It’s my pleasure to welcome Maria Grace back to Outtakes as she promotes her latest title, Twelfth Night at Longbourn, the fourth volume in the Given Good Principles series, a story about Kitty Bennet. Today, part two of two, Grace tells us about what boys wore when they outgrew their dresses. See yesterday’s post to learn what boys wore as infants and toddlers. – Kim
By Maria Grace
Most boys were breeched about 4 years of age, several years earlier than their counterparts from the 1700s. Child rearing “experts,” though, argued for various ages, up to age 8. They agreed though that a child’s size was a most important consideration. Boys who were small for their age or sickly might be breeched later. On the other hand, boys might be breeched earlier if there was concern that a parent might not live to see their son breeched.
Mothers were primarily responsible for the decision for their sons to be breeched. Fathers might exert some pressure, though, if the mother delayed the event too long.
Social class and standing would greatly influence the nature of the breeching ceremony. For the family with little means, it might be a simple affair or receiving hand-me-downs from an older brother. For the aristocracy, it might be an elaborate affair.
During the Regency, the ceremony rarely took place on the little boy’s birthday. Rather, the convenience of extended family to attend the event might be the deciding factor for timing. If the child was the heir of an upper class family, the ceremony was likely to take place at the family’s country estate rather than in a town home. Extended family and close friends, like the child’s godparents, would be invited to attend.
In preparation for the ceremony, a mother would have at least one new suit of clothes made, assuming she had the means. Otherwise, hand-me-downs might be refreshed for the boy. Cotton or linen shirts, sashes, formal garments, and outerwear might also be acquired. Accessories like hats, gloves, stockings, and shoes could round out a little boy’s new wardrobe.
No single form existed for the breeching ceremony. Family and friends present, the little boy would make an appearance in his dress, then be led away behind a screen or to another room to change, with assistance, into his first set of distinctive male clothing. In some cases a barber might be present to give him his first masculine haircut. The shorn curls might be given to attendees as mementoes of the event.
Refreshments would be served when the newly minted young man returned in his new clothes. Well-wishers might slip coins or banknotes into his pockets as they congratulated him on his new status.
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.)
At the end of the 1700s upper and middle class boys typically wore a skeleton suit after they were breeched and would continue in these garments until around the age of 11. These suits featured a high button waist, long pantaloons, rather than the knee breeches worn by older men, and jackets adorned with many buttons. A blouse with an open, often elaborate collar was worn under the jacket which might be buttoned to the pants to help hold them up. Young boys might also wear pantalettes underneath with a trim or frills showing at the ankles.
Skeletons suits were cut close to the body but with far more ease in the cut than the skin tight breeches and coats worn by men. Thus, though boys today would likely find them very uncomfortable, boys of the era would consider them neither tight nor constricting.
The blouses for the suits were typically white and made of linen or cotton. For every day wear, the pants and jackets might be made of yellow-brown nankeen or other sturdy washable fabrics. Into the 19th century, improved dyeing techniques allowed fabrics to be more colorfast, thus more colorful skeleton suits appeared. During the Regency, dark blue was a favorite color, especially for more formal suits made of silks or velvet.
On special occasions, boys might wear a round straw hat with a brim, and a wide ribbon band or a military style cap. Colorful sashes might also be added to the skeleton suits, tied in large poufy bows around the waist or over the shoulder. To finish their ensemble, boys would wear plain white stockings and flat shoes with a single strap over the instep, typically in black.
Little boys were permitted more latitude in their dress than adult men, particularly when out of the public eye. At times they were permitted to go without the jacket, presumably with some other mechanism to help hold up their pants. Some sources suggest some suits had midcalf length trousers and short or no sleeves. These were likely reserved for country wear, especially during warmer weather. It is also possible that in summer, skeleton suits might be worn without a shirt at all on very informal occasions.
A fashion conscious mother could keep up with trends in children’s clothing starting in a 1779 edition of the Lady’s Magazine, which devoted a small section to children’s clothes. These fashion plates started with girls’ clothes only, but by the Regency, boy’s clothes were included as well, since the same seamstresses who made ladies’ clothes also made little boy’s clothes. Children’s fashion illustrations did not appear frequently though. This irregularity had the effect of slowing the pace of change of children’s clothing, since there were fewer references available for new designs.
By 1840, skeleton suits were considered old fashioned and fell out of favor. However, their popularity as children’s wear influenced men’s fashion in the following years. Since the boys who wore skeleton suits did not associate long trousers with working class garb as their fathers did, but rather with comfortable clothing for both casual and formal wear, when they came of age, they did not want to trade in their comfortable trousers for the skin tight, restrictive knee breeches their fathers wore. So trousers rose in status and esteem, and breeches slowly fell out of fashion.
Public domain images via Wikimedia Commons
“A Lady of Distinction,” Regency Etiquette, the Mirror of Graces (1811). R.L. Shep Publications (1997)
Barreto, Cristina and Lancaster, Martin. Napoleon and the Empire of Fashion. Skira (2010)
Brooke, Iris. English Children’s Costume 1775-1920. Dover Publications Inc. (2003)
Davidoff, Leonore and Hall, Catherine. Family Fortunes: Men and Women of the English Middle Class 1780-1850. Routledge (2002)
Dickens, Charles. Sketches by Boz (1838-39)
Kane, Kathryn. “Of Hanging Sleeves and Leading Strings,” Regency Redingote. January 20, 2012
Kane, Kathryn. “Regency Baby Clothes: Blue for Boys, ??? for Girls,” Regency Redingote. June 8 2012
Kane, Kathryn. “Boy to Man: The Breeching Ceremony,” Regency Redingote. August 31, 2012
Kane, Kathryn. “Portent of Pantaloons: The Skeleton Suit,” Regency Redingote. April 27, 2012
Kelly, Ian. Beau Brummell, The Ultimate Man of Style. Free Press (2006)
Sanborn, Vic. “The well-dressed Regency boy wore a skeleton suit,” Jane Austen’s World. August 17, 2009
Selbie, Robert. The Anatomy of Costume. Crescent Books (1977)
Selwyn, David. Jane Austen and Children. Continuum Books (2010)
Shoemaker, Robert B. Gender in English Society 1650-1850. Pearson Education Limited (1998)
Though Maria Grace has been writing fiction since she was 10 years old, those early efforts happily reside in a file drawer and are unlikely to see the light of day again, for which many are grateful. She has one husband, two graduate degrees and two black belts, three sons, four undergraduate majors, five nieces, six cats, seven Regency-era fiction projects, and notes for eight more writing projects in progress. To round out the list, she cooks for nine in order to accommodate the growing boys and usually makes 10 meals at a time so she only cooks twice a month.
Connect with her by e-mail at author [dot] MariaGrace [at] gmail [dot] com, Facebook at facebook.com/AuthorMariaGrace, Amazon at amazon.com/author/mariagrace, her website Random Bits of Fascination, and Twitter @WriteMariaGrace.