Boys Clothes: 1830s

Figure 1.--This 1835 illustration from "The Gentleman's Magazine" shows the dresses worn by small boys. Note that the boy does not wear pantalettes, perhaps because he was in the nursery. I beieve that the older child is a boy because of the ball. The blue sash may not be a gender indicator.

Very little inovation is notable in the 1830s. Boys continued to wear the basic styles and garments of the early 19th century, but with some stylistic changes. Children’s clothes were similar for boys and girls until about the age of 6 years--although this varied from family to family. Social class was a factor. Both wore "dresses" of cotton or wool around the house. Girls and little boys often wore pantaletes peeking beneath their dresses, although younger children may have bare legs in the nursery.These pantaletwes eventually became known as drawers. The usual child's dress was long or short sleeved to suit the season, with slim sleeves, round or boat-shaped neck and the waist was lightly fitted with a set-in belt. Preferred fabrics were linen and cotton, for ease of care. As an interim step between dresses and trousers, tunics were still commonly worn. Skeleton suits were still commonly worn, but by the end of the dcade were declining in popularity. Such fashions were worn by boys from affluent families. The Industrial Revolution was reshaping the face of Europe and most boys had to begin working at an eraly age and these boys would often wear adult styles, often their father's wornout clothes. Few images paintings depict the clothes worn by these children, although Charles Dickens begins to address the issue of child labor in his works.

Historical Background

A variety of important events occurred in the 1830s. In Britain Victoria became Queen and mairred Prince Albert. Steamships began making trans-Atlantic runs. The Industrial Revolution is creating great wealth, especially in Britain. The newly successful middle class seek respectability. It was also a time of growing poverty. The British parliament created workhouses (1834). Charles Dickens emerges as an important author and writes Oliver Twist, one of the forst important works addressing the issue of child labor in the new industrial economy. In America, the westward expansion was well underway. It was a time of rapid economic growth. The mechanization of production had begun and modern domestic and international markets were developing. Cotton prices rose, helping to perpetuate the plantation slave economy of the Southern states and setting the stage for the Civil war in the 1860s. Earnings from the exported cotton produced on the plantations helped to finance the increasing industrialization of the Northern states. At the end of the decade, the Princess Victoria is crowned queen in Britain.

Social Background

Clothing continued in the 1830s required a much greater proportion of a family's time and income. This was going to begin to change in the 1840s with the invention of the srwing machine, but in the 1830s all work bwas still done by hand. Witin the family, it was largely the mother and daghters who devoted their energies to producing their time and energy to producing and caring for clothing. Much more time was required than is the case today. Of course, few mothers now make clothing, but comparisons can be made by estimating the hours of work required to earn the money needed to purchase clothing. A variety of studies show that the number of hours required in the 1830s far exceedes the hours required today. This does not taken in account the task of laundering which was another back breaking task assigned to the mother. The labor involved is hard for modern readers to visualize , espite the fact that garments were not worn one day and then laundered. Interestingly, while it the mother who had the responsibility within the family, tailors were almost always men. President Andrew Johnson started his career as a tailor.

Ordinary people in the 1830s didn't have the extensive wardrobes that is the case in modern times. Even people of modest means today have comparitively large wardeobes. This was especially true for children and teenagers. Boys had to make do with one outfit for everyday. Unless the family was destitute, a boy would typically have an outfit for Sunday best, and perhaps one other if the family was a little more prosperous. Boys and other family members would normally have some garments for seasonal change, such as a warm coat--depending on where they lived. Even comaritively wealthy people didn't have the large wardrobes we have to expect today.

Demographic Factors

Where one lived had a substatial impact on their wardbrobe. This determined where and how they obtained clothing for family members. City and town dwellers usually had wage income which enabled them to purchased fabrics--if not the entire garments,. This depended on family income. Clothes were avaialble from specialty or general stores. There were still no ready made clothes, however, every stitch on every garment was still sewed by hand. Clothes were sewn at home or from tailors and seemstresses. People in rural or remote areas were more likely to undertake the whole process themselves. They were more likely to have wood which could be spun and were least likely to have cash income which would enable them to buy clothes. Nearly anyone with money could order clothes from a local merchant, or even for Americans from a merchant accross the Atlantic. These orders could take a very long time to arrive. It would be several decades before mail order fims like Seas and Ward appeared.

Working Children

The Industrial Revolution was reshaping the face of Europe and most boys had to begin working at an eraly age and these boys would often wear adult styles, often their father's wornout clothes. Few images paintings depict the clothes worn by these children, although Charles Dickens begins to address the issue of child labor in his works. While the Indiustrail Revolution by the 1830s had significantly reshaped English society and was spreading on the Continent and America, Goverbments had not yet acted to protect child workers.

