** children's costumes

Children's Costumes

Figure 1.--All children loved to dress up in fancy costumes. Children from wealthy families can often endulge their fanatasies. The little girl here is one of the most famous people in the world--Britain's beloved Queen mum. Lady Elizabeth Bowes-Lyon (1900-2002), future Queen Elizabeth, consort of King George VI, wears a Renaissance fancy-dress costume with her brother, Lord David Bowes-Lyon at Glamis Castle, Angus, their Scottish home.The photograph was taken in 1909.

Children of all ages enjoy dressing up in costumes. This has been especially popular onHalloween which was initially a children's event. At least in America this has become increasingly popular with adults. Of course, younger children enjoy playing in costumes even when there is no special occassion involved. We have noted costume balls to be popular events for adults in the 18th century and probably earlier.

Children's Play

Children love to dress in costumes and other imaginative play.


The term "costume" has two different connotations. One is the semse used here as a kind of imaginative make believe outfit. The word costume is also used to describe clothing or fashion in general. We are less sure about usage in other countries. Q French reader tells us that costume as a child's play garment is " habit ". Costume as a theatrical attire is " costume ". A boy's or man's suit is also called a " costume ". An outfit is called an " ensemble ". A uniform is a " uniforme ".

Costume Parties

Actually it is not just children. Masquerades or costumes balls were enormously popular in the 18th century. Costumes also intreagued the Victorians. Many 19th century portraits show Victorians in all manner of costumes. Historical costumes were popular, but Europe's colonial empires provided all manner of new ideas for these costumes. No country had more colonies than Britain and 19th century portraits show that these colonies inspired all manner of elaborate costumes. This was primrilt for the eell to do becuse the costumes could be ecpensive.


Some hollidays are notable for children dressing up in costumes. In America it is Halloeen that is most notable for costumes, with children putting on costumes for "trick or treat". Other countries have other hollidays where they dress up. Carnival is one such day, although in many countries it is the adults who dress up. In Greece the children dres up for Carnival, called Apokries.


Children of all ages enjoy dressing up in costumes. This has been especially popular onHalloween which was initially a children's event. At least in America this has become increasingly popular with adults. Halloween is the evening of October 31 which is All Saints Day. In American Halloween came to be observed by children by dressing up in scarry or other costumes and play trick or treat. I am not sure about the origins of Haloween. The first references date to about 1550. It has apparently evolved from the feast of Allhallows or All Saints Day on November 1. This celebration dates from the 14th or 15th Centuries.Allhallows was a shortened form of Allhallowsmas.

Costume Play

Of course, younger children enjoy playing in costumes even when there is no special occassion involved. We noted that in the inter-war years (1920s-30s) that American mail order catalogs carried costumes for cowboys, Indians, soldiers, policemen, and others. Halloeen costumes were once home made. Inexpensive Halloween costumes ar carried seasonally by major retailers.

Fancy Dress

Fancy dress costumes were very popular in the late 19th and early 20 century. These might be extremely elaborate costumes. Of course it was only the well-to-do that could afford elaborate costumes. We note costumed parties. It was also popular to be photographed in fancy costumes. We see some children wearing very elaborate costumes duting the late-19 and early-20th centuries. We are less sure about the early 19th century before photography provided us evidence of such cstumes. These include a varity of themes. The ones we see most common are: chrarcters, historical era, folk, literary, and national. Some may have worn them for costume parties. Often the children just wear them for fun or specifically to have aportrait taken. We notice both snapshots amd studio portraits. These were not just children putting on a jumbel of old clothes. Some wel-behaved children (presumably girls) might have been allowed to play in them. We supect for the older boys it was more for the portrait. They were clearly not trick-or trat costumes. The children would have had to have assistance dressing upnand posing. We suspect that that they were carefully supervised while in these costumes. These costumes seem very well done, including obviously expensive fabrics and trim. They seem what one might expct in a bid-budget theatrical production. Of course for the most part it was only the affluent class that could afford such elaborate and very expensise costumes. We have also noted post card companies coming out with series of costumes for well-known figures. We have noted similar trends in several different countries.


