Boys' Historical Clothing: Introduction

The transition from elaborate Little Lord Fauntleroy suits, Buster Brown suits, kilts, and dressy short pants to sneakers ("kicks" in today's vernacular), casual blue jeans, and baggy trousers for boys is an interesting study in social history and the evolution of modern childhood and teenage chique. The mod boy of today would hardly recognize his counterpart of 100 years ago who might have found

Figure 1.--After the turn of the century Fautleroy sits with shorts ending above the knee and white stockings or knee socks appeared.
himself outfitted in a delicate lace collar and fancy velvet knee pants,
sailor suits,
, or kilts.

Children's dress clothes were once made from elegant brocades, lustrous velvets, silks, taffetas, printed, striped and flowered cottons, and laces and other fancy fabrics. These materials are a far cry from the denim and other more practical material from today. These materials were used for costumes worn in Sunday-best, christening, school and party dresses. Often coats, hats and shoes completed fashionable ensembles.

The images of clothes in this web site will hopefully charm anyone susceptible to the enchantment and beauty of childhood and prove, as well, a storehouse of ideas for those concerned with fashion and design, both children's as well as modern adult fashion.

The hours of patient needlework and laundering represented by the embroidered, ruffled, tucked and be-ribboned costumes in the historical images depicted in this site mark the great difference from today’s concept of what children will do and what they should wear. But, as Miss Polaire Weissman, Executive Director of The Costume Institute, remarks: "The magic and gaiety of children are both timeless and irrepressible. Looking at these clothes, one imagines they must have been worn very often with child-like delight in and enchantment with ‘dress-up’."

Parents during the Victorian and Edwardian era dressed formally even for travel or leisure activities. Little boys wore dresses, sometimes well passed the todler stage. Once they were "breeched," parents insisted that their children dress formally and smartly to reflect well on themselves and demonstrte their social status. Thus a boy, from an affluent family, even for an outing in the park, would be dressed formally. Such conventions filtered down to middle class families which could afford it.

Clothes were rather expensive in the 19th Century when measured in real income. Some mothers might dress all the children in smocks to protect their clothes during such outings. Special formality was expected at parties and other scial events. Boys in addition to their rather formal every day or play wear would also have a party suit for special occasions. Party suits in the 1880s-90s were often Little Lord Fauntleroy suits or kilts for boys. They were made for sizes up to 7 or 8, which would mean boys of 9 or 10 would be wearing them. Many other styles were available to the fastidious, fashion conscious mother.

Gradually styles changed and after World War I more practical styles emerged. The changes in boys and other fashions were affected by major social trends:
Demographics: Imigration restrictions in America reduced the supply of domestic servants willing to work for low wages. This made the job of keeping children outfitted in elaborate formal clothes increasingly difficult. New styles emerged in the 1920s, such as rompers for little boys and short pants with bare knees and knickers for older boys proved much easier to launder than the formal styles worn before World War I. Eventually jeans and sweat shirts proved much more practical and welcomed by boys.
Working mothers: Increasing numbers of even middle class women entered the work force during World War I and to a much greater degree during World War II. This meant that mothers could no longer devote all their energies to their families and children, a factor in the growing independence of children.
Family roles: Parents at the beginning of the 20th Century, especially mothers, were still choosing their sons' clothing and until they were older teenagers, the boys had little say in the matter. As the Century progressed, family roles shifted. Fathers became less dominate. Mothers were also involved in the work force and away from home. Discipline became much less strict and children exerted increasing influence in family decisions. Boys increasingly exerted more influence on how they were dressed.
Mass media: The growth of mass media meant that children's and teenage values and tastes, even those of young children, were heavily influenced by forces outside the family. Children made their desires known in clothing purchases. Parents could no longer dictate fashion. Children are now introduced to a vriety od products and styles, beyond the control of their arents. Affluent American children demanded designer clothing advertised and worn by their friends.
Teen culture: Until the 20th Century there was no such thinf as teen culture. Except for affluent families, boys entered the work force at at 12-14 years of age often as aptrentices. The long period of extended education sometimes as young adults is a novel development.
Life style: The movement to the suburbs and more informa; suburban life style also affected clothing. Suits were less commonly worn. Increasing demand for comfortable clothes more suitable for active play and sports made the styles emerging in the 1920s more practical. This desire for comfort, practicality, and easy mainteance eventually led to the sneakers, jeans, "t" shirts, and sweats worn today.

The children, especially those from well off families, at the beginning of the Century who commonly dressed in fancy, formal clothes--even for play--would marvel and modern children. Today's child would find the clothing common a century ago highly restrictive and uncomfortable. It would certainly inhibit a child who wanted to enjoy the playground in the comtemporary scene. Informal styles are now in vogue with children rarely dressing up and then only under duress.

Some wonder about the impact of allowing children to dress and act as adults. In the not to distant past when pre-pubesent boys wore short pants and knickers before they began to shave; getting one's first pair of longies was a major rite of passage. Clothing made it easier for children to think and behave as children. Now even preschool children may be dressed as minature adults, from blue jeans to expensive designer fashions. A whole range of of adult clothing and adult options are now open to children. One has trouble realizing that children are children today and not scaled-down adults as they dress and move like adults. The media protray children as precocious, forcing children to think they should be acting grownup before they are really ready to do so. Many believe we are forcing our children to grow up to early. In the days that short pants and childhood went together there was more time to play, more time to be a child. David Elkind addresses this problem in his thought-provoking book, TheHurried Child.

Our web page takes a look at the development of boys clothes over the past 500 years, from 1500 to date. In some ways boys' clothes have made a full circle from:
--clothes just like their fathers (before the late 1790s) with no consideration to childhood
--to special juvenile styles (after the late 1790s)
--back to dressing children in adult styles (since the 1960s).

Boys throughout the years have been dressed in a great variety of outfits. There are, however, several unifying threads:
Dress like dad: Boys have usually preferred to dress like their fathers and have usually lobbied, when their desires were considered, not to be dressed in destincly juvenile outfits--especially elaborate styles for dress occasions. Teenagers who would develop their own culture beginning in the 1930s, did develop their own styles. While it may have differed from dad's it was very imortant to differentiate from the childish styles from which they had just emerged.
Comfort: Boys have generally preferred comfortable, casual clothes to dress clothes. They are almost always less interested in formal, dressy clothes than their sisters.
Reject girlish styles: Boys have consistently rejected styles associated with girls. The converse is not true, however, for girls. Girls have consistently added boyish styles to their wardrobe alternatives. When sailor suits became popular for girls, older boys no longer wanted to wear them. When girls began wearing shorts in the 1930s-40s, many boys objcted to wearing them. When knee socks became identified as girls socks in America, boys rejected them.

This web page is divided into several major sections. We incourage you to peruse all the different main topic sections and related pages. Please let us know if you have any comments or additional information to add. We would be especially interested in any memories you might have about your boyhood clothes and experiences concerning those clothes.

Christopher Wagner

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