Fabrics and Colors

There was a great variety of fabrics available for making clothes during the 1830s. They were the all "natural" fabrics; wool and linen were most common, with cotton and silk were scarcer and more expensive. Hundreds of weaves and patterns were available.


A rich selection of colors existed even before synthetic dyes were developed in the late 1850s. These early colors were made from plant parts-leaves, stems and blossoms of woods and meadow flowers; roots, barks, nut hulls and tree galls; berries, fruits, pits and skins; mosses, lichens, and fungi and non-plants, such as insects and shellfish. Many dye sources were imported from tropical areas, and were sold in general stores. They were widely available to both home dyers and professional dyers. The professional dyers sometimes supplied services even to home spinners and weavers. Really, every combination of home and outside professional endeavor went into the providing of fibers, fabrics, and garments in the 1830s. Some colors were easier to make from these natural colors. Blue was one of the less expesive colors. This continued until inexpensive chemical dyes began appearing later in the century. The low cost of natural blue dyes is the primary reason that England's famous charity Blue Coat schools have coats colored blue. Black was increasinly popular as the Victorian era set in. We do see younger children wearing dresses done in bright colors.


Often the whole family helped to produce the cloth used for their clothing, especially if the family were rural or frontier: sheep were fed and sheared by the men and boys of the household. Wool cleaning and carding were done by young children. Spinning yarn on the high wheel, dyeing it over the cooking fire, and loom weaving of "homespun" fabric were done by the unmarried daughters and aunts. Mothers, sisters and grannies sewed up trousers, coats and dresses; all the women and young boys and girls knit caps, mittens and stockings. Several sheep could provide enough wool for the needs of the average family each year.


When linen was used, the fiber came from the flax plant, which was grown as a field crop. A quarter acre of flax plants was enough to clothe the largest family. After harvest, the plants were rotted in water to break down the cellulose in the stalks. Then they were "broken" then scraped or "scutched" with a knife, and "hackled" or across several boards covered with sharp metal teeth to separate and align the fibers for spinning. These processes were difficult work, and required strength and determination. When the fibers were all prepared, they were spun on a low wheel, and then loom woven into linen shirting or sheeting, or table linens. Since the only capital investment in linen fabric was for flax seeds, with all the labor being supplied by the family, it was cheap to produce, and was the cloth most used by poorer families, or those on the frontier. It was also the cheapest fabric to buy.


Cotton cloth was readily available, but it was more expensive as Europeans had to import it and thus required cash. This meant that cotton clothes were most common in urban areas. In America northeners also had to purchase it with cash. Cotton was grown in India, where there was plenty of cheap labor to perform the backbreaking field work and then the tedious picking out of the cotton seeds from the harvested cotton bolls. Spinning, dyeing and weaving of the cotton--also hand-done very cheaply in India, or the harvested cotton was shipped to England where the newly developing power machinery could turn it into spun threads and then into woven cloth. England developed a monopoly on cotton and sold it to other countries at great profit. The early American colonies were forbidden to produce their own cotton fabrics, and were forced to purchase them from English merchants. Later, after the American Revolution, the growing of cotton and the manufacture of cotton cloth encouraged both the slave population of the southern states and the industrialization of the New England states. The crop proved enormously profitable. Slavery rather than whitering away as some had expected became increasingly intreanched. Earnings from cotton for several decades were the principal export commodity of the United States. It was in fact slave-produced cotton that financed the early industrial expansion of the United States. But, because cotton cloth production was not a family industry, it was expensive to buy. People who could afford to buy cotton cloth found a nice variety of gaily printed patterns. Cotton fabrics were a favorite gift for men to take home from their travels.

Adult Clothing


Women's dresss sleeves began to baloon. Their skirts also began to shift from the striaght Empire and Regency styles and also began to baloon.


Prosperous men dressed in frock coats and tall silk top hats. Typical men's attire for everyday wear consisted of a linen pullover shirt, made with full sleeves, deep buttoned cuffs, a generous collar, and very long tails to tuck into the trousers. Underwear was not worn, so the tails helped protect the wearer from the scratchy wool of the trousers. Knee breeches had passed from the fashion scene by the 1830s. Men's pants had straight, fairly slim legs, and a flap which buttoned to the waistband in front covered pockets on either side of the opening. The width of the flap determined whether the trousers were known as "broadfalls" or "narrowfalls." A wrapped tie, called a cravat, covered the throat. A vest was always worn, either single or double breasted, with shawl collar, or without any collar, whether or not a coat went over it. It helped to hide the suspenders, or galluses, which held up the trousers. Belts were not used by men at that time. Gentlemen of financial means expressed often gave expression to their wealth by choosing finer fabrics as well as a larger and more varied wardrobe. They may have had cotton shirts as well as linen, perhaps with ruffles at neck and sleeve. Their vests might have been silk damask or embroidered silk satin, rather than wool or linen. Their boots were of fine leather. Only wealthier men owned enough shirts to be able to set one or more aside as "night shirts"; they simply wore to bed the one they had been wearing during the day, and then continued to wear it the next day. Wool knit stocking caps were sometimes worn on the head at night, particularly in coldest winter; bedrooms, especially if they were separate from the primary room, were usually unheated at night.

