Boys Clothes: 1870s

Figure 1.--This plaid dress was made for a boy in 1873. Plaid was fashionable in the 1850s, but was going out of style for girls by the 1870s. It was, however, still used for boys--who were presumably noy as fashion concious as the girls. It is being modeled here for a book sponsored by a Bitish museum. The original owner was older than the model. Note the lace-trimmed pantalettes which show at the hem, they were worn by small boys, but less commonly than earlier in the century.


The 1870s in America was a decade of peace, a chance to recover from a devistating Civil War. Major developments occured in Europe as two major new nation states emerged, the German Empire and the Italian Kingdom.

With the Industrial Revolution in full swing, the textile industry transforms with the use of weaving looms, sewing machines and the invention of the assembly line which leads to mass production and ready-to-wear clothing sold in department stores.

Hair Styles

Some boys wore long hairs, but short hair was common for boys even before they were breeched and began to wear knee pants. Thus many images exist of boys with short hair and still wearing dresses. The long ringlt curls popularized by Little Lord Fauntleroy had not yet changed hair sdtyles for boys. Thus ringlet curls for boys were not very common in the 1870s. although fancy velvet suits for boys had begun to appear before the publication of the book.

Figure 2.--Even little boys still in dresses commonly had short haircuts in the 1870s, this changed markedly in the 1880s when long hair even for older boys became more common. Notice the uncharastically large white collar and small bow.


Major changes occured in boys' fashions during the 1870s. There were not a lot of new garments developed, but the rather plain styles worn in the 1850s and 60s began to devekp more elaborate styling. People were becoming more propsperous in the 1870s andd they wanted to show that prosperity in their clothes and their children's clothes.


The fashion of dressing smaller boys in dresses continued. This was done at the whim of the mother. Some boys might begin wearing pants by 3 or even 2 years of age. Boys dress sizes, however, were commonly offered through size 6 and some boys might still be wearing them at 7 or 8--even older in some cases. Boys wore rich velvet skirts, when it was customary for them to have their tresses shorn and begin to wear trousers, increasingly knee pants.

Often younger boys who were "breeched" or allowed to wear kneepants whould wear smocks. Families at the time were quite large and sometimes mother would buy identical smocks for all the children, both boys and girls. Conventiins for wearing smocks varied. In America they might be worn in the nursery or around the house. In France smocks might be work for park outings or other public places.

Figure 3.--Unfortunately I do not have the date for this photograph. The Scottish kilt suggests probably the 1860s or 1870s. The short hair, pantalettes, and small collar would likely date the boy to the 1860s or early 1870s.


The pantalettes commonly worn by girls and younger boys during the 19th century were still worn in the 1870s, but were becoming less common. They had become much shorter, no longer covering the legs, but extending just below the hem of the child's dress.

The 1870s were the last decade in which pantalettes were commonly worn. The idea of children appearing with bare legs was becoming more accepted and thus there was less reason to cover them with pantalettes as was the case earlier in the 19th century.


The kilts popularized by Queen Victoria continued to be a popular style for boys. The style reached America in the 1840s, but it was not until the 1870s that large numbers of American boys--most with no or only the most tenous conection to Scotkand--were outfitted in kilts. It seemed an ideal choice for mother who were not yet ready to breech their sons. The kilt was the height of fashion for boys in England and France. It also crossed the Atlantic. It was not the Highland kilt, however that proved popular in America, but rather the kilt suit that had virtually no relationship with a true kilt, other than both were skirted garments.

Figure 4.--This kilt outfit was shown in an 1879 American fashion magazine. Note the jacket is made of the same material as the kilt skirt, giving the appearance of a dress. Note the larger collars that appeared toward the end of the decade, but also note that it was worn open rather than closed which was the dominate style in the next decade.

American boys did not commonly wear Scottish kilts. Rather they wore kilt suits where the jacket and kilt were the same fabric. The colors did not include bright red plaids like the dresses the boys wore, but rather dark muted plaids. One American clothing magazine in 1879 comtained the following description, "For a boy of 4 to 6 years we have a large plaid, in blue and green, made double breasted, and with a kilted skirt. Over this is a wide belt, cut on the bias, and bound on both edges with a braid. This is lined with stiff crimoline, and fastened on the dress in place, except in front where it is left loose, and fastens with a button and buttonhole. Pointed cuffs and a large turnover collar, square at the back, over which a linnen one edged with lace or Hamburg, is to be worn. If preferred, the kilted skirt can be arranged to an under vest. It that case, the upper part is made into a short paletot, and instead of the belt, trim the edge of the paletot with a wide cross band of the plaid, piped either with silk, or bound with braid. Large, smoke pearl are bone buttons are used (figure ?).


