French Boys Clothes: Late-19th Century

Figure 1.--This 1906 magazine illustration shows a cross section of French children's clothes a little after the turn of the century.

The late 19th century was a time of great self-examination for France. It began with the disastrous defeat by the Germans in the Franco-Prussian War (1870-71). The new Third Republic ushered in major reforms. The poorly fitted garments of the early and mid-19th century, by the 1870s had become increasingly well-tailored garments. The look of fashionably dressed childern in the 1870s and especially the 1880s contrasts dramatically to the poorly fitted baggy garments still common in the 1850s and even the 1860s. The advent of commercial photography, perfected in France, during the late 1830s and rapidly appearing throughout Europe and the Americas in the 1840s, dramatically chronicled this shift. Paintings often depicted wealthy clients whose often expensive clothes were either well-fitted or drawn to give that affect. Much less expensive photographic images were available to an ever increasing clientel as the cost of photographs declined and the earnings in the new industrial economy increased.

Sources of Information

Many new publications in the late 19th century appeared with greatly expanded information on fashions. The primary focus was women's fashions of course, but there was also substantially expanded coverage of children's fashions. For HBC we have primarily relied on the photographic record. Our French archive is not nearly as large as our American archive, but we are gradually expanding it adding quite a number of both 19th and 20th century images. The 19th century photographic record is somewhat difficult to follow because of the similarities between clothes for younger boys and girls. Illustratiins may pose the same problem. Often the illustrator or photographe provided subtle clues which often, but not always, allow the reader to disern gender.


The late 19th century was a time of great self-examination for France. It began with the disastrous defeat by the Germans in the Franco-Prussian War (1870-71). The late 19th century was a difficult time for France. It became with the disastrous Franco-Prussia War (1870-71) in which France lost Alsace Lorraine and was saddled with huge repriations. In addition, as a result of the War a German Empire was founded which created an enduring security problem on France's western border. The new Third Republic ushered in major reforms. France was freed from the inefectual Napoleon III and a the Third Republic was founded leading to many democratic reforms in education and other areas. Despite a serious economic dounturn in 1886-1896, overall the late 19th century was a time of extrodinary economic growth with important technological advances in elctricity, automobiles, movies, aviation, and many othera areas. Propsperity created a better life for most cititzens and in this atmpspher fashion flourished. Many fashion magasines were founded any dound an avid readership, both in France and other countries as well. French fashion designers were especially influential with women's fashions. Many important developments were, however, also reported in boys' fashions.

"Durand cette époque, le costume marin avec toutes ses variantes est un des plus répandus pour les filles et garçons; les autres modes toujours influencées par le costume des adultes; restent compliquées et engonçantes; en Angleterre la mode des Tartans, née à l'époque victorienne, fit habiller tout les petits garçons en costume écossais avec le bonnet "Glengarry" . Partout les garçons portaient des robes au moins jusqu'à 5 ans." This would translate as something like "During and this era, the sailor suit with all its variations is one of the most popular garments, for girls and boys. Other styles influenced by the suit of adults; remain complicated and squeezing. From Britain Tartans were very popular beginning in the Victorian era. Scootish outfits complete with "Glengarry" caps were considered suitable for small boys. Everywhere boys wore dresses at least to 5 years of age."

Figure 2.--Sailor suits were popular outfits for boys in the late 19th and early 20th century as in the rest of Europe. This I think is a Renoir painting.


