Boy Dress Styles

Figure 1.--Boys in the late 19th Century began wearing plainer, less fancy dresses. Not all boys, however, wore these specialized boy dresses. Some mothers preferred quite elaborate dresses for their sons. This boy wears an elaborate dress, but note the front buttons and lapels--both boyish features. I do not have the date of this photograph, but would estimate 1875-85. He appears to be wearing a plaid skirt or pantalettes under his dress. Note his hat with flowers or decorations on the crown with a very wide, but short streamer.

The dresses worn by boys for several cebnturies were not notably different than those worn by their sisters. Specialized boy dresses did finally appear in the late 19th Century. This did not mean that boys only wore these styles. Some mothers insisted on dressing their sons in the same elaborate dresses as their sisters. Some choose identical dresses or smocks for the entire family. Other mothers simply chose fancier dresses than were available in the boy styles. Several stylistic elements characterized boy dresses, but the authors stress that some girls had dresses with some of these elements. In addition, some boys wore fancy dresses with none of these elements. It was all up to mothers fashion tastes. Mother could chose what she wanted and, as a result, some boys wore much fancier styles.

Dress Styles

Boys for most of the 19th Century wore the same dress styles as girls. In fact, they often wore the same dresses as girls-- especially if they had older sisters. New specialized boy dresses appeared in the late-19th Century. The primary destinguishing characterictic was they were plainer, with less lace and ruffles. There were a wide range of dress styles, incluing A-line dresses, Empire dresses, jacketed dresses, kilt suit dresses, low-waist dresses, sailor dresses, and many more.

Stylistic Elements

Necklines and Collars

Necklines and collars varied a great deal. The neck features seemed to have varied over time. The chronological differences seem more important than gender differences. Children dresses in the early 19th century were often made without collars. A good example is an American boy, C. Olin Boyden in 1852. Some of these dresses also had low necklines. Two factors seem involved here. One it appears to have been fashionable. Two, ready made clothing was not yet available. Dresses without collars were much easier to make. A collar was a complication. Thus collarless dresses and blouses were very common for younger children in the firsthalf of the 20th century. Women's necklines could be quite daringly low until late in the 19th Century. This was often for formal occassions such as balls. We also notice young children with low necklines, both boys and girls. Here the factor was not formality, but as best we can tell the age of the child. Girls dresses generally followed the styles popular for their mothers. Boys until distinctive dress styles developed for them in the late 19th Century wore the same styles. This was particularly true for younger boys. We also notice a wide range of coolars on dresses. These could be both an integral part of the dresses or pin on styles. A popular pin on style was lace collars. We notice many different styles of collars used on dresses. A factor here was the greater availability of readt made clothing. And with industrial expansion during the 19th century family, many families could afford to buy ready-made clothing.

Figure 2.--This boy wears a white tunic with a white belt as a design element. The tunic was not a dress, but a skirted garment popular for boys at the time. His little sister wears a dress without a belt.


One key characteristic were belts. A dress with a gathered waist belt was very commonly used in boys' dresses. The belt is a destinctly male garment. It is used to hold up the trousers. Thus it has no real function on a dress, other than a design element. Girls' dresses that were gathered at the waste rarely had belts as added design features. Belts were an especially important design element in the tunics worn by boys at the turn of the 20th Cebntury. Girls also began wearing tunics at the turn of the 20th Century and some of their tunics also had belts. The boys' belts though were larger and more prominent.

Waistbands and Backbows

One stlistic alternative to a belt was a waistbands and back bow. Many girls' dresses had no notable waistband in front, but they were attached at the back and tied in a back bow. Soketimes the waistband was stylistically shown at the front, but not separated from the dress except in back. This was very common in the 20th century, we are less sure about these back bows during 19th century. This is in part because so many available images show only front views. While some boys wore dresses with back tieing bows, this style seems nore common for girls.

Waist Gatherings

Girls wore two basic styles of dresses, frock-like dresses with no waist gathering and dresses with destinct waist gatherings. We believe that the waistless frocks were more common for girls, but there was no hard rule about this.

Waistless Frocks

Waistless frocks were a popular dress style for girls. It was common for girls' dresses, especially those for youngervgirls, to fall frock-like without a waist gathering. Very young boys might also wear frocks, but it was not common for older boys to wear them.

