Dating Photographs by Children’s Clothing

Posted by on Oct 25, 2013 in blog | 0 comments

Dating Photographs by Children’s Clothing

Old photos that only feature children are very common so I thought I’d write a little guide for dating photos by children’s clothing. Remember that this is not a definitive guide on children’s clothing. There will be clothing variations based on age, nationality, and income level. This article is mostly intended to point you in the right direction for further research.

Please reference my previous article on adult fashion together with this article as children’s clothing had similar silhouettes and details to adult clothing, especially in older children.

What children wore depended greatly on how old they were. Babies wore long gowns (that looked like today’s christening gowns). They gradually went out of fashion once rompers (like onesies) began to appear at the beginning of the 20th century. Unfortunately, this makes dating a photo of just a baby very difficult based only on clothing.

Until around WWI, the length of a girl’s skirt was an indicator of her age. They would be just below the knees for toddlers and gradually get longer as she aged. By the time a girl would be 16, her dress would be ankle length. But as women’s skirts got shorter in the 20th century, so did girls’ skirts, so this trend died out. Similarly, beginning in the 1850s boys’ trousers tended to get longer the older they were and by about 10 or 11 they would wear simpler versions of his father’s clothes.

1840s

Children in 1849

Children in 1849

Toddlers (and sometimes children as old as 5) wore dresses or pleated skirts with cotton long-sleeved bodices over top of cotton pantalettes (ankle-length drawers). This was regardless of the sex of the child. When his mother thought it was appropriate, a boy would then be breached, which meant he lost the dress and could wear what older boys wore. Small boys wearing dresses was seen until the 1910s.

School age boys often wore the Eaton suit. The suit consisted of a waist length jacket, trousers, round collared shirts, vest, and sometimes a tie. This style of dress was common for boys into the 20th century. Younger boys would often wear tunic suits which featured jackets fitted to the waist that flared out to a full knee length skirt worn over ankle length trousers and a collared shirt. These suits slowly faded out after WWI.

Boys during the 1840s wore long trousers that were often pleated and may have had stirrups, especially early in the decade. Jackets of varying lengths were worn by boys and long jackets often had waist seams. Flat caps usually worn by working class adults were popular on middle and upper class boys. Boater hats were also worn by boys even though they did not become fashionable for adults for several more decades.

Girls wore full, round skirts. Young girls, until around age 10, commonly wore dresses that showed their shoulders. This ended by the 1870s. This was not the only fashion as collars could be high as well. Older girls wore dresses like their mothers with full round skirts, sloping shoulders, and v-shaped waistlines. Under their skirt they wore wide ankle length pantalettes that were visible under the skirt. Girls’ hair was often worn short and parted in the center.

1850s & 1860s

Children in 1850

Children in 1850

Children in 1862

Children in 1862

By the 1850s, boys’ stirrups had disappeared and young boys were wearing calf-length short pants which got longer as they got older. They also might wear a belted hip-length blouse.

In the 1860s, boys’ shorts had wider legs and fell just below the knees. American boys might wear knickerbockers. Knickerbockers were a type of sort pants that was gathered at the knee. Front fly closures were around by this time. Bolero Jackets were also popular.

Similar to adult women’s fashion, girls skirts became more full and tiered. Bell-shaped sleeves with visible undersleeves also became fashionable.

With the invention of the crinoline in the late 1850s, girl’s skirts didn’t need the tiers to give them fullness. By the 1860s, the tiers became less common.

1870s

Fashion didn’t change much in the 1870s for boys, although they seemed to wear more double breasted jackets than they previously had.

On the other hand, things changed quite a bit for girls. Combinations replaced pantalettes. Combinations were shorter undergarments so they were not seen peeking out from under a dress like pantalettes did. Young girls were no longer wearing off the shoulder dresses. Skirts in the late 1860s and early 1870s became flatter in the front and most of the fullness was pushed to the back. Waistlines also raised slightly.

Children in 1870

Children in 1870

From 1873-1877 a large bustle was created high in the back with almost no volume at the front and sides of the skirt.

Children in 1875

Children in 1875

From 1878-1883 the bustle went away, the fullness remained at the back of the skirt but it was much lower down. Waistlines dropped very low.

Children in 1881

Children in 1881

1880s

Things pretty much stayed the same for boys in this decade with the addition Faunteroy inspired by the book Little Lord Fauntleroy by Frances Hodgson Burnett. These suits featured large lace collars.

Fauntleroy suit

Fauntleroy suit

For girls from 1883-1889, more fullness returned to the back of the skirt echoing the return of the bustle in adults. The silhouette was not as severe in girls’ dress. Waistlines began to rise again towards the end of the decade.

Boys in 1889

Boys in 1889

Children in 1886

Children in 1886

1890s-1900s

Boys clothes remained the very much the same as the previous decade. Long ties, similar to the ones men wear today, become increasingly popular for boys by 1900. Romper suits become available for very young boys.

Boys in 1898

Boys in 1898

For girls, large leg-o-mutton sleeves were popular in the 1890s. They got smaller as the decade went on. As with fashion in adult women, the bustle disappeared. Waistlines tended to be at the natural waist again. Girls commonly wore large bows in their hair and hats got big.

Girls in 1891

Girls in 1891

Like the pigeon-breasted dresses of their mothers’, girls in the 1900s bloused their tops to get a similar shape.

Girls in 1905

Girls in 1905

1910s

Children in 1910s

Children in 1910

The Fauntleroy suits went out of fashion at the end of this decade. More casual styles were available, like knits. During the war boys wore shorts even in winter. There were also a lot of military influences in the detailing of clothes during the war. After the war ended, effeminate dress for toddler boys ended as well.

The waistlines on girls dresses were dropped again and often featured a sash. Waists rose slightly by the end of the decade. Skirts became narrower and were shorter. It became acceptable for girls as old as 15 to wear skirts that fell just below the knees.

1920s

Children in the 1920s

Children in the 1920s

Even more casual styles were available in the 20s. Sweaters were very popular for both boys and girls. Boy’s trousers and knickerbockers (plus-fours) widened. Shorts were often cut above the knee.

Girls dresses continued to have a dropped waist, but without the sash from the last decade. The fit was very loose with little to no definition to the waist. Skirts continued to shorten and skirts could be cut above the knees even for teenagers towards the end of the decade. Girls’ hair was often cut short.

1930s

Children in 1936

Children in 1936

Wide legged trousers were very popular for boys in the 1930s. They often had cuffs at the bottoms. Overalls became popular play clothes for middle class children which had previously been worn by lower class boys.

Waists became more defined and returned to natural waist height for girls in the 1930s. Skirts again extended past the knees in older children, but stayed very short in the young (think Shirley Temple’s early films). Dresses and skirts were often biased cut. You may also start to see girls wearing trousers as play clothes in candid family photos. Features like puffed sleeves, ruffles, box pleats, and peter pan collars were very popular.

1940s-1950s

Details like cuffs and pleats on trousers disappeared during the war due to rationing. Boys’ shirts were often cut to give the appearance of broad shoulders. After the war jeans and t-shirts became everyday dress for boys. Western and cowboy inspired clothing was popular in the 50s.

Children in the 1940s

Children in the 1940s

Skirts shortened to the knee again for girls in the 40s. A broad shouldered look was gained with puffed sleeves, but the look was boxier than it was in the 30s. After the war girls wore full circle skirts with defined waists. It became increasingly common for girls to wear trousers for play.

Children in the 1950s

Children in the 1950s

So there you have over 100 years of children’s fashion. I hope this article, along with my other two photo dating posts help you more easily date your photographs

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