Boys Garments: 1850s Dresses

Romantic influences began to appear in the details of women's clothing after 1820. The waistline went from the "Empire" style back to its natural location. The Grecian gown gave way to a bell-shaped skirt, which became progressively more voluminous with each decade, until, by the 1850s, hoops or crinolines were once again used to support them. Mothers ion the 1850s were in charge of the children, especially the girls and the boys that had not yet been breeched.

Dress Styles

Children's dresses like their mothers grew increasingly elaborate by the 1850s. Women's and children's clothing saw a tremendous surge towards excess by the 1850s. Women's fashions, skirts widened so that wire frames had to be used for support. The skirts were also held out by crinolines. Massive skirts sported flounces, laces, ribbons, or any variety of other often gaudy trimmings. The dressing of children was fully in a mother's, thus this taste for high ornamentation couldn't help but spill over into children's clothing.

Children's Dresses

The dresses worn by young boys and girls commonly had dresses with low necklines. es. Some girls like their mothers wore voluminous skirts with flouncy pantalettes. We know that boys like their sisters wore the styles with low neck lines. We have less evidence that they wore the voluminous skirts with crinolines like their sisters. Here our evidence is very limited. Photography is becoming more common in the 1850s, but the number of available images is still limited. Some photographs from the 1860s suggest that there were some boys wearing these voluminous skirts. We do not know if styles for boys and girls varied here to any extent. We see no evidence that they did.

Children's Fashions

At least one contemporary figure, Sara Josepha Hale, during her 50 year tenure as Editress of the Ladies' Magazine (1828-36) and Godey's Lady's Book (1837-1877), often called for simplicity and comfort in selecting clothing suitable for infants. "They are not puppets," she pointed out in July 1850, "made for the display of fine clothes; or Paris dolls to be tricked out in the extravagance of latest fashion". Mrs. Hale was an apt champion for infants beleaguered by fashion excesses. Widowed young, she raised her five children single-handed. Her experience with her own children convinced her that simple, loose gowns of finest quality, soft fabrics such as linen lawn, dimity and cambric were best for delicate young skin. She freely shared her expertise with others, in the Lady's Book and in other books she authored, such as The Nursery B asket, a highly regarded manual for new mothers which dealt with the care of infants. Nor was Sara Hale particularly shy in sharing her disdain for those who inappropriately dressed infants: "How much happier are the little careless creatures for being decked like so many opera dancers," she asks in March of 1851, "with velvet cloaks and voluminous ruffles, gaiters that chill their delicate feet and satin bonnets that do not even shield their faces?"

Popular Trends

Though she let experience and considerable good sense guide her, Sara Hale was not blind to popular taste or a stranger to the habits of pride-filled mammas. The prevailing fashions of the day definitely were not on her side. The frilled, flounced and furbelowed 1850s grew more ornate with each passing day and even the littlest humans were as loaded with rib bons, bows, embroidery and lace as any Parisian belle.

Figure 4.--The sons of Alfred Lord Tennyson, like other boys, were out fitted in dresses as younger boys. Afterwards they mostly wore tunics. Short hair was the norm for most boys, but children raised and schooled at home might wear elaborate outfits and long hair, even as older boys. Click on the image for details on the Tennyson family. This 1857 photograph was taken by Julia Cameron. Other photographs of the children were taken by Lewis Carol.


So, she continued to wage a very ladylike war on the overabundance of decorations for infant's clothing. According to Mrs. Hale, "A large pattern of embroidery, is not suited for an infant's slip, neither are wide ruffles, nor a coarse pattern of lace... Rich embroidery and Valenciennes lace cannot make the little creatures a jot more comfortable or heighten beauties which are visible only to the eye of nurse and mamma..." To aid her in the campaign, she sometimes enlisted other acknowledged experts such as Mrs. Tuthill (author of the Nursery Book for Young Mothers) who scolds, "It is bad enough, in all conscience to pervert the mind and character of girls, and render them dressed up bundles of vanity, but boys --boys who are to become men--it is shocking! Of all weaknesses in a man, what is more despicable than an inordinate love of dress, added to an exorbitant desire for admiration of self...?" Should mothers not heed the warning, Mrs. Tuthill predicts dire consequences: "If you make him a peacock now, there is much reason to apprehend that he will never become an eagle." Unfortunately for many city bred infants, Mrs. Hale's was generally an unsupported voice. While she continued to plead with mothers that their precious infants should not be regarded "as little machines made for the express purpose of carrying laces and long clothes," other women's magazines of the day, such as Peterson's did not take up the cause.

Print Dress

We notice girls wearing print dresses in the 1850s. A good example is an unidentified American girl wearing a print dress in 1855. We are not sure, but we think it was less common for boys not yet breeched to wear print dress. We think solid colored dresses were probanly more common.


Little boys continued to be outfitted in dresses. Some of these dresses were very plain. The long styled dresses of the early 19th century had disappeared. Boys and girls continued to wear pantalettes to modestly cover their legs as by the 1840s and 50s shorter dresses were being worn than at the beginning of the century. There appears to have been some differences in the panalettes worn by girls and boys. The boys could wear quite plain ones while those for girls could be quite frilly. This is one the indicators that can help determine gender in unidentified images. However, it is not definitive as boys can be found in lacey pantalettes, it was just not as common as for the girls.

Women's and Girl's Fashions

After the early 19th century, girls and women gradually lost the graceful frredom of the elegant, light Empire dress. Gradually women and even little girls were put into more and more restrictive garments. As girls got older stays and then corsets were added. Trussed up with bustles, bows, and bonnets, many girls must have found any kind of active life style difficult. Dress reformers fueded with fashion arbiters on the pages of important fashion and ladies magazines. The most famous proponent of dress reform was of course Amelia Bloomer who argued for sensible dress and her famous bloomers. While the debate raged on, in the poular mind it was fashion that won the day. Amelia and her bloomers were made a laughing stock by editorial writers and the public at large. Well-bread little girls suffered for the rest of the decade as they had to wear restrictive dresses totally insuitable for children. On this regards it was often well-bread little girls from affluent families that suffered the most as they wre under te greatest presure to follow te dictates of fashion. Amelia's bloomers never really disappeared. they became the primary gum uniform for American girls. Younger boys wore above-the-kneer bloomer knickers under their tunics and Buster Brown suits. They probably also were the insporation for the boys' romper suits of the 20th century.


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Creaed: November 27, 2001
Last updated: 2:23 AM 1/4/2007