United States Boys' Clothes: Civil War Fashion Imact

Figure 1.--This Chicago boy had his portrait taken in 1865. There re a variety of military styling details in his outfit. The most obvious is the copious use of buttons. Also note the shoulder tabs and belt treatment. The Federal Government was desperate to to finance the War. An income tax in 1863 was one measure, but in 1864 a tax was placed on photographs. Click on the image to see the revenue stamp.

Lasting impacts on boys' fashions seem hard to detect at this time, but this is a subject that we are just beginnng to access. The Civil War does appear to be the watershead between the first and second half of the centuries. There are very destint differences between styles in the 1850s and 60s. We think that the fashion trends may be more the result of rising affluence as the American industrial econmy begins to frow rather thana result of the War. There is a rich photographic recordd as a result of the introduction of the CDV. In a general way, the Civil War seems to be the dividing line netween several major fashion tends. In the first halp of the 18th century we see many boys weaing just shirts or tunic-like shirts and trousers while after the Civil War suits become increasinghly common. The Civil War is also the dividing point btween when long pants were standard to the begging of the appearance of knee pants which would a few decades later become standard for American boys. We are not sure, however, just how the War influenced this trend. In fact European fashion trends uninfluenced by the War appaer to have been more important in influencing American boys' fashions. There were some military influences, especially with caps. Somewaht surprisingly, a major military style, the collar-buttoning military jacket with multiple buttons went out of style during the Civil War era. It was an important boys' style in the 1840s and 50s and we stull see it in the early-60s, but it becomes much less common after the War.

The Civil War

The American Civil War has been called the first modern war because of the number of men involved, the sweeping movements, the use of trains and telegraphs, and theincreasing sophistication of the weaponery including rifled artillery, repeating weapons and iron-clad ships. The Civil War was the defining epoch of the American nation. It has been extensively studied in American history, but except for military scholars little noted outside the United States. The Civil War, however, had profound consequences for world history that were not immediately apparent in 1865. The losses and disruption of the war was staggering. More Americans died in the Civil War than in any other war America has fought--including World War II. This was in part because military tactics had not yet adjusted to the increasing leathality of weaponry. The South was devestated and the economic and social impacts were felt well into the 20th century. The industrial expansion of the north, however, was strongly promoted by the War. We do not know, however, of a major fashion change associated with the war. Military styled outfits such as Zouave outfits were popular, but lasting impacts on boys' fashions seem hard to detect. The Civil War does appear to be the watershead between the first and second half of the centuries. In a general way it also divides the period when long pants were common to the later era when kneepants dominated.

War and Social Upheaval

HBC has noted that wars and social upheaval often are reflected in major changes in popular fashions. A HBC essayest reports, "Most mothers in the latter part of the 19th century were themselves reared during a period of intense and brutal social conflict. They saw fathers, brothers and male relatives killed or maimed during the Civil War from 1861 to 1865. The war was fought by men, and hundreds of thousands of them, North and South, died for their "cause". The Civil War and its aftermath, in fact, claimed more American lives than did World War I, World War II, and Vietnam combined." [The complete essay is avaialble at "Mothers".]

Industrial Expansion

The Civil War's impact on America is undeniable. In many ways, modern America with all its strengths and weaknesses, can trace its roots to the Civil War. There undoubtedly were major fashion changes in America during an after the Civil War. We are not ebntirely sure, however just what were the major influences. Wars commonly have major fashion influences. Often milkitart styling influences civilian clothes, especuially men and boy's fashions. We are notv sure, however, this is what happened as a result of the Civil War. Fashiions in the United states were still widely influenced by European fashions, especially English and French fashions. This may have well overridden military influences. Another porfulm factor was the developing industrial economy, creating vast wealth and giving many Americans from humble origins a prosperous middle-class life style. Many womn for the firsr time could buy fashionable clothes with styles set in Europe. This of course was an indirect result of the War. American had already began its industrial development before the War, mostly in the North. The War gave a powerful impetus to industrial expansion o meet the needs of the Federal Army. Northern industry would prove to be the deciding factor of the War and America was on the way to becoming the most important industrial power in the world.


