night. Little Lord Fauntleroy put these
fancy velvet suits on the fashion map and gave them their name. Girls also liked
them. While mothers and girls were enchanted with Mrs. Burnett's book and the
elegant suits depicted in the book, the same can not be said for the boys'
reactions. They were decidedly not popular with the boys--especially when
mothers selected them for boys much beyond 5 or 6 years of age. Despite their
lack of enthusiasm, the sons of countless impressionable
American mothers, however, condemned to velvet page-boy
suits, knee pants,
frilly blouses, lace collars, and
long flowing curls. Some boys even
wore their Fauntleroy suits with skirt
suits rather than the more boyish knee pants. Little Lord Fauntleroy had
arrived on the American sartorial scene with a vengeance. The desire of proud
American mothers to demonstrate
their economic position by emulating their concept of the dress of English
aristocracy helped fuel the strength of the Fauntleroy craze which
swept the nation.
English fashion houses played a major role in setting American fashion
and the perceived aristocratic English style help to popularize it in America.
A boy's Fauntleroy suit might consist of a wide-brimmed sailor hat or floppy tam, a frilly blouse with a ruffled or lace collar and wrist trim, a velvet jacket, velvet knee pants or kilt, long stockings, and a variety of foot wear. The various combinations or endless as were the different alternatives. A boy rather than wearing a fancy blouse might have a button up jacket with a lace collar sewn on. Stockings and footwear also varied considerably. The particular styles and combinations varied considerably over time.
Little Lord Fauntleroy suits are generally associated with velvet. In fact the
suits were made in a wide variety of materials. Velvet was most popular for the
classic suits, but velvet was an expensive material and thus cost-conscious
mothers used many other less expensive and more durable fabrics. Velvet was
also a relatively heavy fabric. Thus lighter weight materials were adopted for
warm summer weather.
Color is another interesting aspect of Fauntleroy suits. Of course they mostly look black in the black-and-white photographic portraits of the day. We have only a few color images. There are some paintings. And some enhanced hand-painted photo portraits. I am not sure if these were painted over photographs or paintings done from photographs. Of course such paintings are not as definitive evidence as actual color photographs. We think, however, that the paintings generally accurately depicted the colors. Vintage clothing is another good source of color information. Here we have various areas to pursue. Of special interest are the colors associated with with classic velvet Fauntleroy suits. Here we notice mostly dark colors in the black-and-white portraits. They probably were mostly black, but there were also dark shades of blue, brown. burgundy, and green. There were also collar-buttoning Fauntleroy suits. And mothers often used Fauntleroy trim with regular suits. As to color we are not only interested in the color of the suit, but associated garments like the blouse, bow, and stockings worn with the suit.
The Fauntleroy rage began in the mid-1880s. The classic Fauntleroy suit was popular for about 10-15 years and then began to change. The style continued into the new century and influenced boys' clothes through the 1920s. The Fauntleroy suits that appeared in the 1880s went through several major stylistic periods. Velvet has been used used for fancy boys clothing since specialized boys clothing appeared after the mid-18th Century. Many better skeleton suits were made from velvet. This was especially true for boys from aristocratic or wealthy families. Boys were dressed in velvet suits and lace collars well before the style was popularized by Mrs. Frances Hodgson Burnett in the 1880s. Fancy velvet suits for little boys began to appear in the early 1880s. The classic period, however, began with the publication of Mrs. Burnett's book in 1885-86. Her book popularized the style with romantically inclined mothers during the late Victorian period. The stylistic changes of the Edwardian period began in the mid-1890s, well before the death of Queen Victoria in 1901. Fauntleroy suits remained popular among mothers throughout the Edwardian era. Several stylistic changes were notable. The velvet jackets became larger, in many cases covering the lace trimmed blouses which once dominated the suits. Bows remained popular, but in the 1900s the sausage-length curls popular in America and some other countries became increasingly less common. White socks and long stockings appeared. The classic Fauntleroy suit, like many other 19th Century styles disappeared in the aftermath of World War I. Some mothers continued dressing boys in Velvet suits. Perhaps a casualty of the Great War which destroyed the romantic inclination of the Edwardians. Although not so common, younger boys as late as the 1930s might be dressed in velvet suits and blouses with some Fauntleroy features. They were generally short pants suits and the fancy lace and velvet collars were replaced with simpler Peter Pan collars. While not precisely Fauntleroy suits, younger boys in recent years have worn velvet suits, but without the lace and ruffles. They were often worn with short pants and knee socks. These seems particularly popular for festive holiday wear at Christmas, but declined in popularity after the 1970s as families increasingly took a casual approach to the holidays.
