English Boys' Clothes: Literary References in Novels--Tristram Shandy

Figure 1.-

There are some fascinating references to clothing in Laurence Sterne's The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman. A HBC reader tells us that there is a lengthy debate about breeching in Tristram Shandy. 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, These period novels provide fascinating glimses into how families thought about and disccused these matters.

Laurence Sterne (1713-68)

Laurence Sterne was born in Ireland and educated at Cambridge University. He persued a career in the Anglican Church. He was posted at Sutton-in-the-Forest, Yorkshire (1738). He worked their for 20 years. Surely his insightful eye into human foibles must be attributed to his life as a country pracher and his contact with the men and women of his parish. His marriage was not fortuitous. As a result he had many liasons with other women. He led what might be called a disolure life. This probably contributed to his ill health. While still in Yorshire he began to publish Tristan Sandy which is generally considered his masterpiece. It was sharply criticised at the time as both inmoral and poorly written. Dr. Jojnston was a severe critic. It was, however, a huge popular success. He went to London (1759) where he was well eceived because of the first setions of Tristan Shandy which he had already began publishing. Whuile in London he met Mrs. Eliza Draper, the inspiration for Journal to Eliza (1767). Soonafter the publication of this book, he died of tuberculosis (1768).

The Novel

The novel, a lterary form we take for granted today is a form of relatively recent appearance. Writers like Sterne were experimenting with it in the 18th century, but it did not become a literary mainstay until the 19th century. Sterne like other 18th century writers was still experimenting with it. The book like many early novels was not published as a single volume, but rather in nine volumes during 1759 to 1767. The book is in the form of a kind of autobiography narrated by Shandy. It is told in a kind of wry humor which becomes obvious at once when the author begins the story upon the occassion of Shandy's conception--remember he is the narrator. The account becomes rather complicated with a range of literary devices, including stories within stories. It is not the easiest book to lead. The author often digresses. The account is not told in chronological order. Even more frustrating is not all of the stories in the book seem to be finished. Here this may have been a literary device of some sort. More likely, the author seems to have gotten dustracted and forgot to finish them. For this reason, his critics called it a "hodgepodge". Literary historians maintain, however, that freeing the novel from simple story telling was an important step in the evolution of the modern novel. Sterne has been called the father of psychological fiction. His writings tend to give pecedence over events to complex thoughts and feelings. The book is not only of literary importance, but it is a winderful source of information about life in 18th cetury England.


WE should begin, said my father, turning himself half round in bed, and shifting his pillow a little to-wards my mother's, as he opened the debate ---- We should begin to think, Mrs. Shandy, of putting this boy into breeches. ----

We should so, -- said my mother.

---- We defer it, my dear, quoth my father, shamefully. ------

I think we do, Mr. Shandy, -- said my mother.

---- Not but the child looks extreme-ly well, said my father, in his vests and tunics. ------

---- He ---- He does look very well in them, -- replied my mother. ------

---- And for that reason it would be almost a sin, added my father, to take him out of 'em. ---- >br>

---- It would so, -- said my mother: ---- But indeed he is growing a very tall lad, -- rejoin'd my father.

---- He is very tall for his age, in-deed, -- said my mother. ----

---- I can not (making two syllables of it) imagine, quoth my father, who the duce he takes after. ----

I cannot conceive, for my life, -- said my mother. ------

Humph ! Humph ! ---- said my father.

(The dialogue ceased for a moment.)

---- I am very short myself, -- continued my father, gravely.

You are very short, Mr. Shandy, -- said my mother.

Humph ! quoth my father to himself, a second time : in muttering which, he plucked his pillow a little further from my mother's, -- and turning about again, there was an end of the debate for three minutes and a half.

---- When he gets these breeches made, cried my father in a higher tone, he'll look like a beast in 'em.

He will be very aukward in them at first, replied my mother.

---- And 'twill be lucky, if that's the worst on't, added my father.

It will be very lucky, answered my mother.

I suppose, replied my father, -- making some pause first, -- he'll be exactly like other people's children. ------

Exactly, said my mother. ------

---- Though I should be sorry for that, added my father: and so the debate stopped again.

---- They should be of leather, said my father, turning him about again. --

They will last him, said my mother, the longest.

But he can have no linings to 'em, replied my father. ------

He cannot, said my mother.

'Twere better to have them of fustian, quoth my father.

Nothing can be better, quoth my mother. ------

---- Except dimity, -- replied my father: ---- '

Tis best of all, -- replied my mother.

---- One must not give him his death, however, -- interrupted my father.

By no means, said my mother : ---- and so the dialogue stood still again.

I am resolved, however, quoth my father, breaking silence the fourth time, he shall have no pockets in them. ----

---- There is no occasion for any, said my mother. ------

I mean in his coat and waistcoat, -- cried my father.

---- I mean so too, -- replied my mother.

---- Though if he gets a gig or a top ---- Poor souls ! it is a crown and a scepter to them, -- they should have where to secure it. ------

Order it as you please, Mr. Shandy, replied my mother. ------

---- But don't you think it right ? added my father, pressing the point home to her.

Perfectly, said my mother, if it pleases you, Mr. Shandy. ------

---- There's for you ! cried my father, losing temper ---- Pleases me ! ---- You never will distinguish, Mrs. Shandy, nor shall I ever teach you to do it, betwixt a point of pleasure and a point of convenience. ---- This was on the Sunday night ; ---- and further this chapter sayeth not.


