Boys' Clothes: The Late 18th Century

Figure 1.--This American boy painted about 1795 wears a suit with some features of the skeleton suit, but without the high waistline. It is a distinctly child's suit because his father would not have worn such an open collar. Note the long curls on his right shoulder and the bird he is holding.

Fashion was remarably stable during much of the 18th Century given the poweful social and economic changes underway. Despite the continuity for much of the Century, one of the most important developments in the history of children's clothing occurred. At mid-Century the changing attitudes on childhood and family occured as part of larger changes in social attitudes. The changes were reflected in the increasing ferment affecting society at large, culminating in major political and social changes, not the least were the American (1776) and French Revolutions (1789). One part of the changing social attitudes were the differing appraoches to education and child raising. One of these was the changing view of childhood. Childhood was increasingly seen as a destinct development stage and the children were less commonly viewed as simply pint-sized adults. This realization had profound social consequences and was in part reflected in new fashions and the development of specialized children's clothes. While novel at mid-Century, specialized children's clothing had become increasingly accepted by the latter decades of the 18th Century. Thus the late 18th Century proved to be on of the most significant periods in the development of modern children's clothing. For centuries there had been no such thing as children's clothes. Children just wore scaled-down versions of their parents' clothes, but this changed in the mid-18th Century as specialized children's clothes appeared and became widely accepted by the end of the century.

The French Revolution

The French Revolution which erupted in 1789 had a major impact on fashion. The American Revolution in this regard was less important. America was still a small distant backwater and the American Revolution was not a social revolution as the French Revolution proved to be.) The 18th century was a time of great intellectual ferment, generally referred to as the Enlightenment. It was not until the French Revolution and the destruction of entrenched aristocratic power that the ideas of the Enlightenment began to be widely accepted and in some cases implemented by governmental authority. Here France led the way. The changes brought by the Revolution affected all areas of French life including fashion which is the area, of course, on which HBC focuses. Major changes were launched in both

Male dress

The middle class provided the firmest support for the Revolution and had the most to gain from the changes. When the Sans Culottes (without knee breeches) first appeared in 1792, the costume consisted of a pair of trousers and a Carmagnole, a short jacket based on naval working dress. Suspenders were worn for the first time. The Sans Culottes wore also the red cap of shame symbolizing the new found liberty and freedom. Knee breeches lasted into the next century, but soon men would dress in longs. It would take decades before the transition of boys into knee pants would take place. The change over to trousers began late in the period, knee breeches were still worn for dress as can be seen in contemporary portraits and well know historical figures, such as American Revolutionary figures.

Figure 2.--Boys through most of the 18th Century wore long coats and keebreeches, often, matching, ghe same styles their fathers wore. This 1777 painting shows George III with his son, the future George IV.

Female dress

The French Revolution brought about a number of changes in the costume of women, including the "Directoire" dress which had a high waistline, a low neck- line, puff sleeves, and a long, tight skirt. The "Empire" dress, which succeeded the Directoire, was much like it except for the skirt, which was full. The little girl's frock was usually a sheath of muslin with round neck and short or long sleeves. From the 1870s on, the floor-length skirt slowly shortened to the ankles revealing the soft little slippers of kid or fabric instead of the earlier, heavy buckled shoes. These changes in women's fashions were paralleled in changing dress for men. Civilian dress for men during this period consisted of a waistcoat over which a long-skirted coat was worn, and the pantalon, breeches that closely fitted the thigh and reached to the ankle.

Childrens' Styles

Very signifiant differences existed between the clothes worn by little and older boys. The difference was not juvenile dress styles, but the difference between the clothes worn by adult men and womem.

Little boy clothes

At the beginning of the decade little boys wore dresses virtually idential to those of their sisters and mothers. There was at the time no destinctive childrens' dresses, only small versions of their mothers' dresses.

Older boys

Older boys for most of the Century wore knee breeches. Boys knee breeches were scaled down versions of their father's breeches. There was no children's styles for knee breeches. For dress occasions boys and men would wear long jackets, often of the same material as the kneebreeches. Other articles of clothing worn by boys were virtually identical to that of their parents. Boys also wore the same tri-cornered hats worn by their fathers.

Figure 3.--Little girls and boys were still outfitted in dresses at the close of the century, but the dress styles had changed to the open, airy Empire style. Here in a scene painted about 1794, Emily and George Mason play while their Ayahs (Indian nannies) can be seen in the background. Compare the dress styles to those of the Blunt brothers on the main 18th Century page. (Just click on the image.)

New Styles for Boys

Some significant changes ocurred in the latter decades of the 18th century. The most significant was the emergence of specialized boys' clothing, specialized girls' was a subsequent development. New infant styles appeared. These developments were a reflection of the growing convictiin that children, especially boys, should be allowed more freedom. It was a belief totally in keeping with the social and political thought of the day. Thus fashions emerged that were less restictive than in the past.

Infant clothing

The tightly restrictive swaddling of infants gave way to soft, loosely fitting garments for infants. Modern mothers would be quite willing to dress their babies in some of the new comfortablr garments that emerged in the late 18th century.

