United States Button-on Shorts: Personal Experiences

Figure 1.--.

I just read with interest your article about boys' button-on shirts. While growing up in the late 1930s and early 1940s, I always wore button-on shirts and pants from age 2 through 10 (usually short pants except in winter when I was allowed to wear long). So did most of my friends. This kept our pants up and our shirts tucked in. I grew up in Wisconsin and later in New Jersey. Button-on pants were common both places for boys my age.

Fashion Book

My mom had a book on childrens fashion that said, "For boys from age 2 through 10, the thing for them to wear is very short pants buttoned onto separate blouses at the waist." Usually the outfits were made and bought as "separates", but sometimes, especially for younger boys, pants and blouse were made of the same material as a two-piece button-on suit.

My Button-on Shorts

The seven or eight large buttons were evenly spaced around the blouse waist band so they would hold the pants up all the way anound (not just in front). Older boys pants had a cloth belt that hid the buttons, but with younger boys' pants (up through about second grade) there was no belt and the buttons showed. The contrasting large white buttons against the darker pants color was part of the design. Most button-on pants had side openings rather than a fly front. Before age 5, my mom buttoned my pants on for me when I got dressed and unbuttoned them when I got undressed, but by kindergarten I learned to do it myself.

My Opinion

I didn't have an opinion one way or the other about my button-on shorts. Everyone wore them, and they were what my mom bought for me. I guess I liked them. I definitely liked that they held my pants up and kept my shirt tucked in.

Short Pants

I think grade 4 was the about the last year that most boys wore short pants to school. After that we started to want to look more grown up. Many of us boys, however, still wore them in hot weather up through grade 6, the end of elementary school. A few boys older might even might even wear shorts to school when the weather was really hot in early September or early June. But it was only then. Most of the time after fourth grade, the shorts were only for play.


Some boys were still wearing button-on knickers maybe up to maybe grade 3. I had a few pairs of knickers myself. The last was my Cub uniform. The boys I knew, and I, didn't think much one way or the other about knickers. It's something boys wore sometimes, and something our moms bought for us. When I NOW look at photos of 1930s-1940s boys in knickers, I think "Those sure were ugly". But I didn't think so then. When you wore knickers and you had a hole in your pocket, the stuff in your pocket would fall through in catch in your knickers knee-band. Happened to me once when I had a bunch of Ritz Crackers in my pants pocket, which had a hole. In the middle of the school day, my leg began to itch. I found a whole bunch of cracker crums caught in my knicker knee band. What a mess!


My button-on shorts were not just for school. They were for play and dress-up as well. It's hard to remember exactly what the difference was. . I had to change into my play clothes after school. I think the play shorts were a different material, maybe more rugged cotton. They had side openings like my school shorts, and no belt, so that the buttons showed. My school shorts had a belt after grade two. All my shorts were quite short--didn't come very far down my legs. That was the style then.


My mom's children's fashion book said, "Basic to a boy's or girl's wardrobe are button-on blouses, which have six, seven, or eight large buttons sewed around the waist so that pants or skirts can be buttoned onto them." My blouses had long or short sleeves depending on the weather. Various colors such as tan, blue, or white, sometimes with stripes. They buttoned all the way down the front, and had collars, usually pointed collars, but when I was younger sometimes rounded collars, or sometimes sailor collars. Until age 6 or so, sometimes the blouses buttoned down the back, and sometimes they matched the shorts, being bought as a "suit". All of them had a band of tape sewed around the inside of the waist to reinforce the large buttons that held my pants up.


I wore ankle socks in summer, and knee socks as the weather got colder. Sometimes the knee socks didn't stay up and became ankle socks by default. My mom would say, "Pull up your socks!" The socks usually matched my pants-- navy, brown, gray, and tan.


I kind of remember wearing sandals maybe in kindergarten and first grade, but that memory is vague. Mainly I wore tennis shoes for play and brown or black leather shoes with laces for school and dress-up.


Girls also wore button-on skirts. It was commom for girls to wear button-on skirts up through fourth grade. Several girls in my class had a couple of outfits like that, either plaid or navy skirts with white blouses. I remember thinking at the time that they looked tremendously cute.

Cub Scouts

I was a Cub Scout for one year in 1944-45. The uniform had a beanie with a short visor. [HBC note: We like to use the terminology submitted by readers, in part because this is generally how the various garments were viewed by our contributors as boys. We would, however, probably describe the Cub cap as a peaked cap.] Our uniform was a dark blue short sleeve shirt and matching knickers worn nwith a yellow neck scarf. My Cub uniform with non-button-on knickers was in grade 5.


Up through age 10, I always had a dress-up suit with button-on pants. When I was younger, it was a two-piece suit in summer, blouse and short shorts the same color, like royal blue or brown. In colder weather, the pants were navy wool and the blouse was white with long sleeves, and I would wear a tie with it. Sometimes I had a sailor suit. In grade 3 and up, I had a three piece dress-up suit with matching jacket and button-on shorts (or longies in winter) with a white long sleeved blouse. In grade 2 I remember playing in a piano recital wearing my navy short shorts buttoned onto my long-sleeve white blouse with the buttons showing (no belt), and a navy stripe tie.

Cold Weather

In winter, boys with shorts would put on heavy wool "snow pants" or "leggings" before going out into the cold, just like the girls with skirts did. At school, everyone with leggings would take them off in the cloak room before class and hang them up with our winter coats.


Christopher Wagner

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Created: January 9, 2002
Last updated: January 16, 2002