*** boys historical clothing essays

Boys Historical Clothing Essays

children's fashions
Figure 1.--This boy in ringlet curls and huge lace collar hold his little brother in a turn of the century photograph.

We have tried to encapsulate some of the basic historical tends in boys clothing and the significance of those trends. The various subject pages go into great detail, but somes times it is difficult to see overall tends when looking at specific styles or time periods. I would be very interested in your reaction to this series of essays and would invite you to contribute further essays addressing aspects of boys' clothing not yet addressed.


Any website dealing with boys' clothing should include an assessment of boyhood. Of course Mark Twain's Tom Sawyer is almost certainly the best depiction of boyhood. It is Booth Tarkington's brief description of boyhood in his Penrod books that perhaps sums it up best.


Children's fashion in part are utilitarian, but they also reflect the concept parents, usually mothers, had of childhood and this can be followed overtime by assessing developing trends in fashions. The modern concept of childhood is very different than the way children were viewed in the 18th century. It was in the Victorian age that modern concepts of childhood and family began to be formed.


One HBC visitor asks, "What has happened to little boys' formal wear in recent years? Everything that I see in stores is atrocious!"


There were once significant differences between the clothes worn by boys in many different countries, especially the larger more populace countrirs. While their were similarities in the 19th century and early 20th century, the differences could be striking. Since the 1960s, however, there has been a significant homominizxation of boys fashions around the world. The inintial impetus for this was the popularity of American fashions from "T"-shirts to blue jeans. A subsequent trend was the Europeanization of fashion--creating a nearly indistinguishable pan-European fashion for boys. The clothes boys wear are today virtually indistinguisable among European countries.


Since time imemorial, clothing has sent messages about one's status and position in society. Parents have sought ti ensure that chidren are dresses so as to reflect well on the family. In the later part of the 20th Century, children for the first time have largely gained control over their wardrobe. The image they want and the messages to be sent are a departure from centuries of tradition.

Informalization Process

I find it interesting how the process of informalization in clothing works. The subject arose while looking at the 1800s chronology page. I was unfamiliar with the term "lounge suit", so I looked it up and found that it's a chiefly British term for business suit, dating from 1901. Whatever is currently considered formal wear, there is a space opened up for something a little less formal, often with a comfy name (dinner jacket, lounge suit, sports jacket). The very most formal clothes will be the most old-fashioned, and will be reserved for the most august occasions. Or the most comical. For instance, the last people to give up wearing top hats were diplomats and stage magicians. The last serious use of top hats that I recall was JFK's inauguration in 1961. As it becomes impossible for the most formal outfit to be worn without generating laughter, the second most formal outfit takes its place; this even though that outfit was at one time considered informal. In boyswear, the informalization process is currently at the point where wearing a shirt with buttons is sufficiently dressy for all but the most solemn occasions.


Some historic clothes seems rather strange to us today, such as boys wearing dress or velvet suits with elaborate lace frills. Other styles such as Eton collars seem rather uncomfortable. Other styles are just misterious such as English and American boys wearing kilts. Just what were the influences behind the classic historical boys' fashions?

Japan: Terror in the Schools

HBC's assessment of Japanese schools would be incomplete without addressing the horendous incidents being reported at the county's vaunted schools. Japanese parents had thought that their children were save virtually anywhere. Very young children commonly walked to school or took public transport. Often they would wear brightly colored caps to make sure that motorists saw them. It was inconceivable to nearly all Japanese that their children would be rndarger at school. This was seen by the Japanese to be a problem in violence-plagued America, not their own safe society. Until recently they were correct. What has happened in Japan? This essay is about Japan. HBC is now planning a series of essays touching on clothing styles in different countries.

Marketing to Children

"Money talks." Nothing could be more trite or more true. A major need here at HBC is to explore the rise in prominence of children as a distinct market sector in the economy. This assessment has to looking at the social construction of childhood and the evolution of the parent/child relationship. Children in the 19th century did not work in the modern sence of coming from an affluent family and being able to keep their income for dicretional spending on clothes, music, and fast food. The 19th century boys who worked geerally had to contibute their meager earnings for the family's basic needes. The seadily increasing buying power of modern children has meant that clothing manufacturers had to appeal to their rather than their parents' tastes.

