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Children's Fashion in the 20th Century

By Nathalie Lampron

Before the 19th century children were dressed like miniature adults, in similar styles and fabrics. From the 1800s onward, however, the rise of new ideas about childhood prompted the appearance of clothing styles specifically for children, quite distinct from adult fashions. Such clothing was inspired by prevailing adult fashions, but did not directly copying them. Only very recently, in the last decades of the 20th century, have some fashions in children's clothing begun to follow adult styles once again.

Girl or boy?

Through the first decade of the 20th century, young boys wore dresses until the age of 5 or 6. Some families continued this practice until about 1940. Over the course of the century, boys made the transition to pants at a progressively earlier age, eventually not wearing dresses at all. Boys were dressed as "little men," in knee-length or shorter trousers. This trend toward distinguishing gender right from birth, using clothing styles and colours, picked up momentum over the last hundred years.

The 20th century saw a growing emphasis on the gendering of children's clothing. In the 1920s, pink and blue began to be associated with girls and boys, respectively. This custom took 30 more years to become firmly entrenched. At the same time, while dresses for little boys were losing popularity, bloomers for girls (worn under dresses) were gaining ground.

Popular costumes

Sailor suits, rompers, overalls and school uniforms were part of the wardrobe for many children in the early 20th century. From around 1870 until the 1940s, boys aged 8 to 15 were often dressed in sailor suits inspired by British sailors' uniforms. Girls also wore similar fashions, from the 1880s onward. The style was imported from England and remained a classic in one form or another throughout the 20th century.

New and revolutionary one-piece rompers and playsuits became popular in the early decades of the 20th century. Growing recognition of the importance of play in child development and the freedom of movement it required made infant dresses seem restrictive.

Overalls were introduced very early in the 20th century, first for boys and soon after for girls. After the Second World War, they became a wardrobe staple for both boys and girls.

Up until the 1960s, many schools, even public ones, encouraged their students to wear uniforms. A navy blue tunic was often suggested for girls, and grey or navy trousers, a dress shirt and sometimes a tie for boys. Over the past 30 years, however, there has been a trend away from uniforms in public elementary schools, though they are still worn in private schools.

The fabrics

White cotton in a variety of weights and weaves was the most popular choice for both boys' and girls' clothing in the 19th and early 20th centuries. This fabric was seen as practicalbecause it could withstand the aggressive laundering techniques of the period and looked neat when starched and pressed.

By the 1960s, children's clothing reflected the latest advances in fibre and fabric technology. The new synthetic fibres, first nylon, then polyester, spandex and an ever-larger variety of blended and knit fabrics, were enthusiastically adopted for their comfort and easy maintenance. Dye and fabric technology now allowed frequent laundering without fading or the need for starching and pressing.

The variety and number of clothes worn by children today would surely have been the envy of children from the first half of the 20th century, most of whom owned much smaller wardrobes. They had school clothes, play clothes and "good" clothes, the latter always worn with hats and gloves. Often, they had just one outfit for each occasion!


Source: "Growing Up in Montreal" Exhibition Texts, 2004-2007


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