Hair Bows Worn by American Boys

Figure 1.--This unfortunately poor image shows an American boy whose mother has lovingly done his hair with a hair bow. He doesn't seem to be overjoyed with the idea. I don't have a date for the photograph, but the relatively plain jacket and small collar suggests the 1870s. Note that he appears to be wearing a colored bow.

Hair bows appar to have been most common in Europe. We had noted relatively few photographs in Britain and the United States of boys wearing hairbows. The practice on the continent, especially France seems to have been more widespread. As HBC has developed we have noted more images of American boys wearing hairbows than we had anticipated. We note that in the wealth of photographs of American and British boys in Fauntleroy suits and Fauntleroy dresses, even the ones still in curls, I had noted only a few with boys having the added indignity of wearing girlish hair ribbons, but are now coming to the conclusion that they wer more common that we had initially anticiapted. What we have not yet determined is what the conventions for these hairbows was. Were they just for portraits and special occassions or would a boy wear one around the house from day to day.


Hair bows are primarily associated with girls. There are countless images of girls wearing hair bows, especially asround rthe turn-of-the 20th century and tghecearly-20th century. Some girls had huge ones. Hair bows for American girls seem especially popular and particularly large in the early 20th century. Most were white, but we also noticfe some colored ones. While hair bows are strongly associated with girls, we also note many younger American boys wearing hair bows. It was not as common as in France, but we have found quite a number of images. In contrast to girls hair bows, they seem most common in the late-19th century, perhaps because long hair for boys was especially popular at this time. There were differences in styles for boys' and girls' hair bows. Boys' hair bows are generally much smaller and less prominant that girls' hair bows. Their placement is often quite different. It is not a perfect indicator, but is along with other factors such as facial charterisytics and clothes a very useful indicator. This is very helpful when trying to identify who is who in the many images where the children are not identified.

American Mothers

Available information suggests that American mothers were less likely to use hair bows on their boys with long hair. This does not mean, however, that American boys never wore hair bows. As noted above there were some mothers who thought the style was attractive. I have encountered a few such images which show that American boys had their hair done up in a bow. Conventions varied for hairbows among American mothers. There does not seem to have been any established pattern. It appears to have been fully up to the mothers discretion. As with ringlet curls, mothers used hairbows for their sons before and after breeching.


Our chronological information on hair bows for boys is very limited. We have no information on the 18th century or early-19th century. Presumably some iformation exists, but we have not yet found it. The invention of photography provides a great deal of information on the mid- and late-19th century. The popularity of hair bows for boys seems most pronounced in the late-19th century based on occuances the photographic record. This is difficult to assess. The principal source of information we have is the photographic record. We do not notice many hair bows in early photographs (1840s-60s). We are not sure if this is a true reflection, but it may well be. The affluent classes among whom hair bows would have been the most common, were the most likely to have portraits made. Photography became much less expensive with the intriduction of the CDV, but we still do not see many hair bows. This suggest that hair bows were not common for boys in the early- and mid-19th cntury, but is no conclusive. Most of the images we have found come from the kate-19th and very early-20th century. This comincides with the Fauntkleroy craze and tghe opopularity of long hair, especially ringlet curls for boys. We should note that even during this period, only a smll portion of the boys with ringlet curls had hairbows added for their portrais. After the 1900s we rarely see boys with haur bows even the younger boys still with curls.

Hair Styles

American mothers appear to have used hairbows primarily for the sons that they did up in ringlet curls. Most of the available American images of boys wearing hairbows are of boys in ringlet curls. This is not true of other countries like France. There is no consistency among American mothers as to whether a boys curls were cut first or he was breeched and put into kneepants first. There are likewise images of boys in ringlet curls in dresses, kits, and dressy outfits like Little Lord Fauntleroy suits. As a result, there are images of boys wearing hairbows, both in dresses and in kneepants suits. While hair bows were especially common for boys wearing ringlet curls, but we see other long or moderately long hair styles with bows.


What we have not yet determined is what the conventions for these hairbows was. Were they just for portraits and special occassions or would a boy wear one around the house from day to day. We have not yet found discussions of this topic in contemprary women's magazines or personal correspondence. Notably, virtually all th available imaages of American boys wearing hair ribbons are individual portraits. We virtually never notice hair bows in group photographs.

Figure 2.--Some old images look like a boy may be wearing a hairbow, but it is difficult to be certain. This boy in a very smart sailor suit appears to be wearing a hairbow. Generally speaking boys old enough to wear sailor suits would not have hairbows.


We are not sure at whay ages boys in America wore hairbows. It was certainly not bounded by breeching, which for most boys was from 4-6 years of age because many boys wore ringlets after breeching. We have not seen enough images to have a good feeling for age. It must have been tied into the age range of ringlet curls because hair bows were mostly worn with the curls. This means that the age range was about 2-5 years. As boys began school at age 6 years, most had theur curks cut before this. We are not sure if mothers stopped adding the hair bows at any point before a boy's curls were cut. The oldest American image we have seen shows a boy of about 8 or 9 years. This is probably the upper limit at which the bows were worn.

Bow Types

The hair bows worn by boy seem to have been simplier than those worn by girls. Girls by the 1890s and especially after the turn of the 20th century were wearing maassive bows, some approaching the size of their heads. Boys on the other hand wore much more modest bows. Often composed only of aa slender ribbon tied modestly in a little bow, rather like shoe laces. It is often difficult to tell just how the bow is tied in available portraits. Hopefully as acquire more images we will learn more about how the bow was tied. We have not yet found any written material on this. All we have to go with is the photographic record. Mothers seem to just allowed the small bows to fall down, unlike the girls' bows which were not only larger but made to stand up prominately.

