*** chronology of modern boys' clothing

Chronology of the Development of Modern Boys' Clothing Styles

bloomer-like breeches
Figure 1.--This Spanish royal in the 16th century wears the blommer-like breeches and stockings that were characteristic of the era. These breeches evolved into knee breeches in the 17th Century.

The modern chronology pages explore the relationship between children's and adults' fashions as well as broader developing social trends in our modern era . The modern chronology pages begin with the 16th century (1500s). This is after the Renaissance had opened the eyes of Medieval Europeans and Columbus had completed his voyages opening the new World and the era of discoveries. These and other development were to lead to a European intellectual, economic, and military expansion that was to create our modern world. The focus of the modern chronology pages is the era beginning with late-18th Century when boys' suits began to depart from the tradition of clothing children as miniature adults. The chronology pages then chronicle the development of specialized children's clothes, describing the popular styles in each decade. And of course we are able to say much more when photography appears (mid-19th century), providing vast numbers of images which can be used to follow trends.

The 16th Century

The 16th century in many ways can be seen as the first century of the modern era. Europeans begin to look and think like modern people, however, different the fashions may appear at first glance. Europeans at mid-millennium had no concept of childhood as a distinct stage of development. Children were expected to assume adult roles at an early age. This was reflected in the lack of any specific styles of clothing designed to meet the needs of children. After breaching, children were dressed in essentially adult clothes scale down to fit there small frames. Modern concepts of childhood and the family did not begin to form until the 18th Century and are in many ways largely formulated in the 19th Century Victorian era. For many, their concepts of clothing during this century is largely set by Shakespearean plays that they have seen. Fashions changed very slowly before the modern era. Babies and young children wore dresses. The dresses for both boys and girls were virtually identical. Boys were 'breeched' by 5 to 7 years of age and were immediately put into small replicas of the styles worn by their fathers. Men wore breeches looking almost like bloomers. The 16th Century breeches ended well above the knee and were worn with long hose. There was little in the way of styles designed specifically with children in mind. At the same time, women's legs were well hidden under long dresses

The 17th Century

Society today is focused on issues of childhood--but the discussions often seem oddly posed. Millions are concerned about unborn babies, but then oppose Government programs to aid poor children. New definitions of the family are emerging. Politicians have taken up the ubiquitously termed 'family values'. Great concern is expressed over child abuse, yet Americans seem unconcerned that a quarter of our children grow up in poverty. We must remind ourselves that childhood and the family have not always been as we know them. Many of the attitudes we hold concerning children and their special importance and needs were inconceivable only 300 years ago in the 17th Century. Prior to the 18th Century, for example, the concept of childhood development was unheard of. Children then, while loved by their families, were viewed as economic assets and little more than small, vulnerable adults. Their clothes clearly reflected this societal view. Some thinkers of the day began to suggest a different view of childhood, but those view achieved little popular acceptance. Boys continued to be dressed as their fathers after they were breeched. Both men and boys wore the same styles. Two important new styes appeared that would evolve into modern clothes. At the beginning of the Century the coat which would evolve into modern suit jackets appeared. By the end of the jackets breeches lengthened to the knee and were would eventually lengthen to modern trousers. There were still no specialized styles for children.

knee breeches
Figure 2.--Boys wore knee breeches like their fathers during most of the 18th century. This 18th Century Reynolds painting shows a mid-century suit worn by a small boy. Note the brightly colored red suit.

The 18th Century

Clothing styles in the 18th century, especially male, fashions for the first time begin to look more like modern fashions. European and American infants for much of the 18th century were normally swaddled which mean being bound to a board or neck which kept the neck and back straight. This was just the opposite of the modern concept of stimulating and developing activities for infants. The idea now is to exercise infants in mind and body. Swaddling was seen as beneficial to both the child's moral character as well as his physical development. Swaddling continued until about 2 years of age when boys and girls alike were put into ankle-length dresses with leading strings. Little boys in the 18th century continued wearing dresses just like their sisters. Once breeched, men and boys wore the same styles. The only difference was that boys' outfits were obviously scaled down to fit. Male garb in the 18th century was dominated by knee breeches and long stockings. Knee breeches were the pre-cursor of modern trousers. Both men and boys wore them. There were no specialized boys clothes until the later decades of the century when the skeleton soon first appeared. Early skeleton suits had knee breeches, but soon they were made with long pants--well before gentlemen started wearing trousers.