We do not know a great deal about costume trends in different countries. Here our experience is largely American. A reader writes, "I have seen many pictures of acrobat/circus performers dressed in strange costumes from the mid-19th century 1800s--about as unlike typical Victorian dress as one could get. I read somewhere that they may have been dressed this way to appear like court jesters from medieval times. Do you think there is any truth in this?" We have seen those portraits as well. The first we have seen were CDVs from the 1860s. These costumes may have been worn earlier and we don't see them because because was not as common. We do not think that these were medieval costumes, but rather circus or theatrical performers, but we have very little actual information. A good example is Basil Kite, an American boy, probably during the 1870s. Around he turn-of-the 19th century we begin to see well-to-do people wearing fancy costumes. This seems to have been more popular in Britain. We also begin to see ready-made costumes in the mail order catalogs. They were generial characters such as: clowns, firemen, Indians, policemen, soldiers, ect. We note Uncle Sam costumes in the early 20th century. Most seem home made. There were more offerings for boys than girls. This changed further after World War I with the growth of the radio and movie industries. Children wanted costumes of favorite characters. We also have some limited information on other countries. Our ininital assessment is that Canadian costumes have a mix of American and British influences. We do not yet have any information on French costumes. We also notice German costumes. Folk costumes were especially popular in the years before World War I. These look like costumes the parents found charming rather than play costumes. Harlequin costimes were also popular. Children like to play Red Indian, but we don't note very many costumes.

Mass-produced Costumes

We note that in the 20th century that mass marketing like Wards and Sears offering a range of costumes like cowboys, Indians, policemen, soldiers, and others. These were not the elaborate, expensive costumes we have noted in the 19th century. They were, however, expensive enough to limit them mostly to middle-class families. After World War II, costumes came out for movie and television characters and proved very popular. There were no only full costumes, but all individual costume garments. Here nothing was more popular in the 1950s than Davy Crockett coon-skin caps as a result of the popular Disney series. Other popular costumes in America were Haloween costumes for trick-or-treating.


We begin to see children wearing costumes in the 19th century. The chronology varied somewhat from country to country. Early photographic portraits were relatively serious affairs. The first American costume portrait we have noted looks to be have been taken in the 1880s, two children in York, Pennsylvania. It lookd like a Tom Sawyer and Becky Thatcher pose. We are unsure if costume parties for children became more popular at this time or if this is a reflection on the greater availability of costume photographic portraits. Many of the costumes in the 19th century seem to be expesive, tailor-made outfits. After the turn of the 20th-century we begin to see inexpensive rerady made costumes for children available from the major catalog stores. We note that Indian costumes were very popular in the early-20th century and not just in America.


Costumes cover a wide range of characters. They have varied greatly over time among boys as well as among countries. . Media have played a major role in popularizing characters. In the early 20th century it was books and magazines that popularized characters. We see cosrumes for cowboys, indians, policeman, and soldiers. Indian costumes seem to have been particularly popular. Movies and radio began to affect the popularity of characters and even more so television afrer World War II. Hopalong Cassidy was a big hit for a while. The Davy Crockett craze swept America in the mid-1950s vecause of the Disney program. The Zorro costume here was another Disney TV phenomenon (figure 1). The Starwars films created a whole new series of popular costumes.

Costume Balls

We have noted costume balls to be popular events for adults in the 18th century and probably earlier.

Costume Makers

A number of costume makers specialize or have costumes based on historic and actual traditional clothing styles. We will list here some of the companies that offer such garments.

The Magic Wardrobe

The Magic Wardrobe is a maker of fantasy, exotic, sci-Fi, period and holiday costumes,gifts and accessories. Some of the costumes such as Gainsborough's Blue Boy show considrable attention to historical accuarcy.


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Created: April 3, 2002
Last updated: 3:37 AM 6/17/2005