Short Pants/Trousers: Rite of Passage in America

Figure 1.--.

Modern American and European boys commonly look on short pants as popukar casual fashion. For earlier generations, short-length pants (kneepants, knickers, and short pants) were seen as boys wear. This convention began in the 1860s when increasing numbers of boys began wearing kneepants. Soon a rite of passage involved when a boy acquired his first pair of long trousers. Many HBC readers have commented on this is the individual boy section of several country pages. An American historian has provided HBC an American cultural perspective.

For the record, let me first note here that I'm a retired history professor and that I'm speaking from an American perspective. Like many researchers who have used your excellent HBC site, I've also found curious the national and social differences in attitudes and styles concerning dressing boys in outfits with short pants or short trousers, as you prefer. While much of this would seem to be due to little more than fashion trends, historical commentary I've read and heard elsewhere over the years suggests there's more to it than just mothers and fashion designers thinking boys looked "cuter" in such attire. And so, these few thoughts, if I may:

The main underlying reason/cause for this quaint fashion appears to have had more to due with now passe ideas about how to "properly" rear & train boys. In the "Good Old Days" children were "kept in their place" by various means (most of which would now be considered "old-fashioned" at best). In this regard here, it was thought to be "character building" to make a boy display his puerile status by making him go bare-legged; the custom being to keep a lad in shorts until about age 13 or so, when he would be given his first pair of long trousers as a symbolic rite of passage into adolescence. This implies that the ulterior purpose of this fashion was to demean and so teach humility & instill docility through making him self-conscious. Because of this, being kept in shorts longer than normal, or being put back into them after graduating to longs, was also employed as a method of discipline or punishment. This fashion (and thinking) went quite out style in America by the early 1950s, but continued on in Europe & other countries for many years, being still de rigueur in some places (particularly re exclusive boys' schools traditional uniforms). ...

As to the differences in the styles of shorts, aside from period national fashions like knickers in America during the 1930s or traditional folk costumes like lederhosen, the most noticeable distinction was/is length-- from the inordinately short & snug shorts with anklets on boys in Japan, to the full-cut knee-length shorts with knee-socks of English boys. The reasons/causes re all this are too involved to go into at length here, but, again, it would also seem there's more to it than just simply a fad of fashion.

I, and I'm sure many other HBC readers as well, have many ideas concerning this, but no convenient form. Perhaps it would make a good "topic of discussion page" for HBC readers to elaborate on via your website. Tom


Navigate the Boys' Historical Clothing Web Site:
[Return to the Main short pants page]
[Introduction] [Activities] [Biographies] [Chronology] [Cloth and textiles] [Clothing styles] [Countries] [Topics]
[Bibliographies] [Contributions] [FAQs] [Glossaries] [Satellite sites] [Tools]
[Boys' Clothing Home]

Created: April 10, 2003
Last updated: April 10, 2003