The history of clothing for European infants and children is relatively unremarkable until the last decades of the 18th century. From birth to nearly two years of age, infants (male and female) were swaddled tightly (a philosophy that, thankfully, waned in the 17th century until obsolete by the late 1700s). At that point both sexes were put into ankle-length dresses with “leading strings” attached to offer guidance while learning to walk. See images below for examples of young boys in dresses, and one toddler in a skeleton suit with leading strings.
Eventually the child was dressed in clothing similar to what adults were wearing, the difference only in the scaled down size. Until the late 18th century there was no such thing as specialized children’s clothes. Male garb in the 17th and 18th century was dominated by knee breeches and long stockings. Boys, once “breeched” at the age of 4-6 years depending on the family’s preference, wore the same garments as their fathers.
Enter the skeleton suit.
The changing philosophy to allow children freedom of movement begun with abandoning swaddling continued, the effect trickling upward to clothing for toddlers and beyond. Specialized children’s clothes become widely accepted by the 19th century, and the first garment to appear was the classic skeleton suit. Well dressed boys, i.e. those with wealth, began wearing skeleton suits about 1780. The skeleton suit (called so due to the close fit on a boy’s slender body) consisted of a jacket with rows of ornamental buttons in front ascending over the shoulders, ankle-length sailor-style trousers buttoned to and over the jacket around the waist (to hold them up), and an open neck blouse trimmed with lace or other elegant trimming. Following the Empire fashion trends of the early 1800s, the skeleton suit mimicked the high waist and was simplistically styled, in comparison to the decades before and after.
Then, in the 1820s the waistline dropped, boys’ trousers grew fuller, and puffed sleeves appeared in the leg-o’-mutton style (see right). Fashion swung from Regency moderation to as much ruffling, ribbon, ruching, embroidery, and trimming as the garment would hold. Deep frilled turned down-collars were especially elaborate for the younger boys, and lace trim on the trousers was common. Very young boys often wore skeleton suits that were a one-piece jumper, the jacket and pants combined. Hats (often of a military-style) were decked with all the bow knots they could carry. The dainty white and tinted muslins, lawns, and percales gave way to organdy, gingham, silk, velvet, and taffeta in deeper colors. Boys did not wear belts, so colorful sashes for decorative effect were sometimes added for dress occasions. Completing the skeleton suit were white stockings and flat-soled strap slippers or pumps.
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.
Skeletons suits were tailored to the body, as Dickens noted, yet cut looser than the skin-tight breeches and dual coats worn by men. A modern era youngster would find them uncomfortable, perhaps, but for a Regency child the skeleton suit was a preferred alternative. Suits worn for play were casual, sometimes without the jacket, and constructed from soft linens, muslin, nankeen, or kerseymere. When in public the suits were “dressed up” to a more adult fashion.
As time passed, and the youths reared in skeleton suits grew to adulthood, a bizarre turn around in fashion influence occurred. They did not associate long trousers with working class garb as their fathers did, but rather with comfortable clothing for both casual and formal wear. Therefore, they did not want to trade in their trousers for the skin-tight, restrictive knee breeches their fathers wore. By the 1840s trousers rose in status and esteem, became established as the principal male garment, and breeches fell out of fashion.
At the same time, the original skeleton suit faded in popularity, and by 1850 boy’s suits had evolved to practical sailor suits and elaborate Fauntleroy suits. Interestingly, the jean overalls developed for working men became the most popular fashion for boys by the turn into the 20th century, a creation inspired by the one-piece skeleton suit.
Variations in children’s clothing, in stark contrast to what adults wore, continued on from there. Never again would garments worn by anyone under the age of 15 or so be the same. In fact, fashion design and manufacturing of clothes specific for children of all ages became the standard, as it is to this day. Skeleton suits may have lasted for a mere blip on the fashion history timeline, as well as child development timeline, but no one can argue the significance to both fields.
For many more examples of skeleton suits, as well as all types of children’s garments from the Georgian and Regency Eras, visit my Pinterest Boards. One is for extant samples of clothing: CHILDRENS CLOTHING, and the other two are for period painting of children alone or children with their parents: PAINTINGS CHILDREN and/or PAINTINGS FAMILIES.