Play Suits

Figure 1.--This boy wears a dressy play suit with long stockings and bang. The photograph was probably taken in the 1910s. Notice the buttons on his kneepants. Notice the wide collar in the Eton rather than the Peter Pan shape.

Boys about the turn of the century began wearing outfits that can becalled play suits. Some were strictly for play, but others could be worn for a variety of dress up occasions. After World War I (1914-18) much more casual styles were becoming acceptable for children, especially younger children. Some had clasic styling details, like the opular button suits that haekened back to early 19th century skeleton suits. Other were novel new inovations like romper suits. Perhaps the first play suit was the Buster Brown or Russion blouse tunic suit that appeared about the turn of the 20th century. One of the primary characteristics was thatwhile they could be worn for play, there were dressier versions that could be worn for more formal occasions. Another feature was that these suits, except for coveralls, usually incorporated either above-the-knee knickers or short pants of various length.


The early play suits look much dressier than we commonly view as suitable for play. Play suits were a substantial At the time play suits first appeared, formal dress was much more common than is the case today. Plainer more functional play suits became more common by the 1920s.


We note many different styles of play suits. Many would not have been called playsuits at the time. Play styles were made in a wide variety of styles. Some seem more suitable for dresswear, but dress conventions were quite different in the early 20th century. Other styles are clearly ppropriate only appropriate for casual play.

Buster Brown Suits

Buster Brown suits were popular for younger children in the early 20th Century. I'm not sure who introduced the style or precisely when. I'm not sure if it was a style picked up by the Buster Brown comic strip or an entirely new style created by the cartoonist. It does appear, however, to have been most popular after the turn of the century. Toddlers at that time often wore dresses or smocks. One of a boy's first suits was often a Buster Brown suit. Buster Brown suits were worn by boys from about 5 to 8 years of age, but some mothers dressed older boys in them for a few additional years.

Button Suits

HBC is not sure at this tike what to call these suits. They appeard in the late 1910s and early 1920s. They came in a wide variety of styles and colors. Buster Brown suits and rompers, they cwere one of the first style of lirrle boys' clothes to appear in bright colors. One of the destinguising characteristics were large buttons that the children could handle. Some of these suits had button-on shorts. Other styles were one piece suits.


A new style of short sdets appeared in the 1980s. They were similar to the short sets of the 1930s and 40s, except that they were made in matching loud patterns, often loking like beach wear. They were not just for little boys, but made in sized up to younger teenagers.

Jump suits

The play suit was conceived after the turn of the century as the modern concept of play was developing as beneficial activity. Early play suits were smocks, pinafores, and rompers. The romper was probably the inspIration for the jump suit, the first long pants play suit. The Levi Straus company was probably the first company to create long pants pakysuits with their coveralls. Many other designs were to follow.


No clothing item as assumed more importance in a boy's wardrobe during the second half of the 20th century than blue jeans. The first jeans worn by boys, although it was not a boys' style, was overalls. I have collected relatively little information on this style. It is esentially Aerican. It was worn mostly in rural Americaas work clotyhes, but in the 1990s has become stylish for both boys and girls.

Novely suits

We note quite a range of novelty play suits worn by American boys, especially during the 1920s and 30s. These included cowboy, Indian, policeman, soldier, and other outfits. They were regularly featured in the Wards and Sears catalogs. A HBC reader tells us about a Levi Srauss "Junior Aviator" playsuit sold about 1929 after Charles Lindburg's historic flight in 1927. The buttons were marked "HOME RUN", Bevo woven Levi label. Khaki play suit is a nice copy of the flight suit Lindberg wore across the Atlantic, and has a child's leather helmet, shoes, sock, goggles and child' silk pilot's scarf. Patch swen to the front depicts the Spirit of St. Louis aeroplane and has the words Junior Aviator on the patch. Read made suits were widely available in the major U.S. mail order catalogs. We have also noted them in England, Germany, and other countries. Many of these suits were hand made.

Figure 2.--The younger boy in a photograph taken about 1920 wears a play suit. Many of these outfits could also be worn for formal occasions, especilly when worn with long stockings like the long white stockings this boy wears. Note that his older brother wears long dark stockings with above the knee knickers.

Oliver Twist suits

One-piece suits

We notice children wearing one-pice outfits in the early 20th century. Some were made as button-on outfit, either to aid in dressing or because they were two-piece button-on outfits. We do not know a lt about these outfits. I'm not sure what they were called arthe time. They seemed to have been popular in America during the 1910s. We see these outfits both in catalogs and in the photographic record. These play suits were commonly very play, but e notice other with stylistic detailing. They were often made with long pants, although we see vrious pants lengths.

Romper Suits

The romper was in many ways the beginning of a revolution in children's clothes. It was the first true play suit and the first garment (other than dresses and pantalettes) designed for both boys and girls. One of greatest change in children's clothing occuring after the turn of the century was the declining custom of dressing boys in skirts until the age of 4 to 6 years ended. While the custom did not disappear until the beginning of the 1920s, it became increasingly less common as the century progressed. One of the reason for this decline was the appearance of rompers for younger children.

Short sets

Short sets began to appear in the 1930s. They were somewhat similar to the button syuits, Some even had button-on sdtyling. Bit the sdhirts were styled more like ordinary boys' shirts without the large collars and buttons of the button-on suits. This was a popular style in both the 1930s and 40s in the United States. HBC is not sure to what extent ot was weorn in other countries.


Shortalls are a one-piece short pants garmet worn by small boys in the 1960s-70s. It was based on the word overalls (the original name for jeans), but with short rather than long pants. Levi Straus came out with a version of its jeans for children in the 1920s. The shortalls appearing in the late 1950s and early 1960s, however, were not made of denim and disd not have bib fronts. I have no information about who first made shortalls or when they first appeared, but it does appear to have been the early 1950s. Shortalls were popularized by President Kennedy's son John when he was dressed in them during the early 1960s.

Sun suits

We see a wide variety of sun suits. Some were called by different names. Some bib-front romper suits or shortalls were done as sunsuits, but not all of these garments were sunsuits. Some were just called sunsuits. These outfits were commonly worn by boys in America and various European countries. An American garment, perhaps taken in the 1940s, is a good example.

Tunic suits

Tunic suits were a flexible style at the turn-of-the 20th century. We see many photographs of children playing in tunic suits. hey also could be worn for formal occassions. Som were fancy suits suitable obly for dress oiccassions.


Many play suits were worn by pre-school boys up to about 5-6 years of age. Other styles might be worn by somewhat older boys. Play suits were made for younger boys. Earlier younger boys had worn dresses so the playsuit was a major inovation in boys' clothing. The age of the boys wearing play suits vaired from year to year


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Created: April 3, 2000
Last updated: 4:57 PM 9/9/2007