Boys' collars in the 1870s were still relatively plain and small. Collars in the 1860s and early 1870s could be quite small. They gradually increased in size until by the end of the decade some larger collars were observeable--setting the stage for the large collars of the Fauntleroy era in the 1880s. The collars were generally worn closed with bows, but some collars--mostly those made for dresses were still worn open.


Many boys wore relatively modern-looking suits with small collars and bow or other small collar adornment. The suit jackets were generally plain in comparison to the Fautntleroy suits that were to appear in the 1880s. They were often better tailored than the often formless suits of the 1850s and 60s, but not as well tailored as the better fitting suits which became more common in the 1880s. Some jackets buttoned at the collar, making any kind of collar or bow unecessary. Kneepants for boys were becoming the increasingly accepted norm. Quite young boys might wear longpants in the 1860s, but this became less common in the 1870s as more boys began to wear knee pants, usually with long stockings. Not only did knee pants become increasingly common, but older boys began wearing them.

Figure 5.--I believe this photograph was taken of an American family in the 1870s. Note the very plain suit worn by the boy. The two younger children could be either boys or girls, but the short hair suggests they are probably boys. Note the stripped stockings one wears.


Long stockings became increasingly common in the 1870s. American boys in dresses generally wore them with long stockings. French boys might wear short socks, but this was less commin in America. The growing importance of kneepants meant that long stockings became increasingly common. They often were stripped stockings, although dark stockings were worn for the more formal occasions.

Country Trends

The 1870s was a monentous decade. If modern America emerged in the 1860s as a result of the Civil War, modern Europe appeared in the 1870s with the Franco-Prussian War (1870-71) which brought about the unification of Germany in 1870 and the eminity between Germany and France that was to lead to the two great world wars. The modern industrial economy began to emerge in the 1870s. Rising incomes brought with it the ability to aford more and better clothes and much greater interest in fashion on the part of an expanding sector of the population. Publications on fashions expanded and were better illustrated. The falling cost of photography mean that more and more images are available o the fashion changes underway.


America was still a fashion backwater in the 1870s. Fashions were still largely imported from Europe, largely England and France. Americans might rework European fashions. Thus while the Highland kilt never proved greatly popular in America, the reworked kilt suit proved to be a very important style until the turn-of-the century. Little Americam boys in the 1870s, as in Europe, continued to wear dresses. The kilt suit appered in the 1870s. Thios was a fashion inovation based on the Scottish kilt that Queen Victoria had helped popularize for boys. While American boys did not wear Highland outfits, the kilt suits became very popular. Some were worn with tartan kilt skirts rather than the more muted materials more common in subsequent decades. Sailor suits appeared in many forms, but were not yet the dominate style for boys. Fancy velvet suits for boys appaered showing a French influence, but they were not yet called Faintleroy suits. Some had fancy collars and bows, but generally not the huge collars and bows that appeared in the 1880s. Many styles of hats appaered for boys. Collars began to increase in size as did bows by the end of the decade. Boys were increasingly dressed in kneepants rather than long pants. By the end of the decade, kneepants had become a widely accepted fashion for boys, although they were generally not yet commonly worn by teenage boys, except for the very youngest. Boys wore long stockings with knnepants. Stripped stockings were considered stylish.



French boys were wearing tinic suits. The Russian blouse style was popular. Younger boys might wear them with plain pantalettes, slightly older boys with knickers. Younger boys might wear Highland kits. After brreching boys would some sort of shortened pants, either kneepants or knickers. It was still common in the early 1870s for boys by the time they were about 10 to wear long pants, often with suits that had adult styling. Sailor suits were not yet widely wornm but the swide-brimmed sailor cap was beginning to have a fashion imlpact.




Advertising becomes increasinly common place in the 1870s. Some products included drawings of children providing insights into boys clothing.


Marlene Deahl Merrill, Growing Up in Boston's Gilded Age: The Journal of Alice Stone Blackwell, 1872-1874: The book offers historians a wonderful glimpse into the life of a young, upwardly mobile middle-class Bostonian girl as she quite literally "grows up" during the Gilded Age.

Christopher Wagner

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Created: October 17, 1998
Last updated: April 13, 2002