Sailor styling

One HBC contributor points out that that the sailor style was particularly popular in the late 19th Century. Both boys and girls wore sailor styled outfits. The girls of course wore sailor dresses, but so did some boys. Mostly it was the younger French boys wearing sailor dresses, but some French mothers kept boys in dresses well beyond school age. These were mostly boys from affluent families that were educated at home. The contributor points to the large number of French images of children dressed in sailor outfits. Not infrequently all of the children in a family might be dressed in sailor suits and dresses. He mentions one example, a family with four children, one boy in sailor suit, two unidentified children in sailor dresses, and one older girl in a sailor dress with a long skirt. The available caption says only sailor suits and dresses for boys and girls. The youngest child, who looks to be 4 of 5 years old, wears a sailor dress almost identical to the outfit worn by a boy in the sailor dress page, but with a pleated skirt. All three of the younger children have short hair. The date of the illustration is 1888. The younger children are almost certainly boys. Many of the late 19th Century illustrations he has seen show French boys in outfits with some sort of nautical motif. It's not easy in some cases to determine the gender of the child although many authors tend to assign a feminine gender to any ambiguous figures.

French Styling

French children's clothes like that common elsewhere in Europe and America during the late 19th century could be heavy and confining. There were, however, some more loose fitting garments that today we would consider more appropriate for children. These styles eventually spread to America, England, and other countries, but in the late 19th century were most popular in France.


We also plan to add decade pages to hone in on fashion tends during the alte 19th century in more detail. While photographs are often not dated, it is usually possible to date the approximate decade or age range by the photographic format, clohing styles are mount characteristics. We do not yet have a large enough number of images from this era to summarize fashion trends, but we will as we work on this section. It will be useful compare with comparable decade trends in other major European countries and America. We have begun to see some basic similarities, but also some major differences. Th suits we see seem more stylish than those in America, at least until the Fauntleroy craze began (1885). They seem to be more varied than in America. Perhaps ready made clothing developed later in France than in America. Shortened length trousers seem to have taken hold in France before America. Anmd we see quite a number of children wearing socks rather than long stocking which were standard in America throughout the 19th century.

Practical Clothes

French mothers in the 1880s begin to give more attention to practical tailored clothing and began to play an increasingly important role in juvenile dress–especially in boys' clothes. English styles became increasingly important. One French fashion editor wrote:

During the first four years, dresses, hats and coats are identical for babys' of both sexes. A while ago, this first phase was followed by a period of indecission during which the Scottish costume with its little pleated skirt bridged the transition between infants' fashions and the first pants of the schoolboy. Today it goes faster. Barely out of swadling clothes, boys are dressed like little men. (I almost said monkeys.) Maybe the hope is that the costume will influence the behavior of the brain, and by this medium, impart manly qualities to the young citizen. [La Mode Ilustree]

Figure 3.--This illustration from a French turn of the century chidren's book shows the influence of the sailor suit on French children's clothes. It is unclear which are girls as little boys at the time alsomwore drsses.


Pictured here is a a variety of childrens fashions, showing that many of the syles popular in America and Britain at the time were also popular, at least among the mothers, in France. There were, however, distinct French touches. The 1906 illustration on this page shows three groups of boys and girls (figure 1). Note that the three youngest boys all have long curled shoulder length hair. The first group shows two older children, probably about 11-13. Note the boy's military-style cap, stiff Eton collar, bow, knee pants, and long stockings. The second group is less obvious as the long hair suggests the two younger children are girls. They are, however, almost certainly boys. They would be about 4-6 and 3-5 years of age, perhaps older. We can be sure they are boys as girls would have been wearing proper dresses and these two outfits are Russian blouse tunic with sailor collars. One boys wears a Glengary cap giving his outfit a Scottish touch. A girl would not have worn this style of cap. The other boy's sailor collar is trimmed in lace and ruffles and he wears a matching sailor cap with knee-length knickers. (The knee length knickers appears to have been a particularly popular style at the turn of the centurt. The third group shows two girls with a boy of about 6-8 years, he is older than the two younger boys as he wears knee pants, but with short white socks and strap shoes. He has most interesting outfit. He wears his hair in long curls, without bangs, and tied with a hair ribbon. From the looks of concern on his sisters' faces, he is obviously the precious baby of the family. His sailor suit appears to have a lace collar and he wears a large sailor hat.


