Skeleton Suits: Stylistic Elements

Figure 1.--Some early suits with aspects of the skeleton suit were worn with knee breeches. Even so the open ruffled collar, like this one worn by Thomas John Clavering in 1777, is characteristic of skeleton suits. This looks to be a one-piece suit which younger boys wore. Note Thomas John's curls. Also note the bows in his slippers.

The skeleton suit was the first widely worn specialized style for boys. Previously boys had just worn scaled down mens' clothes. The skeleton suit on the other hand was made especially forvboys. It was a boys' fashion staple for decades, but there were substantial differences between the suits worn over time and in different countries. Individual mothers introduced there own fashionable modifications. The skeleton was not nearly as standardized as the clothes worn by boys later in the 19th Century. Clothes in the early 19th Century were not mass produced, but rather made by individual seamstresses. This led to the wide variations in suits.


Skeleton suits came in two basic styles, one and two piece styles with numerous buttons in necessary places. They were worn most prominently during the French Empire period and the British Regency era Skeleton suits were widely worn by boys throughout Western Europe and America. Well dressed boys wore skeleton suits in the last decade of the 18th Century and the early decades of the 19th Century, about 1790 into the 1830s. Precursors to the skeleton suits appeared even earlier during the 1770s. The skeleton suit was one of the first specialized styles worn by children as opposed to scaled down version of the styles worn by one's fathers. They were apparently called skeleton suits because the boys at the age the suits were worn were so slender.

Destinctive Features

Skeleton suits throughout this period had two distinctive features: high-waist, and front buttons. An blouse with a variety of collar styles, trimmed with lace or other elegant trimming was another common feature on many suits.

Figure 2.--Two American boys, Washington and Monroe Reed--age 7, were painted by John Brewster in 1832. Notice the double breasted button treatment. The ruffled collar is not closed, but not wide open like earlier suits. The pants have a fairly high waist but much lower than many earlier suits. Note the white socks and strap shoes.

High Waist

The high waist was the single most prominent feature of the suit. It reflected the high waists in clothing for men, women, and girls. The first two decades of the 19th century were the period in which the Empire fashion raised waistlines of mother, daughter, and small boy up under the arms. Men's fashions also had high waists, but not generally as high as those of children and men. This basically classic high-waist style was loosely patterned on ancient Greek fashions.

The skeleton suit is considered by some students of clothing design to charming and artistic and periodically influences fashions, although not to the degree of the early 19th century. Some view it and concurrent high-waist dress styles for girls as some of the most charming children's costumes ever designed. While the high waist was present in all skeleton suits, other features of the suit varied over time such as collars and pants length.

The skeleton suit was also a practical garment for a child. The open collar style was comfortable. The suit was generally styled with enough fullness to allow movement, but trim enough to maintain a reasonably tidy appearance.


Buttons were a conspicuous part of most skeleton suits. Many classic skeleton suits had two rows of ornamental buttons in front, often ascending over the shoulders. The pantaloons also had elaborate buttons, both as a front opening and to attach to a blouse to hold it up.

Collar styles

Skeleton suits were worn with a variety of collar styles, most prominently open collars and high, closed collars. These were not a distinctive feature of skeleton suits as such collars could be utilized on other garments. Some skeleton suits had elaborate collars. These were not, however, the director predecesors of the large, elaborate lace and ruffled collars of the Fauntleroy era. In fact, by the 1850s and 60s boys' collars had become very small and plain, in mny ways modern looking. It was not until the 1870s that larger, more elaborate collars began to become fashionable again.

Figure 3.--This painting from the early 19th century shows a boy in a skeleton suit with many classic features. Note the open ruffled collar, extremely high waist, front buttons, and ankle length pantaloons. Notice the classic row of buttons extending to his shoulders.

Open collars

Early skeleton suits including the 18th Century precursors involved open collars. Some of these collars were quite fancy with elaborate lace and ruffle treatment. Some involved large collars, but nothing like the collars later in the 19th Century which not infrequently enveloped the boys' shoulders. Despite the elaborate style, the open collars often look quite comfortable, in sharp contrast to the formal, closed collars of the late 19th Century.

Closed collars

Closed collars began to appear on skeleton suits in the 1810s. As with many boys' fashions, the inspiration may have been the high collars popular for military uniforms of the day.

Christopher Wagner

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Created: February 3, 1999
Spell checked: August 6, 1999
Last updated: August 6, 1999