Once upon a time children wore miniature versions of their parents’ clothing styles. Then, in 1780 or 1790, depending on the source you read, children began to be dressed differently, wearing fashions designed just for them.
Not that small boys, left to their own devices, would have worn high-waisted, ankle length trousers made of heavy cotton or linen and white cambric shirts with ruffled trim, but these “skeleton suits” as they were called were popular for at least fifty years. The pants had high waists, because they were buttoned onto the long sleeved jacket.
Although these long-sleeved, trousered suits were meant to be comfortable, they had three layers at the waist, not including underwear. Heaven knows how hot the boys must have felt in the summer or during active play! Or how quickly the white ruffed shirts soiled! Completing the outfit were white stocking, flat-soled strap slippers, and a military-style cap. The strapped slippers can best be seen in the 1841 fashion plate image at the bottom of this post.
A skeleton suit, one of those straight blue cloth cases in which small boys used to be confined before belts and tunics had come in … An ingenious contrivance for displaying the symmetry of a boy’s figure by fastening him into a very tight jacket, with an ornamental row of buttons over each shoulder and then buttoning his trousers over it so as to give his legs the appearance of being hooked on just under his arm pits. (Charles Dickens, Sketches by Boz, 1838-39.)
Adding insult to injury, was the underwear that young boys wore under these layered clothes. This sample comes from the Manchester Art Gallery.
The smaller the boy, the more elaborately frilled the collar. Colors were generally light, with the most popular being blue or green. Sometimes the suits were made of scarlet or mustard as well. For more formal occasions, a colorful sash might be added and the trousers made of silk or velvet and trimmed with lace. A young man about to go to Eton would wear the larger Eton collar.
- Nostalgic turn-of-the-20th-century photograph of a boy wearing a skeleton suit in printed fabric. This image is particularly interesting because the photographer created this image for a public that yearned for the good old days.
- Coral Necklaces, Regency Style – children wore these necklaces to ward off bad luck and for good health.