National Descriptions

We have notice that certain garments and hair styles are known by national descriptions. Some of the best known at Dutch boy bangs and Russian blouses. Curiously these terms are often not universal. In the Netherlands for example Dutch boy bangs are known as page cut. The French refer to English curls and English short pants, but these terms are not known by this term in other countries. We believe that clothing manufacturers often add foreign notations to give a garment or style a kind of stylish cachet. This not only occurred in America, but also in Europe. Sometimes the accuracy of these national descriptions was tenuous at best. We note, for example, that n American manufacturer rfered to "Dutch Necks" on underwear. In this case, the connection of the neck style seen here is not apparent even to our Dutch readers.


Children in the 19th and early 20th century were more strictly diciplined and had much less say about their clothes and other matters affecting their lives. Children were t be seen and not heard. Mothers had more latitud on how to dress their children and fathers had much more authority.

Political Connotations

One does not normally consider the political connotations of boys wear, but in fact the way some boys were dressed had definite political conotations. The ones that most priminently come to mind are the ways that royal youngsters were dressed. A boys' style with very significant political connotations was the sailor suit, although this is not fully understood today.

Short Pants

It is interesting to speculate as to why differences in fashion developed and wheter they are accidental, random developments or rather reflections of deeper aetetic or social values. Some differences are practical. Thus climate dictates that boys in Russian and the Caribbean dress differently. Sometimes fashion overides practical matters. School boys and Scouts, for example, on many Caribbean islands insist on wearing long pants. One intreaguing question is did American and Europeans boys dress so differently during much of the 20th century. European boys commonly wore short pants while American boys mostly wore knickers and long pants.

Specialized Clothing

Children for centuries simply wore small editions of their parent's clothes. The development of the skeleton suit was the first specialized children's garment. Girls continued to wear small versions of their mother's clothes for years. Specialized garments were, however, for dcades linited to affluent children. It was not until the late 19th century that children of all classes wore specialized children clothing. This fashion which only lasted a few generation may well prove to have been an aberastion.


A HBC contributor has begun an essay attempting to address the question of declining dress standards among modern boys. The formal dress of the 19th century have given way in our modern age to casual styles.


Since specialized children's clothes appeared at the turn of the 18th Century, there have been three basic questions to be answered: 1) should young boys be dressed like girls; 2) what kind of collar and neckwear should be worn, and 3) pants length. These issues have now largely been resolved.


A HBC reader writes, "It came to my mind to also address the topic "Youth and Violence". One such example is Palestine and the Interfada. We have all seen the images of rock-throwing Palestinian boys, some as little as 6 years old. Certainly youth violence in America is a concern. There was an article in the Sunday edition of the San Francisco Chronicle (December 29, 2002) about black and Latino gangs, where young boys have to show their eligibility by torturing and killing cats and dogs and also a story about very young black children in Oakland who lost their fathers. These ended up in jail and 110 were murdered on the street this year alone. The Latino gangs here in Santa Rosa are recognizable by the color of their T-shirts, red or green I think. They wear baggy pants and many have their heads shaven. You know the types. They are at war with each other, but unfortunately innocent people are getting killed in the process." Such gang violence is nothing new in America, but we have the felling that it is worese now than ever before. HBC has addressed the question of violence suffered by children in the "War and Crisis" section mentioned below. We agree that the issue of children carrying out violent acts is an issue that needs to be addressed. Here the only page that we have developed is one on the Hitler Youth. We note that a related issue is the creative use of non-violence to institute social change. Young people were, for example, in the vanguard of the American Civil Rights movement and the fight against Apartheid in South Africa.

War and Crisis

Wars and other social upheaval have had a huge impact on fashion, including the styles worn by boys. It is not alway clear just why certain fashions were introduced and others became unfashionable, but these major periods of crises have clearly had an enormous impact on fashion. There have been many such eras in history. HBC has focused on the modern period, but there are many instances in early historical eras as well.


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Created: March 17, 1999
Last updated: 11:35 PM 12/18/2013