boy desses
Figure 3.--The dresses worn by boys at the turn of the Century were long floor-length dresses in the Empire style, just like the ones worn by their mothers and sisters. This 1802 painting Sir Thomas Lawrence is Lady Mary Templeton and her eldest son Henry who was 2-years old.

The 19th Century

The 19th century is the most important history in the development of children's clothes, certainly the most interesting. Until the late 18th century there was no such thing as specialized children's clothes. Specialized children's clothes become widely accepted in the 19th century. At first children's clothing seemed to reflect the special needs of childhood. Even with the appearance of boys' skeleton suits, such outfits were still the exception rather than the rule and girls' continued to wear the same styles as their mothers. It was only in the 19th century that specialized children's clothes were fully accepted. The first style to appear was the classic skeleton suit. The long pants worn with skeleton suits were to help establish long pants as the principal male garment of modern times. The styles that developed in the 19th century still influence boys' clothing today. The styles that developed varied widely from the simple practical sailor suit to the fancy, elaborate Fauntleroy suit. Interestingly the jean overalls developed for working men in the 19th century were eventually to become the most important fashion for boys in the 20th century. The shift from simple, comfortable garments ideally suited to childhood of the early 19th century to the fancy, restrictive garments of the late 19th century are especially notable. Another notable development was the divergence of boys and men's clothing. Never before or since have boys dressed more differently than their fathers. Interestingly as men's fashions approached the ultimate in drab conformity--the sack suit of the 1880s, boys clothing reach the height of decorative adornment in the Little Lord Fauntleroy suit. We have begun to collect information on each decade of the 19th century. Our understanding of some of the early decades of the century, but improves after mid-century when photography begins to provide us a far great supply of images than ever before with which to assess fashion trends.

The 20th Century

The 20th century is often characterized as "the century of the child". The century witnessed the emergence of new structures of knowledge for understanding and managing childhood. As schools and other institutions for the well-being of children proliferated, professionals, including physicians, social workers, child psychologists, and teachers--increasingly drew upon scientific language to both explain and shape children's development. An increasing number of authors have begun to explore the intersections between 20th century institutions for children and science, broadly construed. The sailor suit epitomizes turn of the century dress for boys along with sailor hats and the familiar streamers. Some new styles appeared after the turn of the century. Russian blouses were very popular. Clothing styles for boys became some what less formal. Little boys emerged from dresses at earlier ages. Rompers for toddlers. Formal dress was still common at the beginning of the century, but after World War I, the general trend in boys clothing was increasingly casual styles. Knee pants were displaced by knickers and short pants, but after World War II, long pants became increasingly common. In the late 20th this trend appears to have reached its peak. Boys commonly wore baseball caps, "T" shirts, jeans and sneakers. It is difficult to see that clothing styles can become any more casual. It is interesting to see in HBC how the social meaning of particular items of clothing mutates over time. As something passes out of fashion for older boys, mothers will persist in dressing younger sons in it. Thus a particular style doesn't become old fashioned as much as it becomes juvenile.

The 21st Century

HBC has not yet noted any important shifts in boys fashions or any innovative new fashions during the 21st century. Fashions so far continue to be the same as those worn in the late 1990s. It is still early on of course and no doubt some new styles will soon appear.

Time Line

The history of boys' fashions and changes over time, like other types of fashions, are intermingled with many other developments in publishing, photography, cloth and clothing manufacturing, war and social upheaval, book and magazine publishing, and other developments. HBC though it might be useful to develop a time line to sketch out the chronology of these events over a long time period.


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Created: October 10, 1998
Dpell checked: 9:17 PM 2/24/2022
Last updated: 9:17 PM 2/24/2022