English Boys' Clothes: Literary References in Novels

Figure 1.--Here is Georgie Murdoch in the white sailor suit described by Richmal Crompton. We suspect that the white kneesocks and the fact that they were always pulled up just right might have attracted William's ire as much as suit itself. To see William and his friends (the Outlaws) "encased in their Sunday suits", click on the image. The wonderful drawings are in the original books and by Thomas Henry.

There is a great deal of interesting fashion information in English novels. This inforatin is especially interesting to HBC bcause of the importance of England in the fashion world. While France has played an central role in women's fashions, ngland has been very important in setting men's fashions. There are useful refrence to fashion in novels for the simple reason that fashion is important to people. Novels are all about descriing the human condition. Thus novelists have to address what is important to people. Of course a major part of any novel is developing the character of the key people in the novel. Of course many people express their character in the clothes they choose. In other instances clothes are determined by the circumstances in which they find themselves.

Brian Burland

Brian Burland in Love is a Duarable Fire has references to boys clothing. The book is a trilogy. The first is A Fall From A Loft and tells of James Berkley's trip from Bermuda to England. The third is A Few Flowers for St. George and this takes him to university in Canada. The information about the second book, Love is a Duarable Fire, is the only one that "depicts" boys clothing. It is about growing-up during World War II in war-torn Britain. Young James Berkley faces many changes: seperation from his Bermudian homeland, an English public school education and the torments of his own awakening maturity. One passage refers to James' cousin Dickey. " ... Dicky was skinny, dark-haired and had a very pale complexion. He wore strange high-laced black boots, long socks (the wrong kind, his aunts said, becasue they had a pattern on the top. 'A young gentleman never wears long socks with a pattern - they're for council school boys), navy blue shorts, and a grey jacket with three buttons always done up [Burland, p. 88.] [HBC note: This is quite interesting and is a good example of the fashion information available in literature. We had not been aware of the social connotations of these patteren top kneesocks. he reference to "council school boys" means children attending school in poor areas. A council estate is public housing for low-income families. Of course references like this need to be confirmed by other sources.] There is another interesting passage in Burland's book. It refers to James getting his school clothes ready. "... Then he began to lay his clothes out ready for the morning. White flannel shirt, school tie yellow knit, short trousers grey, long socks grey, blazer and cap yellow ..." [Burland, p. 195.] [HBC note: Burland's reference to long socks refers to kneesocks.]

John Cleveland

John Cleland in Fanny Hill (1749) mentions leading strings. He writes, Owing all her weakness to good-nature,and an indolent facility that kept her too much at the mercy of first impressions, she had just sense enough to know that she wanted leading-strings, and thought herself so much obliged to any who would take the pains to think for her, and guide her, that with a very little management, she was capable of being made a most agreeable, nay, a most virtuous wife: for vice, it is probable, had never been her choice, or her fate, if it had not been for occasion, or example, or had she not depended less upon herself than upon her circumstances.

Richmal Crompton

Richmal Crompton makes more use of clothing than perhaps any other author writing about boys. Clothing is often mentioned in his Just William books, but the clothing theme is developed even more in the wonderful original illustrations. Just William has been set in various periods but the book descriptions of him with always one sock around his ankle mean he could never wear long trousers on screen.I remember the covers of the 1980s editions of the William books showing Ginger and the rest of the Outlaws in jeans but William in shorts, although modern ones. A reader writes, "I always thought that odd - trying to please everybody! You either update it completely or stick to the original. There are many other examples in other classics." This issue of updating the illustraions is an interesting one. Rarely is the actual text updated. William had countless adventures concerning clothes. One of the most delightful is with Georgie Murdoch in William--The Outlaw. As Crompton explains, "It seemed to the Outlaws [William and his friends] that before George Murdoch came to live at the Laurels they had led comparatively peaceful lives." The reason of course wasa "Before Georgie Murdoch came to the Laurels the Outlaws were characytrized chiefly by roughness, untidiness, unpunctuality, lack of cleanliness, and various kindred vices. .... And then George Murdoich came to live at the Laurels and Georgie Murdoch was the perfect boy. The effect in the Outlaws parents was dynamic. No longer did they view rheir offsprings with resigned disgust and tell themselves and each other that boys would be boys, for was not Georgie Murdoch a walking refutation of that theory. Georgie Murdoch's whole existence proved conclusively that boys needn't be boys." After explain ing the partents reaction, Crompton writes, "But the time was come to describe George Murdoch in more detail. George Murdoich was ten years of age. He was neat and tidy and methoducal and clean and only spoke when soken to and did what he was told. He hated messy things like mud and water and clay and sand and he disliked rough games. He had very beautiful manners and was much in request at afternoon tea. .... In the summer he only dressed in white and could make one suit do for three days." One day William had to host Georgie. "The prospect of being the solitary host had depressed him all morning, and the sight og Georgie;'s trim little figure in his spotless whir=te sailor suit threw him into a state of dispair that was almost homicidal in its intensity." Later we read, "Yet such was the power of his white suit, his clean face, his sweet smile, his beautiful manners that Georgie was always referred to by the grown-ups of his neighbourhood as Such a dear little boy." Of course you have to read the book to find out how William deals with the problem, especially Georgie's resplendent white sailor suit. William has a real problem here. As Crompton explains, "Georgie would never fight back because it might dirty his suit, and any personal attacks upon Georgie (however mild) were faitfully reported by thr attacked in person to the parent of the attacker." [Crompton]

