Histories of the Victorian era are rich with descriptions of men's exploits and accomplishments. Ironically, we know considerably less about the private, individual experience of being male. The personal meaning of masculinity as it was defined during the 19th century has attracted little scrutiny compared with the amount of scholarship devoted to Victorian concepts of women's roles. By examining men's and boys' fashions during the period, we can begin to understand the social conventions that guided them, the limits of their self-expression, the expectations that they faced, and can gain some insight into the structure and flavor of their lives.
The last two decades of the 19th century were years of tremendous change in American men's and boys' fashions. While these changes were related, they did not appear at the same time, nor did they proceed at the same rate.
Men's clothing had been undergoing a very gradual evolution from colorful, individualistic and expressive to drab, conformist and utilitarian, an evolution which costume historians trace as far back as the 17th century Puritan styles in England.1 The acceptance of the sack suit for everyday business dress, accomplished during the 1880s, was a final act in a drama which had been playing out for at least two hundred years.
Boys' clothing, in contrast, was a recent invention; until the middle of the 18th century, children past toddlerhood had dressed like adults. Boys' clothing in the 19th century comprised a distinct category of fashion, reflecting the vogue in women's clothing, but following rules which were unique to boys.
Infants -- male and female alike - wore long white dresses until they were old enough to walk. The dresses were then shortened, but white remained the predominant color. Little, if any, distinction was made between the clothing of boys and girls until they were three or four years old.
At that point, they began to diverge, with girls continuing to wear dresses which were quite similar to women's clothing and boys wearing styles influenced by women's trends but unique to boys. These tended to be rather fanciful -- pleated skirts with braid-trimmed jacket, velvet suits with collars and trims borrowed from men's styles of earlier times, and other styles "effeminate" to modern eyes, but signifying nascent masculinity to Victorian parents. The Balmoral-inspired kilt suits worn by the Royal Family were widely imitated in England and America from the 1840s through the 1890s, for example.2
In the 1880s, when the business suit was finally gaining wide acceptance for men, the convention of elaborate, picturesque dress for boy showed no signs of waning. If anything, it seems to have reached its pinnacle.
If these practical considerations had not been sufficient to replace the older, occasion-specific styles with the sack suit for business dress, there was also the considerable influence of popular humor. During the 1880s, weekly humor magazines such as Puck, Judge, and Life, published dozens of cartoons featuring foolish, foppish creatures known as "dudes" (a corrupted form of the German word for "blockhead"). Dudes were instantly identifiable by their dress, which included monocles, walking sticks and fastidiously correct occasion-specific suits. No dude ever wore a sack suit. Cartoons rarely appeared which ridiculed a man for wearing a sack suit. In fact, in a study of thirty years of cartoons from those three sources (1880-1910), only one cartoon even mentioned the popular new business style.6 In it, a stern looking spinster is admonishing a handsome young man, "Do you intend to pay a visit to my niece wearing a business suit?" To which the young man jauntily replies, "Well, I mean business."
Clearly, the business suit was well-established as the uniform of the go-getter, the man of the new century, and the older styles were rapidly being identified with dudes, politicians, and members of the genteel poor, such as college professors and clergymen.
At the same time that American men were making this transformation, their sons and younger brothers were being measured for Little Lord Fauntleroy suits. This was an interesting case of life imitating art imitating life, for the cavalier-style velvet suit associated with. little Cedric Errol was based in turn on clothing actually worn by the sons of Fauntleroy's author, Frances Hodgson Burnett.
Burnett was born in Manchester, England, in 1849 and emigrated to the United States with her family at the age of 16. Her marriage to Swan Burnett produced two sons but little happiness. She published several works before Little Lord Fauntleroy, most notably That Lass O'Lowries, her first big success.