The classic Fauntleroy suit was worn with knee pants. The style was
so popular, however, that many doting mothers wanted to adopt it for their sons
before he was breeched. Thus
Fauntleroy styling was used for both dresses and kilt outfits. Almost as soon as Little Lord Fauntleroy suits began appearing on American boys, dresses in velvet and other materials with large lace collars appeared. They differed from the Fauntleroy kilts in that the dresses were one-piece garments. They came in a wide variety of styles and materials, but the one recurrent element was a prominent lace collar. Velvet kilt-skirts were also made that could be work with a jacket and lace collared blouse. These suits could be worn
after breaching by simply replacing the skirt with knee pants. These were
two-piece garments. These suits had a strong advantage for the thrifty mother
who did not yet believe that her son was old enough to be breeched and wear
knee pants. When the time finally came to breech him, he could continue wearing
his velvet Fauntleroy jacket and lacy blouse. All he needed was a pair of velvet
The age of boys wearing Fauntleroy suits varied with the style of suit and chronological period. The youngest boys of course wore the Fauntleroy dresses and kilt suits while somewhat older boys the Fauntleroy suits. Fauntleroy suits would normally been worn by boys about 3 to 8 years of age, based primarily on the photographic records. This meant to a large extent, pre-school boys and to lesser extent, the early-primary school ages. There were some boys as old as 13 years known to have worn them, but this was a small proportion of the boys wearing Fauntleroy suits. After the turn-of the century and 1900s, we see fewer and only younger boys wearing classic Fauntleroy suit. After World War I (1914-18), the Fauntleroy suit passed into fashion history. Most boys were too young to recall the experience or understand the the image they portrayed, but others were old enough to understand. and were not too happy about the violation of their boyish dignity. Of course this was something few fashion conscious mothers mothers at the time understood or cared to understand. While the classic Fauntleroy suit was mostly worn by younger boys. Fauntleroy styling was sported by a much wider ge group, extending even to the younger teens, ending mostly with 13-year olds. This primarily mean large, often ruffled collars, but not the elaborate Fauntleroy blouses worn with classic Fauntleroy suits.
American boys wore Little Lord Fauntleroy suits with a large variety of hair
styles. Perhaps the most popular adjunct, at least to the mothers, to the Little
Lord Fauntleroy suit was long ringlet curls. This was not the most common hair
style worn with Little Lord Fauntleroy suits, although it was probably the most
popular with Victorian mothers. Not all boys in Fauntleroy suits wore their hair
in long ringlets. Some boys had their hair cut well
before they were were breeched and thus wore short hair with their velvet
Fauntleroy suits. Ringlet curls were most common on younger boys, commonly
until 5 or 6 years of age. Some mothers liked them so much that they had their
sons wear them well beyond that age. The curls were styled in a variety of
different ways. There were a variety of thicknesses and number. Some mothers
even added hair bows to the curls. While hair bows were more popular in
France, they were not unknown in America. By the Edwardian era after the turn
of the 20th century, ringlets became less common with Fauntleroy suits, but not
It is interesting to speculate if Mrs. Burnett was an American or English author. One of the purposes of this web site is to try to see what social trends in different countries can be found by assessing clothing styles. Mrs. Burnett is difficult to categorize as she was born in England but lived in America. She clearly wrote for an international audience; she crossed the Atlantic numerous times after immigrating to Tennessee as a child. She seems to have remained very British at heart. Little Lord Fauntleroy, of course, was based on her all American son, Vivian. Even so, her book and resulting theatrical production was an enormous success in England suggesting the story appealed to both American and English sensibilities. Some observers appear to categorize her as a clearly American author writing for an American audience. One observer opines, "I think her sentimentalizing of the `poor little rich boy' is more graphic in her Little Lord Fauntleroy. My question is, was she glamorizing the working class/farm boy Dickon and ridiculing the infantile "lording" of Colin partly because she was an American?" (Colin was the sickly boy in her other well-known book, The Secret Garden.)
