*** United States boys clothes: the 1900s

United States Boys' Clothes: The 1900s

boy dresses
Figure 1.--Little boys still commonly wore dresses in the 1900s, although the practice was declining. Many boys who might have worn dresses in the 1890s, now were outfitted in tunics.

The turn of the 20th century was an interesting period in the development of boys' clothing. It was a time of both contiuity and change for boys' fashions. It was a period of many varied styles. Late-19th century styles continued after the turn of the century. Dress was still very formal in the 1890s, but small steps toward informality appeared. A few important new syles such as play tunics and rompers appeared in the 1900s. Many older styles continued popular, but by the end of the decade, their popularity was beginning to wane. Important 19th Century fashions such as kilt suits and Fauntleroy suits continued to be worn. At the same time, 20th Century styles like short pantshad not yet emerged. Knee pants were common, but by the end of the decade knickers had begun to repace them. Unlike England, knickers had never been popular in meric, but begn to become standard by the end of the decsde. Long ringlet curls were still fashionable at the turn of the century, but decling in populsrity. By the end of the decade were much less common.


Most of the photograhs taken in the 19th century were portraits taken in studios. They very accurately depict the fashions, especially the more formal styles as children were generally dressed up in their best outfits. What 19th century photgraphy does not show very well is the day to day clothing worn by childre or children in casual moments playing or relaxaing. Such scenes were not totally absent in the 1890s, but the available cameras required considerable effort and money, thus such scenes were mostly of affluent families. George Eastman in 1900 introduced the Kodak Brownie which which made the modern amateur snap shot possible. The Brownie gave a wide range of individuals with even modest income the ability to take snap shots of their daily life and the children at home in casual momments. Thus we have much more intimate children in the 1900s.

School Photography

School photography is niot helpful in assessing educational trends, but very important in assessing fashion trends. Studio portraits and snap shots asre very valuable, but we are always left with the question of how prevalent were the styles weorn in these individial views. School photograophy is very different. School uniforms were not commonly worn in merica. The children wore their ordinary clothes to school and many children are pictured at the same time. Thus we not only get to see the various styles worn, but how popular the various styles were. And gender and age trends are easier to see becaus we mostly see class portraits, at least in the city schools. We do not get the close ups of the children with school photigraphy at this stage, but we do get to see major trends.

1908: Stunning Changes

Something happened in 1908 that we do not fully understand. Several major changes occurred in boys' fashions. And we do no know why they occurred or who was resonsible. We do not even know if anyone was actually responsible. Perhaps it was just hapanstance. But it does seen strange that ssuch monumental changes took oplace at the sm time. The changes not only affecfted major fashion trends that were in place for decades, but occurred with stunning rapidity. Never before or since have such major changes occurred in so short a period of time. We wouild be unterested if raders jve zany ideas as to just what wasresomsible for this. And this only seems to have affected boys' fashions. Girls fashions for whatever reason were largely unaffected. The only noticeable cahanhes in girls fashiions was thedegreev to whichhair bows appeared in the 1910s. There were three major observable changes. First, the strait-leg knee pants that American boys began wearing in the mod-19th century literally overnight were replaced with knickers. Knickers were never universal, but they were about as coon as imaginable without being universal. Second, rural boys began weaing overalls. Overalls also appeared in the mid-19th century, but they were not boys' wear. They were wor first by miners and then becvame factory wear. Only later duid they appear on the farm. We do not see boys in rural areas waring them to school to any extent until 1908. Theyb quikkly became if not universal, standard at rural schools. Thirdly, flat caps becpme stanfard boys' wear. Earlier we se a variety of n=boys wear, but by 1908, the flat cap became an iconic boys headwear style. We see all of this very clearly in school photography and mail order catalogs. Until this point there were considerable similaritybetwwnn American and European boys'wear. Beginning with these changes, we begin the see basic differences.