AFTER my father had debated the affair of the breeches with my mother, -- he consulted Albertus Rubenius upon it ; and Albertus Rubenius used my father ten times worse in the consultation (if possible) than even my father had used my mother : For as Rubenius had wrote a quarto express, De re Vestiaria Veterum, -- it was Rubenius's business to have given my father some lights. -- On the contrary, my father might as well have thought of extracting the seven cardinal virtues out of a long beard, -- as of extracting a single word out of Rubenius upon the subject.

Upon every other article of ancient dress, Rubenius was very communicative to my father ; -- gave him a full and sa- tisfactory account of The Toga, or loose gown. The Chlamys. The Ephod. The Tunica, or Jacket. The Synthesis. The Pænula. The Lacema, with its Cucullus. The Paludamentum. The Prætexta. The Sagum, or soldier's jerkin. The Trabea : of which, according to Suetonius, there were three kinds. --

---- But what are all these to the breeches ? said my father.

Rubenius threw him down upon the counter all kinds of shoes which had been in fashion with the Romans. ------ There was, The open shoe. The close shoe. The slip shoe. The wooden shoe. The soc. The buskin. And The military shoe with hobnails in it, which Juvenal takes notice of. There were,The clogs. The patins. The pantoufles. The brogues. The sandals, with latchets to them. There was,The felt shoe. The linen shoe. The laced shoe. The braided shoe. The calceus incisus. And The calceus rostratus.

Rubenius shewed my father how well they all fitted, -- in what manner they laced on, -- with what points, straps, thongs, latchets, ribands, jaggs, and ends. ------

---- But I want to be informed about the breeches, said my father.

Albertus Rubenius informed my father that the Romans manufactured stuffs of various fabricks, ---- some plain, -- some striped, -- others diapered throughout the whole contexture of the wool, with silk and gold ---- That linen did not begin to be in common use, till towards the declension of the empire, when the Egyptians coming to settle amongst them, brought it into vogue. ---- That persons of quality and fortune distinguished themselves by the fineness and whiteness of their cloaths; which colour (next to purple, which was appropriated to the great offices) they most affected and wore on their birth-days and public rejoicings. ---- That it appeared from the best historians of those times, that they frequently sent their cloaths to the fuller, to be cleaned and whitened ; ---- but that the inferior people, to avoid that expence, generally wore brown cloaths, and of a something coarser texture, -- till towards the beginning of Augustus's reign, when the slave dressed like his master, and almost every distinction of habiliment was lost, but the Latus Clavus.

And what was the Latus Clavus ? said my father.

Rubenius told him, that the point was still litigating amongst the learned : ---- That Egnatius, Sigonius, Bossius Tici- nensis, Bayfius, Budæus, Salmasius, Lipsius, Lazius, Isaac Causabon, and Joseph Scaliger, all differed from each other, -- and he from them : That some took it to be the button, -- some the coat itself, -- others only the colour of it : -- That the great Bayfius, in his Wardrobe of the ancients, chap. 12. -- honestly said, he knew not what it was, -- whether a fibula, -- a stud, -- a button, -- a loop, -- a buckle, -- or clasps and keepers. ------

---- My father lost the horse, but not the saddle ---- They are hooks and eyes, said my father ---- and with hooks and eyes he ordered my breeches to be made.

Sterne's Dialog

A reader tells us, "The problem with Sterne is that it helps to know the rather intricate context of the debate. If you're unaware of how Tristram Shandy works, I'll happily explain."


One of the least studied events of boyhood by social historians is breeching, a major rite of passage for boys. This event for centuries was an important event in a boy's life until the 1920s. Boys until that time wore dresses. For several centuries European and American boys wore dresses just like their sisters, with perhaps only little clues such as sashes to distinguish them. By the late 19th century, some dresses were made specifically for boys, usually plainer than the styles for girls. Boys did not, however, always get these boy dresses. Many dresses were designated as "children's styles" for both boys and girls. Some mothers did not like these plainer styles and purchased the more elaborate girls' styles for their sons. Other boys inherited the hand-me-downs of their older sisters. I hope to acquire references to breeching in the correspondence of mothers. There appears to be relatively few accounts on the part of boys as they were rather young to remember much. (More accounts appear to exist about Little Lord Fauntleroy and curls as the boys were generally older. Happily the developing science of photography have beginning in the 1840s has left us some actual images of the breeching process.


We have to consider just how to assess fiction. Here we stress that there is aubstantial difference between modern historical fiction and the contemprary works like Tristram Shandy. Here the vocabulary is helpful, especially clothing terms. We note that some conversations seem unlikely. We doubt that the average British taylor could have given detailed accounts of Roman costuming. The conversation between a husband a wife on the matter of bereaching it strikes us is something that must have trandspired in many 18th and 19th century families. How accurate the conversation here is, we do not know. We do note, however, that often modern comedicans are successful about their ability to depict the humor in modern life. We suspect this is why Sterne was so popular with 18th century readers. One notable aspect of the purported discussion here was the extent to which the father was involved in the decession to breach his son.


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Created: 9:23 PM 10/24/2004
Last updated: 9:23 PM 10/24/2004