Figure 3.--Boys clearly wore hairbows after breeching. Some probably as long as they wore ringlet curls. This American boy in what looks to be a 1890s images wears his Fauntleroy suit and lace collar with ringle curls and a modest hairbow.


Colors are difficult to determine because of the black-and-white photography of the day. We still have relatively few images to assess colors. The available photographic images are all black and white and unfortunately provide few clues on the subject of color. White does seem the most common colors. Some boys, however, clearly are wearing other colored bows. I'm not sure whay colors were worn by American boys. You would think that blue or red might be the most common. It is still unclear, however, when the current color conventions became firmly established. It is interesting to note that Sarah Roosevelt cut Fraklin's curls about 1885 when he was 3 years old. The curls were saved by her and are on dispaly at Hyde Park. They were tied with blue bows. I don't know for sure if Franklin wore hairbows as a small child or if the bows were added after they were cut to secure them, but they were a pale blue. I am not familiar with any photographs of Franklin showing him in hair bows, but that does not mean he never wore them.


Boys' hair bows tended to be smaller than the bows worn by girls. Commonly small, simple loops tied like shoe laces were used for boys' hair bows. We don't see the the huge hair bows that girls wore.


The placement of the bows does seem to have been quite similar among American usage. The most common for boys seem to have been set off to the side, tied in with some of the ringlets. Some boys did have bows at the top of the their heads. I do not know, however, of any boys who wore their hair bows tied behind their heads. Generally the boys' bows fell down and did not stand up was was coomonly the case for girls' hair bows.

Regional Trends

We have not yet been able to determine any regional trend in the United States. We have noted boys wrearing hairbows throughout the United States. We have noted fewer images from the South, but this mat be a reflection of the overall smaller number of images we have noted from the Derep South states. Our archive is just too limited though to make any firm conclussions. We had though that the impages of boys wearing hir bows would be primaily from th large northeastern cities that were the most important fashion centers. We have noted, however, many boys from Western and Mid-Western states, often states without major cities. As far as we can tell this was a fashion that occurred throughout the United States.

Figure 4.--While some boys wore hairbows, they generally were very modest bows, unlike the one worn by this girl. Also, boys did not wears their bows tied behinf their head.


It is not entirely clear to be just on what occasions hair bows were worn. A boy in ringlets probably had his hair put into curlers every night. His hair would look a mess if it was not done regularly. The hairbows are another question. Mothers being mothers, some doting mothers may have tied hairbows on every day. I have a feeling, howeve, that many boys in ringlets may have had hairbows added only for special occasions. We are unsure how the photographic portraits fit into this. Did some mothers add a hair bow especially for the portrait and did not normally use them. Were hair bows worn more at home than for outings or visa versa? Or was there no difference. We simply do not know the answer to these questions.

Social Class

The wearing ofv hairbows like the wearing of ringlet curls seems to have a matter of social class. Probably this was most common in affluent homes. Mothers there would have had staff to assist with the drugery of running a home. They would have had more time to devote to their children as well as nannies, governess, as well as other staff. Less affluent mothers would have had less time to devote to such austentatious display.


It is impossible to say with any accuracy how common it was for boys to wear hairbows. The number of images testify to the fact that it was not unheard of. Yet the number of images of boys with jairbows is a small fraction of the total. There are a variey of problems using this the ratio of boys with and without hairbows as an indicator of the degree to which hair bows were worn. The major problem is that we do not know how representative the sample is. Also the images before and after breeching have to be treated differently.

Figure 5.--The hairbow in this boys ringlets is worn to the side neat where the ringlets were formed. The hairbow looks to be white or a light color.


We note American boys wearing hair bows with a wide variety of garments.
Dresses: The problems of assessing images of boys before breeching is that it is difficult to determine which of the children still in curls are boys. Thus any type of ratio is virtually impossible to determine.
Tunics: We note quite a dew images of boys wearing hairbows at the turn of the 20th century with tunic outfits like Russian blouses and Buster Brown outfits. This was presumably due to the large number of boys wearing tunic outfits at the time.
Kneepants: Images of boys in Fauntleroy suits and other outfits can be used with more accuracy. This is true because while boys might wear dresses, at the time girls would never wear boys' pants. I would say that after viewing 200-300 images of boys in ringle curls and other long hair that only about 1 percent wear hair bows. Of course the percentage would be even less if the number of boys who had their hair cut were added and the boys from families which could not afford to have their portraits taken. While this assessment can not be used with any percision, it probably does accurately substantiate that hairbows were relatively rare for American boys after breeching.


As we began working on HBC, we were somewhat surprised to find boys wearing hairbows. One reader tells me that he thinks that the hypothesis that American and British mothers rarely used hairbows is esentially correct. There are, however, many exceptions. And given the large numbers of portraits taken in the 19th century, we do see numerous boys with hair bows. We in fact note quite a number of boys photographed with hairbows. They are of course a relatively small percentage of the overall number of images taken. We have archived quite a number on HBC. Most zre unidentified, but we have information on some of the boys.


Nadar, Nigel Gosling, Alfred A Knope, New York, 1976.
Renoir, Harry M. Abrams, Inc, P ublishers, New York, 1985.
Renoir, Elizabeth Elias Kaufman, Ottenheimer Publishers, Inc, USA, 1980.
Dag Hammarskjold, Nicholas Gillett, Heron Books, 1970.


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Created: June 1, 1999
Last updated: 4:13 PM 6/14/2013