Classical dresses

A new naturalness began to emerge in late 18th Century dresses for both children, young boys and girls, and women. Both litle boys and girls wore dresses and there were no stylistic differences differentuating boys and girls dresses. Dress styles had for centuries been created for elaborate rituals at royal courts. Dresses and hairstyle were extrodinarily orate and hugely expensive, a cost born by the common people. The political ferment of the late 17th Century culminating in the Frech Revolution brougt these extravagant, wasteful styles into question. Rather the more comfotable and practical clothing styles of the rural and working class women grew in popularity. At the same time there was growing interest in classical styles. Europeand began to serious pursue archeology and escavations at the Roman ruins at Pompey and nearby Herculaneum yielded a treasure trove of classical sculptures. The light, flowing dresses on these sculptures complimented the trend for sensible clothes. Soon dresses in the classic styles for children and women appeared in England, France, and other European countries. White was one of the most popular colors for late 18th century children's dresses. This was in large part because Europeans assumed the dresses on the sculptures bein escavated were white. The scupltures were whitish and the paint with which they had once been embelished had been lost. Thus sheer, free flowing dresses, often made of sheer muslin, became fashionable for children and eventually their mothers. The white dresses and the angelic appearance of the boys and girls so attired fit perfectly with the increasingly accepted view by the late 19th Cetury that children were esentially innocent beings, until corrupted by adult society. Dresses for wealthy children were made of muslin and were very sheer. For modesty sake, children were outfitted in pantalettes. In the late 18th and early 19th Centuries the dress completly covered the pantalettes. Slowly in the 19th centuries hem lines rose and the pantalettes became increasingly fancy as they were made to be seen. Pantalettes were in the first trouser-like garment worn by fashiionable European children. The simple white frocks for children had an enormous advantage over the more elabotate dresses worn earlier in the century. The simple white frocks could be easily washed, a great advantage for children. The importance of this factor can not be overly stated. Some authors speculate that the plain white baby dresses that had become popular for centuries might have been a major inspiration for these dresses for older children. Europen mothers had for centuries dresses their babies in cotton and silk gowns with puffed sleeves, rounded necklines, and high waists--nearly idetical with the new classicaly inspired dress styles.

Sailor Suits

One author claims that some parents dressed their boys in sailor suits, including the long pantaloons wore by British. This was a major departure for boys' clothing as it was the first specialized juvenile style. It was not, however, a commonly worn style. In fact, I can not conform that the sailor suit appeared in the late 18th century. It is clear, however, that the sailor suit did not come into its own until the mid-19th Century when Queen Victoria adopted the style for her young sons.

Skeleton Suits

The most significant development in boys' fashions during the 18th century was the introduction skeletons suits with long pants. After boys were breeched, they were likely to wear the new skeleton suits, comfortable pants that buttoned on to a matching shirt or jacket. Boys like men at the beginning of the decade wore knee breeches. Long trousers were worn, but mostly by laborers and dressing in long pants was looked on. No well-dressed person would wear them. The poor of Paris who wore long trousers became a political force in the French Revolution (1789). They were at first called the sans-culottes, literally without shortpants. (A more realistic translation would be, the great unwashed masses.) The term was the derisive apellation used by the court party at the beginning of the Revolution to the democratic forces in Paris--many of whom dressed in the un-stylish long trousers. The comfortable open collars of early skeletin suits were an important develoment in keeping with the trends of he day. Earlier boys like their fathers wore closed collar shirts, perhaps with a lacey jabot for formal occasions. While open collars became accepted for boys, it was not an accepted fashion for their fathers. The appearance of the new fashion of long pants for boys as part of the new skeletion suits was thus a major fashion departure. The style proved much more popular than sailor suits. I am not sure precisely when the skeleton suit style first appeared. One report suggests the 1770s, but I think it then was worn with knee breeches. It is clear, however, that by the 1890s, boys were commonly wearing skeleton suits with long pants.Surprisingly it was not poor families that were dressing their sons in long pants, but ecen aristocratic and wealthy merchant families were adopting the new fashion--fimly establishing the principle of specialized clothing for children.

Social Significance

It is interesting to speculate why after centuries of dressing younger boys like their mothers and older boys like their fathers did this begin to change in the later decades of the 18th Century. It appears to reflect in large measure economic and social changes underway in Britain and Europe. Western Europe was shifting from an agrarian to the begining stages of an industrial society. The accumulating wealth permitted a new attention to domestic life and a greater concern with individuality. Family relationships began to change. It became based for the first time on bonds of affection rather than just economics. Children once regarded largely as econmoic assets moved to the center of family affections as the Victorian era approached. More attention was given to the chidren and their care and as a result it is quite understandable that it was in this era that specialized children's clothes appeared in the late 18th Century.


The first styles that developed for children seem to have been ideally suited for children. The dresses worn by little boys by the end of the century look loose and unconstraining. The open collars often worn with skeleton suits look comfortable despite the ruffles. These attravtive comfortable styles are in sharp contrast to the styles tha would emerge for children in the Victorian era, especially the late 19th Century.

Country Pages

We do not yet have individual country pages for the late 19th century. We note considerable similarity in dress throughout Western Europe and America, at least among the middle and upper class. Images for this period are avialble on the artist pages archieved on HBC. One American image by Peale is the "Stewart Children", probably in the 1770s. Bejamin West painted an English family scene, about 1772. We note an American boy, Charles Mosley, wearing a classic, bright red skeleton suit.


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Created: February 20, 1999
Last updated: 6:50 AM 8/8/2005