Fashion changes in boys clothing resulting from the war are more difficult to assess. We notice quite a nunber of fashion styles that did change. While there were no fundamental changes in boys' fashions after the War, there were some noticeable developments. Many of these changes appear to have vEurooperan origins. Some of the changes may have been related to the War, but suspect that more important were the economic developments and expanding prosperity of a rapidly industrailizing United States. Rising prosperity gave Americans to buy more fashionable clothes, including the styles riginating from Europe. Here are some of the changes we have noted in specific garments. We see few direct war-time influences.
Headwear: Boys in the 1850s generally wore hats--full brimed headwear, although following the War with Mexico the peaked cap was also won. During and after the Civil War, various styles of caps became increasingly popular. Small boys increasingly wore wide-brimmed sailor hats after the War, but older boys were more commopnly seen in caps.
Dresses: The dresses worn by boys before breeching continued to be esentially the same as those worn by their sisters. HBC does not know if the custom of dressing boys and girls identically before the boys were breeched was affected by the War. Were boys still breeched ar about the same age before and after the War. Notably the fashion of boy dresses, dressed especially styled for boys, appeaed in the 1870s,
Kilts: Boys wearing kilts are more moticeable during the 1860s, but not nearly to the degree apparent in thre 1870s.
Jackets: Somewhat surprisingly, a major military style, the collar-buttoning military jacket with multiple bittons went out of style during the Civil War era. It was an important boys' style in the 1840s and 50s and we stull see it in the early-60s, but it becomes much less common after the War.
Military styles: Boys and men's fashions are often affected by military styles. Boys as a result of the War began to wear clothes will military styles or at least influenced by military uniforms. Suits with bagging trousers influenced by the Zouave style coming out of French Algeria appeared in the 1850s. With the appearance of Zouave units in the early years of the War, this style became quite popular in the 1860s. The sailor suit also apeared in America during the 1860s although it was still not commony worn until the 1870s. Double breasted clothing is seem during the Civil War, but this was not a new military-influenced style.
Tunics: The style of boys wearing tunic-like shirts does appear to have gone out of fashion at about the same tome as the War. We see more destictive tunic garments.
Pants: Boys during the Civil War mostly wore long pants. Kneepants and knickers, however, are worn in the 1860s, especjally among wealthy families more in tune with European fashions. By the end of the 1860s, kneepants and knickers were becoming more popular, aticipating the 1870s when knnepants became the widely accepted fashion for boys.

Readymade Clothes

Ready-made, cheaply-produced clothes were invented in the middle of the 19th century. Of course tailors and seamstresses could make wonderfully designed and tailored clothing. Most people, however, could not afford to buy tailored clothing. There clothing was made at home. Without sewing machinmes and greaded patterns, however, these home made clothes were often formless and poorly ftting. The developments mentioned here helped even the inexperienced home sewer create a quality product. In addition, by the 1860s, ready made clothing was beginning to come on the market. There were factories making ready made clothes as early as the 1830s, but production increased substatially during the 1860s. Commercial ready-made clothing began to appear in the 1830s. It was the American Civil War that gave the ready-made clothing industry a significan boost. The demand to equip huge armies with uniforms resulted in larger orders and expanded production. After the War when manufactures began targetting civilian markets the concept of standardized sizing helped to promore sales. This innovation was one of the key developments expalaining the growth of the ready-made clothing industry. The appearnce of increasing quantities of well-made, reatively inepensive ready-made clothes in the 1860s was possible because of a series of technical improvements in te garment industry. One of course was the sewing machine. These developments helped make well madeand fashionable clothing less expensive and more readily available.

European Influence

The importance of European fashion may have affected the fashion impact of a war only fought in America. While there were clearly fashion shifts after the Civil War, attributing them to the War is much more difficult. In fact, it appears that American fashions, both children's and adults', during the 1860s were strongly influenced by European fashions trends. Virtually all of the major fashion trends (Zouave costume, kilts, sailor suits, knickers, and kneepants) were European in origin. Thus the domestic Civil War may have had relatively little immediate impact on American fashion.

Changing Concepts Childhood: The Civil War (1861-65)

The Civil War may have had a fundamental change in how Americans viewed childhood which would affect future fashion trends. Even here, however, changes in American attitudes were part of wider changes that were also occurring in Europe, unaffected by our Civil War. The Civil War was the last war fought on the American mainland. Children in other parts of the world, encounter the horrors of war on an appallingly regular basis. Although exposed to myriad other forms of violence, children in the United States have been remarkably insulated from the horific violence of military combat. Cultural attitudes towards children changed in response to the outbreak of the Civil War and military conflict affected the interactions of parents with their offspring. The war appears to have been the leading cause in the shift of emphasis from religious to patriotic concerns in magazines and other writings for children. Toys and a variety of public performances, like children's literature, also reflected a growing awareness of young Americans as consumers. Correspondence between fathers who went off to war and their children discloses the continued involvement of these parents in the lives of those left behind. Some historians argue that the physical separation actually increased the commitment of fathers to affective relationships with their children.[Marten, The Children's Civil War.] One historians also suggests that insists that children began to be viewed as "not merely as appendages to their parents' experiences but as actors in their own right in the great national drama". [Marten, The Children's Civil War, p. 5.] I'm am not sure this can be substantiated, but it is clear that in many ways children were politicized by the war. Boys participated in the war, younger boys as drummers an older boys as soldiers. Children whitesed war first hand, especially in the South, or were directly affected by the economic dislocations, and social changes brought about by the occupation. These formative experiences politicized children and generated a wide range of responses to the Civil War. One possible impact is that the generation of men and women who were exposed to the most horific war in the American experience, underwent a sort of terrifically compressed coming of age, whether in combat or on the home front. This may had engendered a great desire to protect their own children from a similarly hurried growing up when they became parents, a possibility that might help explain the invention of adolescence at the end of the 19th century. It may well have played a role in the fashions which sought to clad boys in idealized, unrealistic clothes emphasizing juvenile status.


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Created: May 21, 2004
Last updated: 1:32 AM 1/26/2014