Charles Dickens

Charles Dickens is considered by many to be the greatest novelist in the English language. One of the reasons is the wonderful characters that populate his novels. Of course two of the most important boy characters in literature are David Copperfield and Oliver Twist. The main charcter in Great Expectations is of course Pip. Dickens has Pip's sister spending ages getting him spick and span to go to visit Miss Haversham. The David Lean film version reflects this as does the adaptation set in the 20th century United States. A lesser known Dickens novel is Dombey and Son which includes the character Little Paul.

Elizabeth Gaskell

The term "leading strings" eventually aquired a larger meaning of restraints imposed by a superior on an inferior. Elizabeth Gaskell in her 1855 novel North and South, for example, writes And I say, that the masters would be trenching on the independence of their hands, in a way that I,for one, should not feel justified in doing, if we interfered too much with the life they lead out of the mills. Because they labour ten hours a day for us, I do not see that we have any right to impose leading-strings upon them for the rest of their time. The use of the term suggests that leading strings may still have been in use at the time.

William Golding

William Golding's best known novel is the Lord of the Flies . The book is about a group of English shoolboys marooned on a deserted island. The plot chronicles their desent into barbarity. The author is ssuggesting that only a thin veneer of civilization masks the ionner savagery of human beings. There are considerable references to clothing in the book, especislly in the early pages when the children are first marooned on the islasnd. Golding describes the English school uniforms and the chorister uniforms in detail. The 1960s film version film follows the book costume descriptions closely.

Philip Norman

Norman in the Skaters' Waltz (1979) wrote: He dressed himself in a few seconds, struggling on his vest, shirt and pullover in one-thick armed garment still harbouring in its grey folds the warmth of yesterday's sun. He put on the underpants whose yellowness, while changing for PT, he tried to hide, and the faded grey short trousers, and long grey socks, with the school colors around the tops which no longer pulled up high enough, folding them over black elastic garters, each on the wrong place on his leg. He put on the tie, diagnally stripped in blue, red, and gold, which he has had since he was in the junior school, and which was now to small, and torn at the broad end so that a lkength of canvas stuff hung out.

Susanna Haswell Rowson

Susanna Haswell Rowson in Charlotte Temple mentions leading strings. She writes Lord bless you, my dear girl" cried the teacher smiling, have you a mind to be in leading strings all your life time. Prithee open the letter, read it, and judge for yourself; if youshow it your mother, the consequence will be, you will be taken from school, and a strict guard kept over you; so you will stand no chance of ever seeing the smart young officer again.

Laurence Sterne

A reader tells us that there is a lengthy debate about breeching in The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman by Laurence Sterne. It was was published in the 1760s. The debate seems to suggest that the father has a substantial role in the decision and there's some concern about the materials used. The discussion is located in Volume VI, Chapter 18. These period novels provide fascinating glimses into how families thought about and disccused these matters.

William Woodruff

William Woodruff's book The Road to Nab End has a chapter in it about his first job working as in a shop as a delivery boy. He tells about the clothes he wore and the daily work he did. He also fell in love with the daughter of one of the customers. The town is Blackburn, Lancashire. HBC has developed some information on errand boys.


Burland, Bria. Love is a Duarable Fire (ISBN 0-586-08556-4).

Crompton, Richmal. William--The Outlaw.


Navigate the Boys' Historical Clothing Web Site:
[Return to the main English literature page]
[Introduction] [Activities] [Biographies] [Chronology] [Clothing styles] [Countries] [Essays]
[Bibliographies] [Contributions] [FAQs] [Glossary] [Satellite sites] [Tools]
[Boys' Clothing Home]

Created: July 1, 2003
Last updated: 8:42 PM 1/5/2005