Both boys and girls continued to dress firmally in the 1900s. Boys commonly wore suits and girls dresses. Inteestingly hosiety and footwear were similar, although boys more commonly went barefoot. Most everything else were similar. There were very significant differences between the clothes worn by boys and girls throughout the 19th century. Clothes were very strongly gender specific. The only substantial exception was younger, mostly pre-school, boys who might wear girls styles like dresses and other skirted garments. This began to change in the late-19th centuey, especially the 1890s as we see fewer boys wearing dresses and other girls' styles. It is not altogether clear what caused this change. We suspect tht the Fauntleroy Craze was involved. This centuries old traditions of little boys wearing girls' styles continued to declne in the 1900s, but had not yet disappeared. We do not yet see girl's wearing boys' syles like pants and shorts in the 1900s, but this trend would begin after World War I in the 1920s.

tunic suit
Figure 2.--This boy wears a fairly standard tunic suit which apparently was his dress up outfit. THe arm band he wears probably is for First Communion, meaning this was his dressiest outfit.


HBC has considerable information on the garments worn by boys in the 1900s. The fashion of outfitting boys in dresses continued to be quite common at the turn of the century. Little boys in 1900 continued to wears dress, although as the decade progressed they no longer wore the more girlish styles with elaborate lace and ruffle trim. Rompers were widely worn by boys after the turn of the century. I am not yet positive about the chronolgical pattern. They may have appeared before 1900, but they do not seem to have been widely worn in the 1890s. One of the most characteristic styles of the early 20th Century in America was the tunic. The tunic styles of Russian blouses and Buster Brown suits became especially popular. Many mothers who might have dressed their boys in dresses during the Victorian era, instead appear to have chosen the related tunic style. American boys mostly wore kneepants at the turn of the Century. Knickers were no unknown, but became much more popular as the decade progressed. Short pants were little worn in the 1900s. Unlike Europe they did not prove popular. Even the new American Boy Scouts movement chose knicker-like breeches like the Army unifiorm for their uniform, rather than the short pants that English and European Scouts were wearing. (The American Army uniform was the M1912 semi-breeches that were tapered to fit into the M1910 canvas leggings, which covered the M1904 marching shoes.) Boys wore suits very commonly in the 1900s. Most boys did not have extensive wardrobes of casual clothing as is the case today. Many boys would have a suit for formal occasions and wear their older suit for school or casual wear. During the summer the jacket would often not be worn. One of the most popular styles was the Norfolk suit. Knee pants were very common, even for older boys. American boys in the 1900s mostly wore long stockings with knee pants, even during the summer. Younger boys might wear their knee pants with socks, but not older boys. Even as knickers began to become more common at the end of the decade, boys mostly wore long stockings.

Age Trends

We comtinue to see major differences in boys' clothing based on ages (age frading)in the 1900s decade. There were also age differences in girls's clothing, but not as significant. The primary didderences for girls were skirt lenth and hair bows. (Hair bows would become much more important in the 1910s). We still see some yonger boys wearing dresses, but this is a decling convention, much less prevalent than in the 1890s. We also see far gewer boys wearing kilt suits, a popular style in the late-19th century, There was one popular skirted style--tunic suits, sometimes called called Buster Brown suits. Younger boys might Fauntleroys uits, but this style was also declining. The sailor suit was still popular for boys, but we see it being worn by incresingly younger boys. Most boys wore knee pants, although by the end of the decade they were being replaced by knickers. Boys wore knee pants/knickers into their teens. Most younger teens wire them, although by the final high school yers, most boys wweere wearing ling pants. Most children at the time finishd school kin the 8th grade (about 13-years old). Only a minority continued on to high school. The boys ending their schooling with the 8th grade entered the work firce at that time. They tended to make the transition to long pants a little earlier than the boys still in school, but this varied from family to family. HBC has details on 1900s school trends. Schoolwear is a good refklection of popular styles dyuring the decade. Boys still commonly wore suits, usually with knee pants and knickers. Collar buttoning jackets were going out of styles. We see Norfolk suits as ell as single-and diuble jacket jackets. Double breasted jackets were still quite common. We still see boys wearing ringlet curls, mostly pre-school boys. Like tghe Fauntlerioy suit, howver, this ringlets were declining even for younger boys. .