She developed a passion for aesthetic dress and decor around the time of Oscar Wilde's 1880 visit to Washington, D.C., where she was living at the time.8 Society columns frequently remarked on her weakness for picturesque clothing and younger men; a New York Times theatre columnist commented wryly about her "vivid silk Kate Greenaway dress and her army of young men."9 Her passion for fanciful dress extended to that of her sons, as well, though not beyond the existing bounds of fashion, according to her son Vivian, who wrote a biography of Burnett in 1927. His mother had been repeatedly criticized for "decorating her parlor with her sons," an accusation Vivian denies.10
In fact, the velvet suits worn by Vivian and his older brother were similar to dressy outfits which had been acceptable fashions for middle-class boys for at least a generation. Peterson's Magazine described the following outfit in 1865, more than 20 years before Little Lord Fauntleroy was published: "A little boy's knickerbocker suit of black velvet. It is trimmed with fur and fastened at the waist with a belt of leather. Black velvet cap".11
Or consider this "Scotch style described in Godeys Lady Book and Magazine 1870: Short pleated skirt striped silk poplin. Jacket of gros grain with square-cut basques black braid trim. Full cambric shirtno waistcoat."12
During the 1880s, l7th-century-style suits in black velvet (also called cavalier suits) were among the most popular styles for boys from the ages of four to seven or eight. The practice of postponing the first haircut as long as possible added to the "cavalier" effect. For these reasons, it is probably accurate to say that thousands of American boys were dressing like Little Lord Fauntleroy several years before the story was published. Certainly one was; an 1885 photograph of Vivian Burnett in his velvet cavalier suit was sent to illustrator Reginald Birch as a model for his drawings of Cedric Errol.13
Little Lord Fauntleroy was originally published as a serial in St. Nicholas, a children's magazine, in 1886; a book version appeared the same year. Briefly, it is a tale of an American boy, Cedric Errol, and his widowed mother, who are summoned to England so that Cedric may meet his paternal grandfather and take his rightful place as Lord Fauntleroy, heir to his grandfather's estate. The old Earl dislikes Americans and refuses to meet his daughter-in-law, insisting that the boy live with him, apart from his beloved mother. Gradually, the Earl discovers that Cedric is a courageous, chivalrous boy with a strong sense of right and duty -- due mainly to the influence of his American mother, who is finally allowed to rejoin Cedric and enjoy the love and respect of her father-in-law.
Cedric's appearance is important to the story, as it is an outward sign of his own natural nobility, as well as his mother's efforts to raise him as a gentleman, despite her straitened circumstances. We first meet seven-year-old Cedric running breathlessly down the New York streets, described in the words of a devoted servant: "An' ivvery man, woman and child lookin' afther him in his bit of black velvet skirt made out of the misthress's ould gound."14.
Later, Cedric wins a footrace wearing a summer suit of cream-colored flannel with a red sash, his long golden locks streaming behind him. In this way, Burnett introduces Cedric as princely yet every inch an active, energetic boy. There is no conflict between his appearance and his character; Cedric is no dude in miniature.
The serialized story and the book were a huge success, eventually being translated into twelve languages and selling over a million copies in English alone.15 By 1893, Little Lord Fauntleroy could be found on the shelves of 72 percent of America's public libraries, second only to Ben Hur.16
An important factor in the book's popularity was the stage adaptation, which brought the story to life for audiences in England as well as in the United States. Burnett wrote the play herself, and made a considerable amount of money from the venture, despite a disagreement with her publisher and producer over who controlled a property which the New York Times called "more valuable than any other on the American stage."17 The play opened in London in May 1888, previewed in Boston the following September and moved to Broadway in December of 1888.18 A New York reviewer wrote, after seeing the preview, "As an ideal picture of childlife as 'Little Lord Fauntleroy' has never been sup-posed."19 Of child actress Elsie Leslie, the first of many females to portray Cedric, another reviewer wrote, "She is a lovely figure in Cedric's dainty costumes and her photograph in character will be in the shop windows before too long." The same writer continued, "Every mother will like the pretty play, the children will be taken to see it, and few fathers will object to it."20
Many children were indeed taken to see it; most audiences included large numbers of children, a phenomenon that more than one reviewer noted. "Little Lord Fauntleroy" was claimed to be the first play written for children and the first to make extensive use of child actors, for Cedric's was not the only juvenile part.21 By the spring of 1889, the "Fauntleroy" mania had spread throughout the country. In June, there were two New York productions, three companies in Boston and two in Chicago, in addition to at least a dozen more touring companies. Eventually "Little Lord Fauntleroy" played for nearly four years in New York and two years in London.22
The Fauntleroy suit enjoyed its greatest popularity in the fall and winter of 1889-90, after the play had reached audiences all over the country. Godey's Lady's Book and Magazine provides a very good description of the style: "For small boys nothing has met with such universal favor as the Fauntleroy suit. It certainly is the most attractive seen for some time. It is usually made of black velvet or velveteen, with a broad collar and cuffs of Irish point lace, with a sash of silk passed broadly around the waist and knotted on one side."23
Peterson's Magazine showed another version in February 1890, this time in green velvet.24 Fauntleroy suits continued to appear for several years after, although, by fall 1890, they were listed last, after middy suits and Norfolk jackets. They were usually described as being suitable for boys from three to eight years of age, and were definitely intended for dressy occasions, Cedric Errol's footraces notwithstanding.
