As Loretta and I have described before (see here and here), little boys in the past were dressed much like their sisters, in loose-fitting frock-style garments that made diaper changes easy. Reaching the age to be "breeched" and shifting to wearing miniature versions of adult male clothing was a major milestone for 18th c. boys.
In the late 18th c., however, there was a general relaxing of children's clothing. Instead of stiff little waistcoats and breeches, boys wore a practical two-piece garment that made the transition to adult clothes a bit easier. This was called a "skeleton suit," a jacket and trousers that buttoned together at the waist for the sake of neatness and ease. The name came from the clean lines and snug fit of the suit, which gave the wearer a narrow silhouette - ostensibly like a bare-bones skeleton. Skeleton suits were often worn with a shirt with a soft, ruffled collar, and were usually made of plain wool or linen, like this one from the collection of Colonial Williamsburg.
And then there's this unusual example, left. Dating from the early years of the 19th c., this wool skeleton suit was worn by John Worthington Williams, Sr., of Wethersfield, CT. For an American boy, the suit represents the elaborate military uniforms being worn by European officers in the Napoleonic Wars. Compare the silk embroidery on John Williams's skeleton suit with that on the uniform worn by Waterloo hero General Henry William Paget, Earl of Uxbridge, lowerright. Obviously some doting parent or grandparent wanted their young future hero outfitted in the latest military style, and it's easy to imagine young John leading imaginary charges through Connecticut orchards and vegetable gardens. (As always, click on the images to enlarge them.)
This skeleton suit is part of an outstanding exhibition, Profiles: Chester County Clothing from the 1800s, currently on display at the Chester County Historical Society, West Chester, PA, and running through August 30. I highly recommend it if you're in the Philadelphia-Wilmington area (or visiting nearby Winterthur Museum to see the costumes from Downton Abbey.) This past weekend, I attended a symposium on historic clothing in conjunction with the exhibition; look for more blogs about what I heard and saw.
Left: Skeleton Suit, 1800-1830. Brown wool, cream silk embroidery. Collection of the Chester County Historical Society. Photograph copyright 2014 Susan Holloway Scott. Right: Field Marshall Henry William Paget, 1st Marquess of Anglesey, by John Hoppner & Sawrey Gilpin, 1798. National Trust Collection, Plas Newydd, Anglesey.
There’s a big difference in how we use history. But we’re equally nuts about it. To us, the everyday details of life in the past are things to talk about, ponder, make fun of -- much in the way normal people talk about their favorite reality show.
We talk about who’s wearing what and who’s sleeping with whom. We try to sort out rumor or myth from fact. We thought there must be at least three other people out there who think history’s fascinating and fun, too. This blog is for them.