Social Class

Social class was a major factor in 19th century fashion. Clothing and fashion constitute more of dusposible income than is the case toay. Clothes were expensive and formal dress much more important than is the case today. This continued to be the case in the 1900s, although we notice some chnges beginning to take shape.

ruffled collars
Figure 3.--Ruffled collars generally replaced lace collars during the 1910s, although we see fewer large collars in general. The popularity of wide-brimmed straw hats had begun to decline by the end of the decade.


The early 1900s was a watershed period in American boys' fashions. The old formal styles were still commonly worn at the turn of the century, but the new more casual styles had begun to appear. We begin to see them in the 1910s, but it as not until the 20s that they really begin to take hold.

Fauntleroy suits

Little Lord Fauntleroy suits were still very popular as a boys' party suit. After the turn of the century Fauntleroy suits with short pants (rathr than kneepants) began to appear. Knicker Fauntleroy suits existed, but were not common as was the case in England. A new fashiion appeared as the decade progressed. Some boys began wearing their Fauntleroy suits with white stockings rather than just dark stockings. The size of the jackets increased to cover the blouse entirely. In addition, as the decade progressed, large lace collars began to be replaced with ruffled collars and smaller bows.

Sailor suits

The popularity of the sailor suits continued unabated after the turn of the century. The style of the suits changed little, but the wide-brimmed sailor hat was becoming less popular by the end of the decade. Many boys were wearing the new sailor-style tunics rather than the suits with knee pants. Some of the tunic sailor suits covered the knickers, others were shorter with a more boyish look that didn't cover the knickers. Older boys still wore their sailorsuits with knee pants, although as the decade progressed, knicker sailor suits were becoming more popular. A few boys wore short pants sailor suits, but they were not common.


Seasonality is an important factor in fashion and has been the cae since the Neoltihic era. Climate had an important aspect to demographic patterns. The American population was primarily located in the North. The warmer climate of the south restricted settlement. This did not begin to change until the introduction of air conditioning following World War II (1941-45). And fashion did not help with this problem. The formal fashion of the 19th century required man and boys in polite society to wear jackets. And this convention continued in the new century. This was hardly conducive to living in a warm climate. One compromise was to allow younger boys just to wear blouses rather than suit jackets during the summer. Short sleeve shirts and blouses had not yet been invented. This was something that men when dressed properly did not do. Women made more concessions to climate. They might wear light-weight dresses with short sleeves or no sleeves at all. Rompers and play tunics were other concessions to climate. This was the beginning od a trend toward informality that would become one of the most importnt fashion trends of the 20th century. The North had more moderate summers, but much more severe winters the further north you went. Thus warm weather clothing like coats and jackets as well as scarves and gloves were important. Heavy coats along with long underwear were the primary winter garments. A new warm weather item, the sweater began to become popular, especially for children and youths in the new century. They woukld become even more important in subsequent decades.

Regional and Demographic Differences

America was a much more rural society in the late 19th and early 20th century tha it is now. Many Americans live on the farm or in small rural towns. When they dressed up they followed the same dressy styles as boys in the cuties wore--although the latest styles probably took a little longer to reach rural America in the days before television. Fashion magazines and mail order catalogs made sure that rural America was never to far removed from the latest fashions. Most of the time rural boys would be likely to wear work clothes like overalls. They would often wear such clothes to school--at least elementary school. They were not called jeans at the time, and of course the idea of designer jeans could not even be conceived in the early 20th century, but Levi Straus dungaree overalls were widely worn by men and boys. The Kodak Browie and the appearance of amateur photography provide a vastly increased number of images with which to assess regional and demographic differences.

Figure 4.--Sailor tunics were a popular style for boys in the 1900s. Some were cut short to look more like sailor suits. Notice that this boy did not have his ringlets cut when he graduated from tunics--but he no longer had to wear hair bows. (He is the same boy pictured in the tunic above.) Note that his double-breasted tunic is cut short so it did not completely cover up his knickers.

Hair Styles

Most boys had and wanted short hair cuts. Many mothers, however, still insisted on long hair for their sons thinking it more attractive. A new style we now recognize as Buster Brown bangs soon were all the rage. Many boys were still wearing long ringlet curls, which were so popular with some mothers. The Buster Brown bangs were also popular, causing many mothers to cut a boys' curls so he could wear the new style. This was one factor leading to the declining popularity of ringlets by the end of the decade.