Waist gatherings

Both boys and girls wore dresses with waist gatherings. There were, however, some significant differences. One obvious one was, as mentioned above, that dresses for boys often had a belt as the waist gathering.

Even without the obvious, albeit often stylistic belt, there were differences between the waist gatherings for boys and girls. One 19th Century fashion writer offered the following description.

On a cold and frosty evening the boys were all dressed in high dresses up to the throat, while the bands which encircled their waist were so loose as meerly to keep the dress in place without confining it; in short, their dress did not offer the slighest restraint on their freedom of movement. It was otherwise with the girls ... they were dressed in low dresses, and their shoulders were so bare, that we involuntarily thought of a caterpillar casting its skin ... [but] we realized that this was rendered impossible by the tightness of the clothes about the waist ... It entirely destroyed their freedom of movement. [Mrs. Merrifield, Dress as a Fine Art, p. 99]

Mrs. Merrifield added that it was obvious that the girls were corseted and that the boys were not, as when they moved to pick up a ball on the floor, "The boys always stoop, while the girls ... invariably drop on one knee."

Front Buttons

Front buttoning bodices were another common element in boys' dresses. This is a major design difference between boys' and girls' dresses. Ladies Home Journal instructed mothers, "Little boys' dresses button up the front, those of their sisters fasten in the back." [Ladies Home Journal , March 1895] The girl's dresses almost always buttoned down the back. Front buttons while not completely unknown in girls' dresses, were far more common in the dresses worn by boys. One can speculate about the reason for these differences. One fashion historian suggests that girls were expected ti rely upon the assustance of others. Girls from affluent family were expected to get help from their mothers, nannies, or sevants to dress. Boys were, however, expected and incouraged to become independent-- and this included learning how to dress themselves early on. This explanation is not as clear as one might expect. For one thinf some popular styles for boys were compicated to put on, styles like Little Lord Fauntleroy suits, for example, necesitated that the boy be helped. While the fancy Fauntleroy suit was perhaps an exception, it should be noted that wealthy 19th Century men had gentlemen's gentleman to help them dress. Even so the principal pont that boys were encourged to be independent and girls were not is valid.

Cross Design Elements

Another important design element employed in boys' dresses was a wide ribbon running crosswise across the body, from one shoulder to the opposite hip. Similarly, dresses with a button closure running from one shoulder crosswise to the hem was another common design feature in a boys dress.

Lace Collars and Bows

Some dresses had lace collars worn with large bows, much like a Faultleroy suit. I believe many of these dresses were worn by boys. This appears to have particularly been the case when the decoration was confined primarily to the lace collar and wrist trim. Girls dresses were not generally worn with such large bows and their dresses flunces and trim was not usually limited to priarily the collar. A HBC contributor suggests that while girls did often wear lace collars, that they were commonly round and worn without the destinctive bows worn by the boys. I think collars with bows were much more common on the boys' collars. I can not demonstrate these trends yet--but will pursue the question.

Figure 3.--This noy looks to be wearing a kilt suit. Iy is not a dress, but another pipular skirted garment for boys in the late 19th century. It is a bit difficult to tell, however, this boy appears to be wearing a plaid dress rather than a kilt under his jacket. Usually kilt suits did not have such loud plaids.


A common style for a boy was a kilt suit, a suit like jacket worn with a bodice skirt, often referred to as a kilt. These kilt suits were one of the most popular outfits for younger boys and were very commonly worn in the late 19th Century. Some boys also wore a suit jacket with a dress, although it was much less common. A girl would be unlikely to wear a jacket with a dress.

Specialized Boys' Dresses

Through the 1860s, girls and young boys wore essentially the same styles of dresses, although some mothers may have slected less fancy styles for their sons. These less fancy styles, howevers, were dresses also worn by girls. Beginning in the 1870s one begins to see dresses advertized as boy dresses or suitable for boys. There were still many dress styles desceribed as children's dresses, meaning suitable for both boys and girls. But in the 1870s, dresses with some or all of the elements discussed on this page were first offered to American mothers. HBC assume that the same phenomenon also ocurred in Europe at about this time, but cannot yet confirm it.

Country Dress Style Pages

We have several country dress pages, but not very many style pages in the dress sections. We are orking on style pages in the American, English, French, German, and Italian dress sections.


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Created: March 27, 1999
Last updated: 8:01 PM 10/10/2017