*** British boys clothes -- the United Kingdom

British Boys' Clothes: The United Kingdom

Figure 1.--This British boy looks to have been photographed about 1930. I am not sure what is on the other stick he is waving, I think a larger Union Jack. We are not sure if biys like this wiuld have grown up seeing themselves as British or English. A British reader writing about the 1950s tells us, "Both English and British. At the time, we thought one meant the other. It took along time to realise that Wales, Scotland and Northen Ireland were also parts of Britain. In truth it was a concept we children did not bother about. I recll meeting a Scottish boy wearing a kilt on holiday. I thought it strange until mum explained that kilts were worn by boys who lived in Scotland. Cultural shock but we had a happy day playing together." Image courtesy of the MD collection.

England is of course just one part or country of the United Kingdom, albeit by far the largest, which includes Scotland, Ulster, and Wales and formerly Ireland. The historical relations bewtween these countries of the British Isles is quite complex and beyond the focus of our study here. The English to a large degree imposed their cultural on the neighboring countries which is reflected in perhaps the most powerful cultural element of all--language. English is now spoken throughout the British isles. We do mention the history of the different countries of the U.K. briefy to acquaint the reader with the fact that there remain substantial social and cultural differences between the different parts of the U.K. which to an extent have been reflected in clothing and fashion. As a result, there are some separate HBC pages.


American and other non-British readers often confuse the term English and British. The term British is not synonamous with English, but of course the nationality term used for all the people of the United Kingdom.

British Isles

There are four principal constituent parts of the United Kingdom. The largest part of the U.K. is England and the history of the British Isles since the Roman withdrawl has been the development of England and England's drive to conquer all of the British Isles, including Wales, Scotland, and Ireland. The process began in earest with the Normans who suceeded in subduing the Welsh. The formidable Welsh castles built by the Normans stand in striking testimony to this campaign. The Scotts proved more of a challenge, but with the assumption of a Scottisj king, King Hames I, to the English hrone, the process of union moved forward. It was finally accomplished during the reign of Queen Anne. The Normans began the conquest of Ireland, but the conquest began in earest during thereign of Queen Elizabeth. The Ulster Plantations began duting James I reign. The conquest was completed during the Reign of William and Mary and the Battle of the Boyne. This not only completed the conquest of Ireland, but led to the desefranchisment of Catholics and the confiscation of their land. The movement for Irish independence grew in the 19th century, especially after the Potato Famine (1840s). The movement was largely constitutional until the Easter Rebellion (1916).


The largest part of the U.K. is England and the history of the British Isles since the Roman withdrawl has been the development of England and England's drive to conquer all of the British Isles. England was formed out of the Anglo-Saxon kingdoms that conquered Britain after the withdrawl of the Roman Legions. Only Wessex survived the Viking invasions (Danes and Norwegians) and conflict between the Saxons and Danes marked British history for over two centuries. Modern England came about in 1066 when William Duke of Normandy defeated King Harold at Hastings. Harold himself was of Viking ancestry, as in fact was William. William and his Norman army proceeded to subdue England and then launched upon a more protracted struggle to comquer the other regions of the British Isles. William's descendents would over time conquer the other parts of the British Isles: Wales, Scotland, and Ireland. The United Kingsom came into being with the Act of Union during the reign of Queen Anne.


Ireland like Scotland was subject to a long series of bloody warswith the English. The Irish, unlike the Scotts, did not have a recognized monarchy to lead the struggle. Although English armies succeeded in cnquering Ireland, the English had even more difficulty imposing their rule. One factor was the physical separation of Ireland and England by the Irish Sea. But perghaps the most important was the religious differences which developed as a result of King Henry VIII's separation from the Catholic Church. The Irish people, despite severe religious repression by the English, remained staunchly Catholic. As in Poland to the east, after military conquest, the idea of the Irish nation was kept alive by the Church. Ireland joined the United Kingdom by uniting with Britain in 1801. There was perhaps a chance in the 19th century that this union could have been made permanent. The proscriptions against Catholics were being gradually removed. Ireland was a constant issue in successive heated parliamentary debates. Union was, however, probably doomed by the Potato Famine of 1845-50. This was one of the great tragedies of Victorian Britain and British policies seem almost genocidal. Several attempts were made for a Home Rule Parliament in Ireland, within the U.K., similar to what Scotland has today, throughout the 19th Century and up to 1914, failed. This undobtedly contributed to Irish frustration, but in the end the bitter legacy of the Famine may have made these attempts fruitless even if they had succeeded. The final break with Britain began in the 1916 Easter Rising during World War I. The Black and Tan suppression after the War and the IRA violence led to a total break. The southern Irish Counties left the union in 1922 to form the Irish Free State, the northern six counties voluntarily voted to remain in the United Kingdom as Northern Ireland or Ulster.


Scotland was conquered by English armies several times in a long series of bloody wars, but the desire for an independent country was never totally irradicated as was the case in Wales. Even after crushing defeats Scottish armies arose to maintain an indepencent monarchy. Scotland united with England by the Union of the Crowns in 1603 where the Scottish King became King James I of England also. This was followed by the Act of Union and the union of the parliaments in 1707 which created the United Kingdom. King James moved to London. The British flag became the Union Jack flag, a fusion of the English and Scottish flags. The history of Scotland's role in the U.K. is still unfolding. The Scottish Parliament was reformed in 2000 after a referendum to support it passed in 1999. And the English finally returned the Stone of Scoon.