We have acquired images of several America families during the 1900s. They cover a wide range of families of varying social class, occupations, and regions. We see a range of different outfits worn by boys of different ages. There were wide differences in how children from different socil classes dressed as well as differences between urban and rural America. Whilw we have images from a range of families, there are more images available from wealthy and middle-class families. In particular we do not have mages of the familes of child workers. There were still few labor laws protecting women and children. We see some of the different styles of headwear such as sailor caps and flat caps. We see tunic suits, sailor suits, and a variety of other outfits such as knee pants and knicker suits. Most boys wore knee pants and long stockings were still common. The images show the family in both formal and informal situations. The standards of the day required relatively formal clothing even for informal situations, but we see the begining of informal wear when compared to the 19th century.


We note the clothes worn by children in the 1900s for a range of different activities. The 20th century brought more change in popular boys activities. In fact there were more changes than ever before. And we know a great deal about these changes thanks to the home snapshots made possible by the Kodak Browie and similar cameras. Trends began in the 19th century, including urbanization and rising household income because of industrialization were all factors. Although child labor was still very common in the 1900s, espcially in the South. Another factor was child labor laws and mandatory school attendance laws which removed boys from the work force and shifted them into classrooms, at first primary, but eventually seconday schools as well. With more than half of the population now living in cities, hunting and fishing began to decline in importance, but werre till common in rural areas. As America became more urbanized we begin to see familkies diverung themselves ny taking trips to get back to natire, likes into neautiful wildreness areas. This is not something rural people did. They were more intereted in comong to towns and cities. A part of the same movement, we see cities giving more and more attention to opening city parks. This began with Central Park in New Yoek City (1857) and the idea became increaingly popular in cities throughout America. By the turn of the 20th century, most large American cities had public parks to bring a little green into the city.

Clothing Catalogs

We have archived some informaion from 1900s catalogs and magazines which provide a great deal of useful information about fashions. The ad copy also provides deraila about the styles, ages, and terminology. Mail order catalogs show major changes in American boys clothes during the 1900s. Several important fashion trends are notable. Tunic suits like Buster Brown suits were all the rage for little boys. Knee pants were still dominate in the 1900s, but knickers began to be worn by older boys. Short pants were intoduced for the Boy Scouts, but the boys insisted on wearing knickers. Kneesocks were still little worn. Most boys wore long stockings.

Fashion Articles

One particularly helpful source of information is articles in fashion and other publications where fashion experts discuss fashions. We have unfortunalely not been able to find many od these articles, bur we archive the examples that we are able to find. One interesting article fromn the 1900s was written by Henriette Rousseau in a Mid-western newspaper, "Clothes for boys: Appropriate winter costumes for the little men". She discusses clothes for small boys 3-7 years of age. The tunic suit became a popular styke for younger boys in the 1900s. The weeee worn in both the summer and winter, although different weifgt material was used. Rousseau describes in some detail two different types of boys' tunic suits, the Buster Brown suit, and the Russian suit, both of which she recommends as a replacement for the Lord Faunterloy velvet suit, which she says boys hated to wear. The description of the parts of these suits is quite detailerd specific and rather valuable and shows what had become fashionable in 1903. We also see an unatributed article "Good Taste and Bad Taste in Dressing Children" from the Ladies Hone Journal in 1907.

Personal Accounts and Articles

We have collected information about several individual American boys during the 1900s. Because of the time factor, no HBC reader has sent us a personal account of their boyhood experiences. We have noted accounbts in biographies as well as a great deal of photographic evidence. Younger boys were still outfitted in dresses and other skirted garments, but not as commonly as in the 1890s. We have noted many unidentifiedimages showing boys wearing dresses in the 1890s. One example here is Ernest Hemmingway whose mother liked to dress him and his sistr in matcing outfits. One of the most common outfits for yong boys after breaching was the tunic suit. Buster Brown and sailor styles were very popular. Harold Fitzroy-Carrington and the Ohio boy are good examples here. There arr many others. Boys still wore Fauntleroy suits, although sailor suts were much more common. Tom Wolfe wears a popular style of sailor suit. Older boys suits. Norfolk jackets were especially popular. Most boys wore their suits with knee pants or knickers, often with black or other dark-colored long stockings. The Pittsburg brothers are examples here. Most boys had short hair cuts, although shaved heads were rare. Some boys wore longer hair, even ringlets, although this was becoming less common. Even a few older boys, like Tom Wolfe, wore ringlets, but hated them. A few boys even had hair bows.


