** boys clothing styles : 1880s

Boys' Clothing Styles: The 1880s

boys 1880s fashions
Figure 1.--Fautleroy suits were introduced in the 1880s. Some were worn with bodice kilts rather than velvet knee pants. While kilted-Fauntleroy suits were mostly for little boys, some older boys like the one in this photograph also wore them.

The 1880s were one of the most picturesque era of boys fashions and the most impractical. Children fashions had been becoming more elaborate in the 1870s, but it was the publication of Little Lord Fauntleroy in 1885 that create a sensation. Soon mothers were intent on dressing their sons in velvet suits with lace collars and floppy bows and topped off with long ringlet curls. Some mothers may have breeched their son early so he could be attired in a fashionable Fauntleroy suit. Others solved this problem by attiring him in a fancy dress in the Fauntleroy style. This fashion wa emensely popular with mothers and much to the chagrin of the boys involved, endured for a generation.

Historical Developments

With Germany and Italy united, the modern shape of Europe began to emerge. Nationalism was still somewhat held in check by the the great European empires (Austro-Hungarian, German, and Russian). Europe was, however, being destabilized by the weakness of the Ottomon Empire. The "Scrable for Africa" was underway. Wilhelm II becomes Kaiser in 1881 and within 3 years dismisses Chancellor Bismarck. In America, the South freed of Federal troops begins to institute a Jim Crow seggregationist regime.

Proper Dress and the Victorians

Proper dress played an important role in Victorian society. It was an era strongly conscious, at least on the surface, of the niceties of good form and the many gradations of social position. A contemporary writer on etiquette expressed the prevailing view:

What style is to our thoughts, dressis to our persons. It may supply the place of more solid qualities [sic], and without it the most solid are of little avail. Numbers have owed their ele- vation to their attention to the toilet. Place, fortune, marriage have all been lost by neglecting it . . . The plainest dress is always the most genteel, and a lady that dresses plainly will never be dressed unfashionably.


To modern eyes even the simplest of the costumes shown in the catalogs of the day are far from plain. The lavish trimmings and elaborate draperies reflect an era in which women and children were considered as passive and ornamental. They are a perfect complement to the overstuffed parlors, the plethora of ornament, and rococo richness that characterized 19th-century taste. The reason for the emergence of specialized children clothes in the mid-18th Cebntury was to provide the children clothing that was more functional and suited for their needs. The boys styles which emerged, like tunics and skeleton suits. were in gact suitable. The clothes were lighter and least restrivtive than thr adult styles that he chilodren had once worn. The clothing for children by the late 19th century had completely changed. True the Fauntleroy suits, lace collars, and kilts that the boys wore were specialized styles--but they and other popular styles loke Norfolk suits and Eton collars were as far away from the needs of children or suitable for them as one can imagine.

Boys' Clothing

The late 1880s was an interesting period in the evolution of boys' clothing. Much continued on from earlier periods.


Many boys still wore dresses until they were about 6 years old--sometimes longer. At that point many fashion styles were available to the discerning tastes of fashion conscious mother. Some adoring mothers chose all-white dresses for very little children, lavish with ruffles, sashes, extraordinary delicate eyelets and fine embroideries. Most boys were breeched at about 5 years of age, but there was not precise age established. Some boys at their mother's disgression wore dresses for several additional years. Women and girls wore dresses with bustles. This was rare for boys and for the first time ther begin to be clear differences between boy and girl dresses.


If the mother did not think her curly haired son was ready for trousers, she could purchase suits with kilt skirts rather than pants. These kilt suits were available in many styles, Scottish, sailor and after the mid1880s more elaborate jackets and blouses. Kilt suits were generally available in sizes up 6-8 years which meant that boys as old a 9 or 10 might wear them.


Another option mothers had were tunic suits. The Buster Brown suits did not come into vogue until the turn of the century, but tunics were worn by some boys. The little tunic jacket made it look almost like a smock and in some cases covered the boys' short, above the knee bloomer pants. The Buster Brown suits has broad white collars and floppy bows. The tunic jackets had high collars, but generally not stiff collars and bows. The suits were almost always worn with long stockings. Bare legs in the 1880s were not common, even for younger children.