Basic styles

Some of the basic styles commonly worn by men were:
Headwear: A fashion necesity. A tophat was one common choice, though there were many other styles, depending on social class and situation. Several hat styles were available--round crowned, wide-brimmed fur felts, higher-crowned "toppers" of beaver fur, with slight flares to the taps, high-crowned, wide-brimmed woven or plaited straw for summer. Silk hats were increasingly popular after 1830, as beaver pelts became scarcer and more expensive.
Shirt: The basic work shirt was white cotton or linen, drop-shouldered, with loose-fitting long sleeves gathered at the cuff and shoulder, and a tail to be tucked in that reached to the knees. The shirt slipped on over the head rather than buttoning all the way open in front. It was considered underwear, so unless you were doing heavy labor, you also needed to wear at least a vest (or a smock or overshirt, etc.), and some kind of basic neck-wear. A dress shirt would have a fancier bosom-area.
Vest: Vaguely similar to a modern vest, though it was straight across the bottom, rather than having two downward points.
Coat: A typical coat had the look of a fitted tailcoat such as stereotypical British butlers are pictured as wearing today, except the sleeves were gathered into the shoulders, making them blousy at that point. Several styles of coats or jackets were worn, depending on age, occupation and social status. There were tail coats, which were waist length in front, but had thigh-length tails in back. A "frock" coat had a thigh-length narrow or moderately full skirt all around. A "round-about" was cropped off at the waist. Coats were both single and double breasted, and the collars were cut so that the vest showed beneath them. Coats were always fully lined. They were made of wool, linen, or cotton, depending on the owner's finances and the dictates of the weather. There were overcoats, some with shoulder capes,. great capes and capotes with attached hood for cold weather. Many farmers wore heavy wool shirts called waumases, which were said to be warmer and easier to work in than coats. These were especially popular in New England.
Trousers: No zippers which were not invented until the 1890s. Belt loops were not common. Button flies were just coming in, but fall-front trousers were more common. The legs tended to be close-fitting, with a baggier seat, though the seat was becoming less baggy in the 1830s. Something like modern all-cotton denim was available as a fabric, but it wasn't the main working man's trouser fabric, as overalls were still to become. Many other fabrics were also used--linen or wool-and-cotton jeans for work clothes, or wool broadcloth for nicer clothes.
Buttons: Bone or metal buttons were a basic choice, but buttons varied depending on where and how theywere used.
Hosiery: Stockings were usually handknit of wool or linen, but machine-knit fine stockings were also available from New England mills through local merchants.
Shoes: There were low or ankle-high laced leather shoes, with many variations, including pull-on boots. Shoes typically did not have a seam across the toe. Heels tended to be low (not cowboy-boot height), soles were leather, and toes were squarish or at least not pointed. Shoes were leather boots of various heights for day wear, and slipper-like dancing shoes were available for gentlemen who needed them. Portraits of the time period show some gentlemen wearing dainty shoes with pointy toes, high arches and elevated heels.

The Blazer

One fashion innovation that was tomaffect boys clothing that appeared in the 1830s was the blazer. The inspiration for the modern blazer occured in 1837. The catain of HMS Blazer faced with a visit from Queen Victoria decided to smarten up his crew. He outfitted then in short blue serge, double breasted jackets. The inspiration were probably the heavy reefer jackets sailors at ther time wore. The style was copied by other captains and served as te inspiration for the modern blazer. While not worn by boys in the 1830s, it would soon appear at British schools, at first as a sports garment.

The Romantic Era (1820-50)

The horrors of the Napoleonic Wars were followed by the Romantic Era. The Romantic Movement began in England and gradually spred souh to Europe and west to America. The most notably voices were poets (Byron, Keats and Shelly). The Romantic movement was, however, a force which affected not only literature, but art, and music. Freedom was at the heart of theRomantic Movement, especially freedom of expression. It was areaction to the classical rules that controlled the creative arts. The Romantic movement foicused on emotion over reason. The aristuc focus was on emotions and pleasing the senses. Romanticism also touched popular culture including fashion. And here it fit in with a trend for children's clothes providing greater freedom and less restruction.