We begin to see more informal styles for children in the 1900s than were common in the 19th century. Many children wre still dressed formally. We see Fauntleroy suits and Eton collars as well as ringlet curls. Even so there was a definite shift. The large lace and ruffled collars common in the late-19th century were not quite as large or as popular as in the 1890s. A much more pronounced shift would come in the 1910s, but still the beginning of a shift in attitudes about how children should be dressed was notable in the 1900s. We can see the beginning of the shift toward more casul wear for children in the photographic record. Casual garments like rompers and tunics were good examples of more informal styling that was becoming more popular for children. And we notice articles in popular magazines that addressed the issue. A good example is an article from The Ladies Home Journal in 1907 addressed the issue.

Mother's Wishes

One interesting topic is how mother's depicted the perdect children, both how they dressed and behaved. This of course is difficulkt to assess. We see it with yhe youjngdr children befoire they begin to express serious preferences. Anothe very usedful indicator is scrap booking. It was very common at the time to keep scrapbooks. This was mostly done by mothers and girls. At the time this was not just family photographs, which became much more prevalent in the 1990s because of the advent of the family snapshot. The Kodak Brownie appeared in 1900. But mothers added in all kinds of other items, including post cards and store bought commercial images. Some of these images were candy-box type idealized images of perfect children. This shows what mothers wanted at home. Actually what mothers wanted in term of clothing at any rate is generally what they got. For the girls it did not make much difference. Fir the boys it made a considerable difference. This began to change notably around the turn-of=the 20th century. It is unclear just why. a range of factors may have been incolved, including public schools, mass media, and other factors. It was just began at this time, but after World War I in the 1920s it became incresingly notabe.


Schoolwear is an especually good indicator of what boys actually wore. Schoolwar information is a good corrective for both catalogs and studio portraits which can be misleading. It was still common for boys to dress up for school, especially in the cities, but still images from schools abnd og children dressed up for school are an important addition to available information on clothing styles during the decade.

Historical Events

President McClinnley was assasinated in 1900 and was suceeded by Vice President Roosevelt. The Gulf coast city of Galeston was destoyed by a killer hurricane (1900). San Franciso ws devestated byab earhquake (1905). The Wright brothers flew the first heavier than air plane at Kitty Hawk, North Carolina (1903). Roosevelt and his energetic family became enomrously popular. He helped enact many importannt progressive reforms. He also was largely responsible for the construction of the Panama Canal. He also strongly promoted the U.S. Navy despite resistance from Congress. Roosevelt was reelected in 1904, but decided not to run in 1908. He help cles associate Willian Howard Taft win the nomination which at the time was tantamount to winning the election. America had emerged as an industrial giant. Autmobiles began to be built, but were still a relatively small industry until Henry Ford introduced the Model-T. There were virtually no paved roads in the country. Many authors allow ideology to direct their writing. One left-wing idealogue writes, "Life in the 1900s was depressing and was an era filled with extremely hard and strenous work that didn't offer any future for the average American in doing better." This is nonsence this sentence actually might apply to much of human hstory, but not to America in the 1900s. The first decade of the 20th century has been called variously the Age of Innocence, the Age of Optimism, and the Age of Confidence. In fact America's booming industrial economy created great wealth and prosperity for millions. It is true there were great social inequities. Many workers, especially immigrants, unprotected by social legislation and labor unions, often existed on a subsistence level. Huge numbers of European immigrants flloded into the United States. Despite the conditions in croded slums, most immigrants were better off in America than their hme countries and through hard work gradually carved out their place in American life. Baseball was the national game. The World Series began (1903).


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Created: May 31, 1999
Last updated: 12:57 AM 9/13/2023