Figure 2.--This little boy wears such a large lace decorated blouse that you can hardly see his velvet Fauntleroy jacket.


The pants would be knee length and worn with long over the knee stockings, help up by a suspender waist. These short pants suits came in many of the same styles as the kilt suits.

Fauntleroy velvet suits

The most picturesque new styke to emerge in the 1880s were the fancy velvet Fauntleroy suits with delicate lace collars. Mothers absolutely adored these outfits for their sons' party suits--which were an important part of a late 19th century boy's wardrobe. Party clothes at the time would be worn to events that today require only casual clothes, like a friend's birthday party. The boys, especially the older ones while they were glad to be out of kilts, hated them.


When going out side the boys in Fauntleroy and other fancy suits, including sailor suits, would wear broad-brimmed sailor hats with long steamers and held on by an elastic chin strap. These hats would not be worn just to church or parties, but rather even for informal outings to the park or even the beach. Some boys had special hats for dress up, usually ones with especially large brims. Older boys might wear bowler (derby) hats.


A new style appeared in the late 1880s after the publication of Francis Hobson Benett's Little Lord Fauntleroy in 1885. Soon boys up to 10 and 11, in some cases even older, were wearing long ringlet curls. These curls became widely worn with the velvet Little Lord Fauntleroy suits. Not all boys wore long hair and curls. Most did not. In fact some boys had their hair cut well before breeching. Other mothers felt that a boys should not be cut even after breeching. Their seems to have been no definte established practice. Each mother decided on her own and was probably based in part on what her mother had done.

ringlet curls
Figure 3.--This boy wears a rather plain suit, but his long ringlet curls suggest the photograph was taken in the 1880s. The horizontal stripped stockings, however, may date it to the 1870s.

Country Trends

HBC has been steadily expanding our country sections. Many of thodse sections include chronological sub-sections and we hsave begun to create country pages for the 1880s. Our American section is the most detailed, but we have increasingly detailed European sections. We have a 1880s page on England. This is of course especially iportant because England has played such an important role in boys' fashions.


We have collected detailed information on school wear in several countries. This section is also very useful because it provides a wider-cross section of children than is available in simply looking at studio portraits. I The school photographs were also a very good indicator as to whsat children commonly wore. Our school information is primarily organized in coyntry sections. There are some 19th century pages, including an American 1880s section.


We do not yet have a general 1880s family page. Our family page at this time is organized into countries. But you can pursue the 1880s in the different country pages. We do have an American 1880s family page.


Our catalog page is also primarily organized by countries. We do have an 1880s Anerican catalog page.

Social Class

We are, of course, talking about children from well to do, or at least confortably well off families. The more elaborate fahions discussed here have nothing to do with the common folk that laboured in factories. Fashion was a private performance of the well-to-do until well into the 20th Century. The children discussed here are the sons of the bourgeoisie, the new middle class that was neither noble nor poor but who were to dominate the European countries and who became the trend-setters of that era. Their wealth came, for the most part, from the new industries they financed and the factories they ran and owned, or from high education jobs that let them take part in the new industrial boom. In that they were different from the nobility, whose wealth was inherited, at least in the 19th Century. So the bourgeoisie on one hand imitated the nobility by showing off, and stressed their being different in that they had - more or less - earned their wealth. In this context, fashion played a role in the establishment of the identity of this new class which, by way of being new, had no tradition and no fixed identity. The lack of identity is probably why the bougeoisie envied (thus, imitated) the nobility while at the same time looking down their noses at them. The need to show their new status filtered down to how they dressed their children. For some the elaborate fashions such as the lace trimmed Fauntkleroy suits were an attmpt to flaunt their wealth and an attempt to emulate the pomp and extravegance of the nobility.

Personal Experiences

We have an interesting insight into Family life in England with the Allinghams. We also have extensive information on a substantial number of ordinary boys during the 1880s.

Actual clothing for collectors: Antique clothing
Magazine depictions of children:
The 1880s
The 1890s


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Created: March 5, 1999
Last updated: 11:50 PM 4/11/2012