The 1890s or Gay 90s were a fascinating decade. The world still centered on glitering Europe. The Europe of the late 19th century seemed so fixed, so permanent. Style was still set by the European monarchies--but they were rapidly approaching the catoclism of the 20th century, the Great War that few would survive. But for the 1890s Europe gleamed and America looked to Europe for style and elegance. Despite the political stability of the late 1890s, change was in fact everwhere--especially in America. Horse and buggies
were being replaced by automobiles, gas lamps with electrical light bulbs. America was rapidly moving toward its rendezvous with destiny and the century which was to become, in so many ways, the American century. America was changing from subsistence agriculture, log cabins, and rail splitting to industrial manufacturing, rail roads, and internatiinal trade. The industrial giant that was to save western democracy and the free world had begun to emerge.
The 1890s were the last decade of the Victorian era. This meant suits which at times resembled an extension of the upholstered look of
the Victorian furniture popular in American and European
homes in the period. Children's fashions also continued to reflect
a Victorian outlook. Rather formal clothing was still much used, required for even outings in the park and other events for which we would today choose extremely casual clothing.
The extremely ornate and expensive styles of the Edwardian era are a
of a Society that sought to distinguish the upper class members by
dress. As clothing had become less expensive as a result of the
Industrial Revolution, the Edwardians simply elected more ornate, complicated
fashions to make sure the lower classes could not compete. These
garments of women were so heavily bedecked with laces and
ribbons, and so complicated in
cut and closure (requiring the assistance of a maid or mother)
that only the wealthier members of society could afford them the more
elaborate costmes. The women of the era proceeded to dress their sons in
many of the same elaborate costmes.
Boys' clothing styles developed in the 1870s and 80s were refined
during the 1890s. Proper dress continued to play an important role in Victorian
society and formal dress was still used much more extensively than today.
Some of the major changes were:
Dresses: Mothers continued dressing small boys in dresses, but it during the 1890s it became rare to see a boy much over 6 years in a dress.
Pinafores: Pinafores were still commonly worn by French boys. They had become less common for English boys, but little boys still in dresses sometimes wore them. I think they were less common in America.
Smocks: Smocks were very commonly worn by French boys. I'm less sure about the conventions for smocks in America and Britain, but some images indicate that mothers sometimes dressed their children, boys and girls, in identical or similar smocks.
Fauntleroy suits: The velvet Fauntleroy suit continued to be one of the most popular styles for party suits, at least on the part of proud mothers. The suits were made of rich velvet, some still with skirts rather than knee pants. They were usually worn by little boys until the age of 7 or 8--when it was customary for them to have their tresses shorn and begin to wear trousers. These velvet suits were made in black, dark blue or green, or burgandy. In the 1990s the jacket gradually increased in size, covering more of the elaborate blouse. Some of the lace collars continued to be quite large. By the latter 1990s the jacket was increasingly worn buttoned up. The velvet pants were worn slightly shorter, in some cases pursed above the knee.
Very little boys were dressed virtually identically as little girls. One ladies fashion magazine reported that most families allowed their sons to declare their sex by age two or three. This appears to be a somewhat low estimate as mail order catalogs from the 1990s clearly show dressesin sizes to 5 or 6 and kilts to 8 years. Young boys typically wore box-pleated kilts. The skirt was always attached to a bodice of sateen or muslin to hold it up.
Collars, yokes, capes, epaulettes, and various other design elements for little boys and girls clothes focussed greater attention on the neck and shoulders during the 1890s. The collar designs generally developed a more squared look during the later half of the decade. White pique and duck were popular spring fabrics, white and pearl flannel or cashmere wool being fall favorites. Pearl buttons were prominent for both decorations and fastners. Little boys still wore dresses little different from their sisters, but pleated skirts sometimes called kilt suits were growing in popularity. Some authors report boys wore dresses until 2 or 3, but fashion magazines shows dresses for boys in sizes up to 5 or 6 years and even older for kilt suits.
Little boys were commonly dressed in jackets called reefers. The
reference is t a nautical suit like older boys wore. The double breasted style and large collar gave them their name. The reefer for very little boys might be white like a dress worn underneath. The reefer coat might be trimmed with white eyelet embroidered ruffles. The double breasted front might be fastened with pear buttons. The cuffs, hem, and jacket front are top stiched, giving a tailored look in spite of the frills. Summer jackets could be fashioned from white pique or duck and Fall jackets from white cashmere or pearl flannel.
Fashion magazines advertized frilly
blouse waists as appropriate for boys from 4 to 12 years. The term blouse or shirt waists refers to shirts without tails for boys. We would today describe them just as blouses. These blouse waists were made in santeen, percale, calico, or "chelsea cloth". Some blouses were made in especially elaborate styles. While the cut was similar to the other blouses, they were made in fine white lawn and sheer eyelet embroidery. These party blouses were generally suggested for boys 3 to 8 wearing Fautleroy or other party suits. Sometimes these elaborate
white waists were advertized as "Little Prince" blouses to identify them as suitable with the still popular Little Lord Fauntleroy suit. Blouse collars were often quite large and made even larger by adding wide self-
or lace ruffles. A double ruffle covered the front opening, curving at the bottom. Such double ruffles were constructed so that they went down one side, turned, and made its way up the other side. Large ruffles edged the cuffs too. Blouse bodies were always made extreemly full and gathered in by a drawstring or elastic through the hem. Large bows
were often worn at the neck althouh many were worn without bows so
as not to distract from the elaborate collar. While white was widely
chosen for a boy's party suit, it was not the only color available.