Eventually, the Fauntleroy craze sub sided, and boys' fashions began to rapidly undergo a change which echoed that which had occurred in men's dress, only much more rapid. Skirted styles for preschool-aged boys fell into disuse, as boys were put into knee breeches at an earlier age than before. The sailor suit, paired either with knickers or long trousers, won favor with many families, to such an extent that by the turn of the century, girls' versions were available.25 Did the Fauntleroy suit, with its popularity occurring when it did, postpone this revolution by a few years -- or accelerate it?
The Fauntleroy suit was not really "universally favored", as Godey's claimed. The boys of America had not been polled, nor had their fathers. Newspapers carried occasional, unsubstantiated rumors of boys deliberately ruining their velvet finery. There is even one story, possibly apocryphal, of an 8-year-old in Iowa who burned down the family barn to protest his mother buying him a Little Lord Fauntleroy suit.26 When the New York Times polled 400 boys in 1895 about the best books for children, the list included Ivanhoe, The Three Musketeers and several works by Dickens -- but no Frances Hodgson Burnett, despite the thousands of copies of Little Lord Fauntleroy which had been sold.27
Perhaps even more telling is the fate of Little Lord Fauntleroy, when the boys of 1888 reached manhood. Plucky, manly Little Lord Fauntleroy became transformed into a sissy, "chiefly made up of wardrobe and manners", according to Burnett's biographer F.L. Potter.28 Cedric's name became synonymous with a pretty, effeminate mamma's boy. (Perhaps it did not help that in stage and film versions of the story, Cedric was almost always portrayed by a girl or a woman.)
The Fauntleroy suit also underwent an interesting change in definition. In 1889, the name denoted a very specific style, made of velvet and distinguished by a lace VanDyke collar and a broad sash. By 1910, the term was used to describe velvet suits in general, and eventually became a generic label for dressy boys' suits with fancy collars. Conducting interviews with elderly men just a few years ago, I found that some referred to fancy sailor suits of the World War I era as "Fauntleroy suits" (in one case, "those damn Fauntleroy suits").29 What seems to have happened was that the Burnett character and the clothes he inspired provided a focal point for the rejection of picturesque clothing for boys, in the same way that the dude helped bring about the demise of occasion-specific dress for men. There was one important distinction between Little Lord Fauntleroy and the dude: their creators' intentions. The dude was a ridiculous stereotype of the fashionable man from the very start. In contrast, Frances Hodgson Burnett -- and, evidently, many of her readers -- saw Cedric Errol as an ideal: the perfect son. The fans of the book and the play appear to have been predominantly female, and small wonder. Little Lord Fauntleroy is very much the story of a boy's devotion to his mother and the power of a mother's influence on her child. It was mothers, according to the press, who brought their children to see the play, and mothers who created velvet suits for their own sons.
The 1880s also witnessed what seems at first to be a minor trend in history -- the return of Father to the nursery. After two generations of women's domination of the home, the opinions and influence of the father once more grew in importance, especially when they concerned the raising of boys. Articles on boys' fashions began to take into account fathers' preferences, beyond considerations of economy. An 1887 article in Godey's advocated the sailor suit for boys of four or five years, as opposed to the kilt suit, which "father and boy dislike."30 Laury MacHenry, in Ladies' Home Journal, took a mother to task for over-dressing her three-year-old, but included the father in her criticism as well, for he should have restrained the mother.31
With their own sartorial questions settled with the acceptance of the business suit, men may have understood more clearly than women what to make of boys' clothing in the coming century. The Fauntleroy craze, which at an earlier time would have been just one more brief fashion, was instead the last straw. Unknowingly, Frances Hodgson Burnett may have provided the catalyst which translated the new image of American man into the new, more masculine image of the American boy.
2 Jo B. Paoletti and Carol L. Kregloh, "The Children's Department," in Men and Women: Dressing the Part, ed. Claudia Brush Kidwell and Valerie Steele (Washington, D.C.: Smithsonian Institution Press, 1989), pp.29-34.
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