*** boys clothing: literary characters

Costumes of Literary Characters

David Copperfield
Figure 1.--"David Copperfield" was written by Charles Dickens. The many illustrations of David show him in a variety of diffrent clothes.

Some information on historical boys clothing is available from literary sources. Information comes from the text of the books, either through descriptions or sometimes because clothes are woven into the plot. In several instances illustrations in the books have provided more information than the book itself. Most of the ones we know of are American and English. Some care needs to be given to assessing literary sources. This is especially true when the books do not describe contemporary children. One has to be especially careful with movie and television productions based on these books.

National Characters

Many famous literary characters are boys. Authors have used boys for the central characters. Many novels are set around their experiences. Some like Oliver Twist become rather passive observers of the events which swirl around them, but in any many cases like Tom Sawyer they are active participants shaping their destiny. Interestingly some of the most famous are 19th century novels and these characters are every bit as relevant to us in our modern age even though they liked television, Walkmans, and CDs. We have collected information of some of the most famous national characters. Some are from great works of literature. Other important national characters are from more mundane children's literature, but may be some of the most endearing national characters. Interestingly, most of the most famous boy characters in literature are American and English.

Fiction Writing: Novels

Novels came into their own as a literary form in the 19th Century. Thus many of the major literary characters date from the 19th Century. Some of the earliest and best-loved boyhood characters were created by Charles Dickens and other 19th century authors. Many of these books are now conceived as children's classics. Books like The Adventures of Tom Sawyer and even Little Lord Fauntleroy were considered at the time to be to be serious adult literarure. Only in the 20th century have these books come to be seen as children's literature. Novels present a real problem for HBC. Unlike photographs and to a lesser extent contemporary paintings and illustrations, they are not definitive little glimpses of reality. Nor do they have validity of memoirs and biographies. They do, however, often touch on clothing. Not only do they have descriptions of clothing, but they often have descriptions of behavior associated with clothing as well as characters' thoughts assocaited with that clothing. This is information often not available in any other source. The problem of course becomes, how accurate are those descriptions. Novels set in contemporary times or at least within a writers own life time are apt to be the most accurate. But even here considerable caution is required. Here we have only begun to assess the vast assessment of literature, a monumental task. We have begun a few country pages on novels, including America, England, France, Germany, Ireland,and Scotland. Hopefully our readers will forward interesting passages from their favorite novels. While novels are our principal focus here, we will include other literary forms such as short stories and plays. A good source of on-line books to reserach for interesting references is Arthur's Classic Novels.


Poetry to a lesser extent than novels has interesting details about clothing. One subject that poetry does address, however, is childhood. Often poets romantasize childhood, but other poets provide more realistic insights in the childhood experience.


Mythology and Fable

An HBC contributor reminds us that there are boy heroes in all countries' literature, depending how far in the past you'd like to travel. Most mythologies include boy hero stories, especially of the kind of boy beginning the heroes journey. And mythology was the first instances of literature. And most countries with a long tradition of monarchy rule will have in its literature stories of how the prince rose up to become king, despot, ect. Same goes for the tribal cultures of the early Americas and Africa. Oftimes fact and fiction intermix until they are indistinguishable. The best exmple is probably Arthur of Sword in the Stone fame. The fact is that these characters in our modern age are often well known, especially outside a country. The American and English boy characters (Little Lord Fauntleroy, Tom Sawyer, Huck Finn, Oliver Twist, David Copperfield, etc.) are widely known and cross cultural and linguistic borders.

Illustration Accuracy

The original drawing associated with these characters are probably good reflections of period dress. Sometimes the illustrations provide much more information on boys' clothing than the book. Even so the contemporary illustrations can provide much useful information. More modern illustrations are often less accurate as illustrators are not always knowledgeable about period costume. Other publishers take liberties with the arist or original illustrator. This is primarily a decision based upon the assumption that children (mostly the boys) will not like the period costume. Thus the Disney illustrations of Christopher Robin never show him in smocks and often his red sandals become tennis shoes. Thus modern illustrations must be treated with considerable skepticism. Illustrators even if not entirely accurate can offer some important insights, if not of the historical era, but sometimes of the era in which the drawing were executed. Otn the drawings attempt to decpict the idea or the boy as adults might have him. All of this provides valuable information on boys' costume and the social trends that underlie fashion.

HBC Literary Pages

The pages we will create on indivual characters, authors, illustrators, and types of books will include some basic information on the character, author, and the era in which the novel or book was set. We will also evaluate the drawings to assess their accuracy. Your comments on the evaluations, of course would be most appreciated.


In many cases illustrators provide more ingormation on the clothing of the main characters than the author provides in novels. Illustrators do much more than just illustrate books. A host of different illustrations are needed for callendars, magazine covers, advertisments and much more.

Anglo-American Dominance

I noted in trying to sketch out my list of boy literary characters that the most memorable ones are all Amercan or English. I assume that is because the Anglo-American ones written in English are the ones most familiar with HBC readers and myself. Is this true? Or are there important boy literary characters from other countries that I just have not read about. After several years of working on this issue we have discovered some boy characters in other countries. In almost all instances, however, they are well known only in their own country and none have the international fame of say Oliver Twist or Tom Sawyer. This conclusion may prove wrong as HBC continues to expand its coverage of European literature, but it is certainly the one we are left with today. The next question of course becomes, "Why?" Why has Anglo-American literature focused more on boy characters than the literature of other countries and why have these characters been accepted by the readers in other countries as well. Here HBC does nit have an answer for either question, but would be interested in any insights readers migh t have.

Figure 2.--This Fauntleroy page was one page of a paper doll set published in 1922 based on literary characters.

Paper Dolls

Paper dolls for little girls appeared in the early 19th century. Contemporary sets provide some colorful illustrations of The Fauntleroy blouses, suits, and hats worn by boys in the late 19th and 20th centuries. Many other styles were illustrated.

Children's Literature

Actual children's literature did not begin to emerge in quantity until the 20th century. Until that time children would red adult literature with gender specific themes. Boys might read exciting tales like James Fenamore Cooper's The Last of the Mohicans. Gradually books written specifically for children appeared. This literature also has some useful information on historical boys' clothing.

Comic Strips

Some famous characters have come out of the comics. Two American characters are Dennis the Menace and Buster Brown. One of the best known boy cartoon characters in Europe was the Belgian Tintin. Of course boys appeared in a wide variety of comic strips playing both long and short term roles. All of these strips offer a wide variety of often quite accurate details about boys clothing. As the comic strips were created about the turn of the 20th century, they provide more than a century of drawings offering fashion details.


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Created: October 12, 1998
Spell checked: 11:59 PM 2/26/2008
Last updated: 6:20 PM 3/21/2005