Young French boys until 4 or 5 years of age until the late 1890s were virtually indestinguishable from girls. They wore the same dresses and lace collars as their sisters convenient for the thrifty mother in a large family. Many of these dresses reflected the looser fitting, less restrictive garments worn by some French boys.
Chemise russe: The Russian blouse:
Robe anglaise: The English robe was a simple dress for young children, both boys and girls. A French fashion magazine in 1882 described it as "... an unfitted pleated dress with two or three flounces at the hem, collar, and cuffs, often of plush or velvet, belted barely above the knee, passing under or inside the pleats or supported outside by belt loops, tied in a bow in back." [La Mode Ilustree, November, 1882] During the late 19th century this style was worn by boys until about 4 years of age, sometimes longer, and by girls until they were about 8 years old. It was o unknown, however, for a French mother to dress all of her children including boys in this style until 7 or 8 years. By the turn of the century, boys were not much seen in the robe anglaise after about 2 years, rather they began appearing in simple, low-waisted, straight piqué smock.
Robe à l' américaine: The American robe style appeared after the robe anglaise. It was an unbelted, dress gathered and falling in loose folds from a yoke which was often smocked. It usually had full sleeves which, when long, were banded at the wrist. This garment was sometimes referred to as a blouse. The design was based on that of a smock and commonly worn for school or play. Versions with ruffles and other trim could be used for more formal occasions.

Figure 4.--Zola his pictured hear reading to his son Jacques who appears to be giggling in contrast to his rather serious father. The gingham smock is a back buttoning style with a large ruffled collar. It is being worn over his knickers which seem to be worn just below the knee. The photograph was taken during the summer of 1897.


I'm not sure when French boys began to wear smocks to school, but it probably began in the late 19th century. I also don't know if it was introduced as part of a national regulation, or just adopted by parents and individual schools. Most schools did not require uniforms, but the smocks served as a kind of uniform.


One important French fashion magazine editor, Mme. Raymond, of La Mode Ilustree advocated shortened pants styles for boys. She criticized mothers for buying long pants sailor suits. She noted that from age 4 , many mothers chose to dress their sons in sailor suits. She complained, however, that "... the trousers are so long and wide that their little feet completely disappear and they seem to be supported by their pant legs." Mme. Raymond much favored shorter length pants for boys. French fashion magazines show a variety of pants styles for boys. Many vary between knee-length knickerbockers, a slight fulness gathered and fastened at the knee, and knee pants. Kneepants by the 1890s emerged as the more fashionable alternative for boys.


Older French boys in the late 19th century were wearing knee length suits with long stockings. Only younger boys and girls wore short socks. I'm not sure if the Fauntleroy suit was a popular as in England and America. Kilts do not seem to have been as widespread. Sailor suits were, however, very popular. Some of the designs followed the destinctive uniform of French sailors, a design that was rarely seen in England and America.

Technological Advances

Technological advances were an important factor in the increasingly fashionable appearance of children as well as adults. New machinery was developed after mid-century that was capable of turning out well-made and often elaborate garments at a fraction of the cost of hand-made garments in the early 19th century. One writer for Godey's commented that, "Next to the plow, the sewing machine is perhaps humanity's most blessed instrument." Machinery was perfected to make lace virtually identical to fine hand-crafted lace.

Regional Differences

Some French sources indicate that in highly centaralized France that there are few regional differences. The climate, however suggests that there may be some differences between the southern Mediteranean coast and northern France. We wonder of there are also some differences in Alsace-Loraine. Alsace-Loraine in northern France was seized by the Germans in the Franco-Prussian War and held by them until 1919. In addition there are many German-speaking families in Alscae. As school smocks were not introduced in France until 1871, we suspect that smocks have been less common in Alscae Loraine than the rest of France. One Alsatian boy's memoirs from the 1930s-40s suggestys that smocks were not common.


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Created: November 6, 1998
Last updated: 2:48 AM 1/4/2014