The Fauntleroy suit was in and of itself a status symbol on the part of late-19th century mothers. Both parents often wanted to demonstrate social status, but in the case of the Fauntleroy suit, it it was almost always the mother who made the choice. At the time the craze began, most children worked at very early ages. They often wore hand me down adult clothes, not specialized children garments. Furthermore, much of the contemporary literature of the day describes children not having any childhood due to economic needs. Children dressed in Fauntleroy suits could, obviously not work in factories, mines or on the farm. This was an instant statement of
family wealth at the time. A child's juvenile status was another method of declaring wealth and status, especially an older boy dressed in such a fashion. The sumptuousness of the Fauntleroy outfits were another display of status--especially using expensive lace and fabrics for a boy's outfit. Velvet was very expensive and symbolized wealth. Also silk shirts were expensive and shirts with ruffles or expensive lace were not only expensive but required a great deal of time to maintain speaking of the mother's leisure time or access to domestic help. Furthermore, bows, sashes and ringlet curls required huge amounts of time to properly display and for most
children some adult had to perform this task. The older the child the greater wealth described because the child's family was wealthy enough to maintain the juvenile status longer.
HBC has noted a variety of other aspects related to the Little Lord
Fauntleroy suits. We have collected the various observations and accounts here.
Many are based on an analysis of available images, but we hope to also obtain
contemporary written accounts as well.
Mrs. Burnett taking advantage of the success of her book launched into
theatrical productions which proved to be enormously successful. After the turn
of the century, movie productions appeared. The first was in the 1920s, but
there have been many subsequent productions. Following up on the success of her book in 1886, Mrs. Burnett immediately began to produce a stage production which proved enormously successful in London and Paris as well as elsewhere in Europe. The boys went with her to
Europe and were rolled in schools there. She was soon involved in law suits
against unauthorized productions. The costuming in these plays involved very
elaborate, frilly Fauntleroy suits and ringlet curls. Latter
in the 20th century there were many movie and television productions of Mrs.
Burnett's classic story. Most were serious productions. Movie producers have
dealt with the costuming in different ways. Some productions have even put
Cedric in modern clothes. Parodies eventually appeared, but in the 19th Century
Little Lord Fauntleroy was considered serious literature, admired by
British prime ministers and American presidents.
Mrs. Burnett's youngest son Vivian was in many ways the inspiration for her literary creation. Vivian was born in France and Mrs. Burnett's stay there must have affected her fashion sense. The boy was born in 1876 and in 1885 when the story first appeared was still being dressed in fancy velvet suits and had long curls. In fact, a photograph of Vivian was used by the illustrator Reginald Birch to draw the many acclaimed illustrations for the book.
Francis Hodgson Burnett, an English-born American, helped popularize a style of dress for boys that proved exceedingly popular among romantically inclined, doting mothers. She was English and grew up in America. She lived for a time in France. It is thus difficult to identify the Little Lord Fauntleroy suit with any specific country. The velvet Fauntleroy suit was first and foremost an American style, no where was it as popular as it came to be in America. The suits Mrs. Burnett created, however, must have been influenced by her English birth and upbringing and the time she spent in France where her youngest son, Vivian, was born. Fauntleroy suits were most widely worn in America, but European boys were not immune from the Fauntleroy craze following the publication of the book in many languages and countless stage productions. We note examples from England, France, Italy, and other countries as well. Much of the information we have on the style is American and British. I think this is to an extent because most of our sources are English language sources. Notably, American boys' fashions have notably, with the exception of the Fauntleroy suit and associated ringlet curls, been much less fancy than French or Italian styles.