Percale blouse waists were made in French indigo, garnet, pink, blue, tan, and various other colors and patterns. Black sateen waists were routinely pictured in mail order catalogs. Other fabrics available included dark blue with random white stripes, cadet blue
with white and black figures, and light and dark colors in stripes and fancy patterns. Only boys under eight wore lace edging; older boys waists had self-ruffles.
Blouse waists were worn with knee-length trousers, generally tapoered to the knee and creased in front. Young boys mostly wore high-button shoes or bow-tied oxfords with dark stockings.
Some mothers with large families continued to dress all the children, both boys and girls, in identical smocks. The smocks were ideal for protecting clothes in an age before easy to care for fabrics and
labor saving washing machines. Colors varied, but white was a popular
choice. Most smocks were the back buttoning style.
Boys as young as 4 but at least by 8 or 9 was dressed in suits with
knee-length pants which they wore until about 15 years of age. Seceral
developments were noted during the decade:
Knee pants: The pants were held up by buttons on the shirtwaist rather than bracer or suspenders. Some advetisements of the time offered a "patent waistband with buttonholes and extra elatic loops." Clothing retailers always seemed to mention the ominpresent three buttons at the knee, despite the fact that by the 1890s they were often purely ornamental and fastened absolutely nothing. A newly popular crease was another charactertic of boys' and men's pants of the 1890s. Creases appeared in the 1880s, but were at first seen mostly on very fashion conscious gentlemen. Fashion publications in the 1890s, however, rarely showed boys' pants without noticeable sharp creases. Quite old boys by the 1890s had begun wearing knee pants. They were no longer just for little boys.
Suit jackets: Boys jackets in the 1890s were usually doub le breasted. The jackets usually had several pockets, including a watch pocket like that found on men's coats. The double breasted jackets would normally have six buttons showing, with two more under the collar that were not normally fastened. Norfolk jackets also continued to be popular
Fabrics: Fabrics for Spring suits were satinette and stripped cottion. Fall fabrics included Michigan hard twist cassimere, cheviot, corduroy, mixed cashimere, and all-wool serge.
Colors: The most popular colors were brown, navy blue, and grey. Grey and brown tweeds or brown and white checks were also common.
Collars: Younger boys wore shirts or blouses with soft collars. Older boys normally wore stiff collars, often in the Eton style, with only the points turned down.
Ties: Ties were available already knotted on an elastic band with a metal clip.
A varaiety of other trends were observable. High-topped shoes were still
the fashion. Older boys had laces rather than buttions and pull tapes at
the back. Turtle neck sweaters were popular for older boys, replacing
shirts on cool Fall days.
Boys in many countries wore some of the same styles, although there were some important difference. Fauntleroy and sailor suits were popular in England for younger boys as were wide brimmed sailor hats. The educational system had become increasingly standardized. Boys styles were stringly influenced by the uniforms required by private schools. This helped set the pattern of more mature looking styles at age 8 when many boys went off to heir boarding preparatory schools. Eton and Norfolk suits with knickers were common. Younger boys in France still wore dresses. Smocks were more popular in France than in other countries, perhaps in part because of the use in schools. Quite old boys would wear school
smocks. Fancy styles such as Fauntleroy suits were popular. Boys began to wear keepants with short socks. We know less about German boys clothes clothes in the 1890s. Faintleroy suiys were worn, but they were not as common as in Britain and France. We do know that sailor suits had become very popular. Kaiser Wilhelm in the 1890s began a naval arms race with the British. Battle ships at the time were the symbol of a graet country. Germany had never had a substantial navy before and the new Imperial Navy seized the imagination of the public. The sailor suit became a major style for German boys. Younger boys still wore dresses. Smocks were not common except in rather affluent families. Fancy styles such as Fauntleroy suits reached their peak of popularity in the 1890s as were sailor suits. Many boys wore long ringlet curls, especially with fauntlerou suits, but also with sailor suits. The fashion of ringlets was more popular in America than in other countries. Most boys wore kneepants, mostly with long stockings. Some boys might wear long hair, in some cases in ringlet curls. By the end of the decade many boys were weraing tunic suits.
German doctors found the cause of tuberculosis and developed the closed institution or sanatoriia approach to treating the disease (1880s). And a central focus was exposing the suferers with a healthful environment including fresh air and sushine. This was a major shift as until the 1880s the general approach was to wrap up children from head to toe. A factor here was modesty, but protecting children from both fresh air and sunshine was also a factor. Slowly we begin to see attitudes toward fresh air and sunnshine changing and those attitudes beginning to affect fashions. We note, for example, more boys wearing knee pants, cut shorter, and to an older age. And in Europe, fewer boys wearing long stockings with knee pants. Swimsuits begin to become more sensible. This varied from country to country. The impact on fashion in the 1890s was still limited, but we begin to see the beginning of important fashion shifts. Other related dsevelopments can also be seen such as the summer camp movement in America which was an effort to get kids out of the polluted cities abd into the fresh a=ir and sunshine of thge countryside.
We have archived some accounts of individual boys. In some cases we have details on their experiences and clothing. In other instance we just havecan interesting image illustrating 1890s fashions.
France: The Zolas
America Unidentified Pennsylvania boy
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