*** boys' skeleton suits: English styles

Skeleton Suits: English Styles

English skeleton suits
Figure 1.--This is an English portrait of John Strange Williams and Sarah Ann Williams. It was painted by John R. Wildman (fl.1823-1839). HBC estimates, however, that this portrait was painted in the 1820s.

Skeleton suits werecfthe first outdits mean specifically to be worn by boys. Before the skeleton suit appeares in the late-18th century. boys wore dresses like their sisters and after breeching scaled down outfits based on the styles their fathers were wearing. Skeleton suits seem especially popular in England and even mentioned in Dickens novels, like David Copperfield. we see more boys wearing skelton suits in England than any any oyher country. In the era before photofgraphy, g=hiwecer, this is diffucult to assess wih any balidity. Many portaits of children painted in the late-18th and early-19th century show the boys wearing skeleton suits. Often brothers were dressed in identical suits. There do not appear to have been specific national styles, but rathr atyule worn by boys from well-to-do familes across western Europe and the United states. We are not yet sure about the age range. we see a lot of younger boys wearing skeleton suits, but believe they were fairly common for pre-teen boys.


We do not yet have a detailed chronolgy of English skeleton suits, but we hve found a number of portraits. We note English boys wearing skelketon suits in the late-18th century. We believe they appeared in the 1780s. Some earlyskeleton suits were done with knee breeches, but soon long pants became standard. They were a major fashion item by the 1790s. The first long pants skeleton suit we see is John Willett (about 1790). The portrait of the Hoppner boys shows the older boy wearing a skeleton suit in 1791. We have a good record of English boys because there were imprtant English portraitusrs acive at gthe time. Note that these early skeletin suiys were nright red. After the turn-of-the 19th century, we begin to see more muted colors. The portrait here seems to date a few decades later in the 1820s (figure 1). Abnd we notice a Bean boy wearing a skeeton suit (1829). We believe that skeleton suits were also worn into the 1830s, but they seem to have disappeated by the 1840s. we are not yet positive about that, but they clearly were not very common.


We had originally thought that skeleton suits were mostly black. This does not seem to have been the case. We see quite a numberr of bright red skeleton suits in the late-19th century. This s no only in England, but other countries as well. Colors may have varied chrologically We do not yet have enough images to work this out. We only haved a few 19th century exanples. The portrait of John Williams here shows rather sundued colors, black and brown, we think in the 1820s (figure 1). A portrait of a Bean boy (1829) shows a much more colorful burgundy and lavender. A museum dispay at the Jane Austin Centre in Bath for Regency clothing shows a light blue skeleton suit. So we are still attemting to sort out color.

Social Class

The social class issue is difficult, in part because what we vhave to go on is mostly painted family potrtraits. Photography was not invented until 1839 and Englkish Dags and Ambros are not very common. It is not until the CDV becanme popular that were get many images and by that time the skelton suit had goiner out of style. This what ee primarily hav to gomon is paointd poortraits. nd these would have only been vcoimmissiined by families of means. Thus w are niot ebtirekly sure what boys from poor families were wearing, menaing much of the wotking class. And remnenbedr that jn the eraly-19th century there was still a substnatial rural population which was mostly poor landless families.


We have noted pre-teen boys wearing skeleton suits. This includes very young boys beginning about 3-4 years of age or once the voys were breeched. Most of the images we have found are boys up to about 8-90 years of age. John Strange Williams here looks to be about 6-years old. Catherine Hoppner, the artist's son was 7-years old. We are not sure if older pre-teen boys wore these suits. Our number of images are still quite limited because skeleton suits were worn befor photography was developed. A Bean boy looks to be about 7-8 years old. We think the 3-9 years age range is fairly solid in part vecause thi was a style worn by boys if not from affluent familirs at least families in comfortable circumtances. It is unlikely that suhch boys would hav been breeched before age 3 yeras. And boys began to be sent away to boarding achool by about 8-9 years old. At which time they ewould no longer been eearing skeleton suits. The age question, however, is still open.


Skeleton suits had three three basic garments that made up a skeleton. First was a short jacket top. Second was a blouse with a fancy collar, both open and collar buttoning collars. All of the oaintings of skeleton suits that we have found included a blouse with a fancy collar. Third were pants that buttoned on to the jacket top, We botice both knee breeches and long pants. We have collected some information on the various garments and stylistic trends. We mostly notice 18th century suits that have mnatching tops asnd bottoms. A lot of 19th century suits have different colored tops and bottoms. We are not yet sure how common that was. In addition to the garmnents that made up the skeleton suit, there were a numberr of other garments worn with the suit.


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Created: February 13, 2000
Last updated: 5:24 PM 5/9/2024