There was great interest in fashion during the 1830s. The nuances of the changing fashions from London, Paris and the eastern cities were closely followed. Monthly magazines detailed all the latest modes and materials. Sketches and minute descriptions were written so that the most remote lady could be aware of up-to-the-minute fashion, if she wanted to reflect it in her dress. Some few ladies of means and ambition no doubt did this; most women were content to be generally current. They remade older dresses to show more modern trends, altering sleeves, waistline heights, hems, replacing pleats with gathers or vice-versa, changing ribbons and trim, trying new pelerines and collars. The cloth had been too dearly obtained to abandon, and too many of their scarce hours had gone into the original stitching to toss aside. It was not uncommon for a dress to be remodeled a half dozen times, and finally to be entirely re-cut and made into a garment for a child. Mothers with young boys could even use the dresses as the fashion of the time continued to dress little boys in dresses.

Figure 2.--The children around the wheelbarrow in Jacques-Laurent Agasse's, 1830 painting The Playground show two children who appear to be boys outfitted in dresses. One boy wears a back buttining pinafore.

Children's Clothes

A new fashion of imagniative fancy dress for boys appeared in the 1830s. Both young boys and girls wore pants like pantalettes and they were more vissible during the 1830s as hem lines for children were rising. Young boys wore tunics, older boys wore Eton jackets. One source reports the sailor suit appeared for small boys, but HBC does not begin seeing sailor suits until the 1840s. Elaborate fancy costumes for boys grew in popularity during the 19th century, culminating in the Fauntleroy suit of the 1880s and 90s. Dresses by the 1830s included printed cottons with high tucked waists and gigot (leg of mutton) sleeves. Many fashions of the early 19th century seemingly come directly out of the pages of a story-book. Children’s clothes were similar for boys and girls until about the age of 6 years. A really delightful selection of printed cottons with high tucked waists and gigot sleeves appeared in the 1830s. Both boys and girls wore dresses of cotton or wool around the house. Little girls often wore pantalettes peeking beneath their dresses. Some boys also wore their dress over "drawers" or pantalettes to match, which showed beneath the dress. Both young boys and girls wore pinafores in the 1830s to protect their clothing--which was stillmuch more expensive in relative terms. We still have only limited information on smocks in the 1830s. They appear to have been more of an adut than a child's garment. Agricultural and other workers commonly wore smocks, although this varies among countries. Smocks appear to have been very common in England. Corsets for young children by the 1830s had gone out of style, though there were a few die-hards who insisted on keeping children in stays from infancy, so they would develop straight backs. Most physicians, however, and magazine consultants, argued against this as being too confining, and in fact inhibiting of a strong body. Free exercise of the little muscles was better. For this reason, they advised against swaddling infants, as had long been the custom. Infant garments were long gowns, and babies always wore caps. Some mothers decided on more boyish tunics for their sons. A boy in the 1830s still commonly wore tunics. A typical tunic might be made of earth brown sateen trimmed with dark blue braid. Tunics came in a wide range of colors, fabrics and designs. They were back, side, and front buttoning. One author describes a tunic of earth brown sateen trimmed with dark blue braid. Others were much more simple. He might also wear a little green silk pelisse (coat) which is complemented by a big white "puffed" cap, seemingly out of a story-book. Younger boys might wear pantaletes with their tunics. Otlder boys might wear trousers. As such the tunic was a kind of bridge between the dresses of younger boys and the trouser suits of older boys. We note boys wearing large collars The open collars of the early 19th century are becoming less common, but the tightly buttoned collars and large bows of later years have not yet appeared, bit has the stiff Eton collar become importnat yet. We note boys wearing javkets in bright colors and bold prints, but are not yet sure how common this was. Boys as well as men mostly wore long trousers in the 1830s. The kneebreeches men once wore had largely disapperaed for men. And the various kinds of shortened pants for boys had not yet appeared.


As children matured into pre-teen and teen years, their clothing more and more resembled that of adults. Their duties were adult; there was no "teen culture" and no particular fad clothing for youth. Often they wore hand-me-down clothing of their parents, unless the family was very wealthy. It was usual for clothing to be passed down from child to child, even shoes.

Family Clothing

A much greater proportion of a family's time, especially the mother's, was spent on producing and caring for clothing than is usual now, even though constant laundering of garments was not done. And, a greater proportion of the family income was spent on clothes in the 1830s than now.

Individual Boys

We are developing some information on individual boys and have archived several individuals for the 1830s. We are just begginning to extract some fashion trends from these pages. We note younger boys wearing luxurious dresses with low necklines and baloon sleeves. Tunic with military styling suits seem a popular style for boys. We notice a range of collar styles, both open and closed. We only notice long pants. We do not niotice the shortened-length pants that became common later in the century. We notice some boys with ringlet curls, but short hair seems more common. So far all of our examples are either American or English.


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Created: October 12, 1998
Last updated: 3:05 PM 6/22/2011