A wide variety of merchandise was made with images of Little Lord Fauntleroy. Some were authorized and some were not. Toys and dolls were some of the most popular items. Paper dolls were particularly popular. Paper dolls for little girls appeared in the early 19th century. Contemporary sets provide some colorful illustrations of The Fauntleroy blouses, suits, and hats worn by boys in the late 19th and 20th centuries. Many other styles were illustrated. Some products for adults were also made with Fauntleroy images. Greeting cards and scrapbook cutouts were also very popular. Fauntleroy images werealso used in advertisements.
Getting dressed up in a Fauntleroy suit could be quite complicated.
Boys wearing ringlet curls had to endure the tedious process have their
curls done up in paper curlers at night and then fixed in the morning.
Then the boy had to put on his long stockings and stocking supporters.
The blouse had to be buttoned on to the knee pants or kilt. Then there was the matter of tying the collar bows. Some boys had sashes which were difficult to tie and a few little bows at the hem of the knee pants. Most boys had to have help getting dressed.
Fauntleroy suits were not worn just for formal dress up occasions. HBC notes that boys commonly wore Fauntleroy suits or Fauntleroy-type outfits to school in the 1880s and 90s and the early 1900s. We note, however, that they did not commonly bwear long hair and ringlets to school. We have viewed large numbers of school class portraits and this seems to be a very common pattern. A good example is a urban U.S. school in the 1890.
As popular as Fauntleroy suits were with mothers, the same can not be said for their sons. Boys in the late 19th Century had much less to say about their clothes than is the case of the modern boy. That is not to say that they did not have their opinions on the matter and the opinions were almost universally negative. This was especially true if. as was popular in America, ringlet curls were added to the velvet suit and lace collar.
The long-term impact of the velvet Fauntleroy suit, lace collar, and large
floppy bow is difficult to assess. There is some reason to believe, however, that
these suits had a major impact and was in fact a dividing point between historic
and modern boys' clothing styles. The passions inspired by the suit on the part of
mothers and sons may have had a lasting impact on fashion.
The initial Fauntleroy suit in the late 1880s had a fairly specific meaning. It
was a knee pants velvet suit with a small jacket worn with a frilly blouse. Soon
the term Fauntleroy suit was being used to describe a much wider range of boys'
dress suits. Thus the question arises as to just what a Fauntleroy suit was.
A HBC contributor provided this comment: "I wonder if all young boys'
velvet and lace suits should be lumped together under the portmanteau term
"Little Lord Fauntleroy suit". Perhaps there should be a generic term 'Boys' velvet
and lace suits' with a sub-division 'Van Dyck suits' and a further sub-division
under the latter sub-division of "Little Lord Fauntleroy suits"--i.e. those directly
inspired by the book illustrations."
Some HBC readers collect historical clothing. 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 have information on both Fauntleroy blouses and 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. Some information is also available from internet and other auctions.
Some details are available on the experiences of some boys concerning the
Fauntleroy suit that they had to wear-in some cases under considerable duress.
To say the least, the Fauntleroy suits that their mothers so tenderly outfitted them
in sid not prove very popular with the boys themselves.
Some interesting information is available on Fauntleroy suits, ranging from
period fashion articles to biographical information. There is also information
available on book editions, illustrators, and plays and movies.
Barraclough Paoletti, Jo. "Little Lord Fauntleroy and His Dad: The Transformation of Masculine Dress in America, 1880-1900, " Sally Queen & Associates.
Burnett, Francis Hodgson. Little Lord Fauntleroy (1885).
Wilson, A. "Little Lord Fauntleroy: The Darling of Mothers and the Abomination of a Generation," American Lit. History (1996), Vol. 8, pp. 232-258.
HBC Fauntleroy Related Pages:
[Fauntleroy dresses] [Fauntleroy blouses] [Fauntleroy movies] [Lace collars] [Collar bows] [Vivian Benett]
[Fauntleroy patterns] [Literary characters: Cedric Erol]
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