Ulster is a very recent constituent part of the United Kingdom. For most of its history it was just one part of Ireland, the northern counties. Beginning with the Easter Rebellion, the Irish began fighting for their independence (1916). The Catholic Church was an important part of the Irish struggle for independence. The Irish Free State left the United Kingdom in 1922, but the six northern counties with Protesant majorities voted to remain with Britain. The religious difference was the result of the Plantation of Ulster. This was the colonisation effort in northern Ireland launched during the reign of James I (early 17th century). English and Scottish Protestants were settled on land confiscated from Catholic Irish landowners. We have little information on boys clothing in Ulster. There may have been significant differences in the clothing worn by Catholic and Protesant boys in the 19th century, princiaplly because of the poverty of the rural Catholics. We have some information from a privlidged English-Ulster family in which Field Marshal Alexander grew up. Today as far as we know, Catholic and Protestant children dress identically.


Wales was more thoroughly subdued militarily by the English than the other countries of the U.K. This is in part because the Norman conquest vegan earlier in Wales and because Wales is located closer to England than the other countries--making it more vulnerable. The ring of imposing Norman castles surrounding the country are a symbol of the force of the Norman conquest. Wales united with England in 1534 and the heir to throne was made Prince of Wales. There has not been total elimination of Welsh identity. Wales has even retained its own Welsh language--although few Welsh can speak it.

British Empire

America was the first British colony and the first to leave the Empire. Begining in the 18th century the British Empire grew in an amazingly caotic and unorganized fashion until the pink on the maps of the 19th century girlded the globe. It became the largest empire in human history. The Empire did not even have an Emperor, however, until Disreli to cury favor with Queen Victoria, a bit putoff by the fact that the German monarchy achieved imperial status, suggested that she be Emperess of India. Even at its zenith, however, there were important leaders like Gladstone that were critical of empire building. And in fact economists to this day still debate whether the Empire was truly beneficial or whether it cost more to maintain than it returned in profits to the nation. While the debate still rages over the Empire, the impact its huge impact on people around the world as diverse as Americans, Indians, and South Africans is undeniable.


America was the first British colony and the first to leave the Empire. The Revolutionary War was an astounding occurrence in a world sill dominated by kings. It established the first important republic since Rome in the middle of what at the time was a wilderness far from Europe. It was a war that the British could have easily avoided had King George and his advisors been willing to show the least flexibility. Many in Britain objected to the War and a minority of Americans wanted independence at the time the war began. It was also a war that the American colonists won by the slimmest of margins against the most powerful country in the world. The Americans succeeded in their struggle only because they were aided by a French king who was opposed to offering the same liberties to his people that the Americans were demanding from their king. The American Revolution is a struggle that has been somewhat lost as a result of the much greater scholarly interest in America on the Civil War. As a result, most American's view the war through simplistic primary school readings which obscure the tremendously complicated course of events that led to the War and creation of America. English scholars, perhaps because Britain lost the War, have given it almost no serious scholarly attention.




Canada is the senior Dominion in the British Commonwealth and Empire and was primarily influenced first by France in the 1700s and then by Great Britain in the 1800s and the first half of the 1900s and finally by the United States since 1945. Until World War II, while French fashions, including smocks and berets, were popoular among French-speaking Canadian boys, British fashions were quite strong among the English-speaking Canadian population including breeches, shorts, knee socks, flat caps and sailor suits. However, due to Canada's close proximity to the United States, American fashions began to take prominance in Canada after the Second World War as jeans and T-shirts became the most common style for all Canadian boys, both English and French-speaking.


New Zealand

South Africa

British Commonwealth

The British Empire was reorganized into the British Commonwealth of Nations in 1931 as the Dominions of Canada, Australia, New Zealand, the Union Of South Africa and the Irish Free State became fully autonomous partners. It was reorganized again in 1949 to allow India to remain in the Commonwealth as a republic. Ireland left the Commonwealth to become the Republic of Ireland also in 1949.

The Empire and Fashion

We have some limited CDVs and cabinent cards from Australia, New Zealand, South Africa and other outposts of Empire. For the most part unless landmarks are in the background, there often is no way to differentiate these images from those taken in Britain. One collector writes, "Mostly these Empire photographic portraits reflect English fashion at the time and if was not for the photographers location on the card it would be easy to assume the picture was taken in the United KingdomK." The same is true of other outposts of the Empire, inccluding: Bermuda, Burma (Myramar), Ceylon (Sri Lanka), India, Gibraltar, Malta, and Gibraltar. An partial exception here may be Canada where fashions by the late 19th century began to be influenced by the United States.

The Empire and Clothing

The British Empire itself was built on the trade in textiles. British mills shipped large qualities of cheap cotton cloth to India that because of the Industrial Revolution, Britain could produce extremely cheaply. This had disatrous consequences for low-technolog producers in India and other colonies. This is why the spinning wheel is on India's flag today. Ghandi used it as a symbol to break Indian dependence on British mills. While it helped to achieve independence, it helped found an extremely insulated, protectionist economy which has sevely limited Indian economic development. The British Empire for all of its vices was for most of its history, an empire based on free trade. British dependance on American cotton caused many to promote intervention in the American Civil War. The Empire brought British fashions around the world and foreign fashions to Britain. The list of foreign words associated with clothing that have been added to the English language is quite long: dungarees, jodpours, khaki, madras prints, mufti, and many more. Imperial adventures brouht other garments: cardigan and raglan sweaters and baraclavasa from the Crimean War alone. And it was the troical heat of India that introduce short trousers to the British soldier and eventually the British Boy Scout and school boy who was not suffering from exposure to tropical heat.


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Created: January 31, 2003
Last updated: 3:53 AM 4/21/2022