Pen Barrett Browning: Boyhood Clothes

Figure 1.--This photograph of Pen at age 9 in 1858. It is a bit difficult to make out his outfit, but it looks like a dark dress or tunic with an intricate lace collar. The large wide-brimmed hat he is holding, however, obsures the outfit. He appears to be wearing calf-length pantalettes or less likely white petticoats. He also wears very long hair carefully done up in ringlet curls and with a center part.

Elizabeth Barett Browning and Robert Browning are two of England's most noted romantic poets. Elizabeth grew up in a priviliged, wealthy family. She had 11 brothers and sisters. Her mother dressed the boys just like girls in long hair and dresses. Elizabeth was very upset when her father had the boys' hair cut. After marring Robert they had one son, Pen in Italy. Pen was the light of Elizabeth's life. She spoiled him outrageously. He was schooled at home by Elizabeth and Robert. While not interested in clothes herself, she bought elaborate expensive outfits for the boy. He was kept in dresses with the same flair as her romantic poetry even at 9 years of age and at 11 wore a tunic with lacey pantalettes. Until Elizabeth's untimely death, Pen wore long carefully curled hair. Pen did not object as a younger boy, enjoying the attention and compliments from his mother's friends. As an older boy he began to object, but with little success in the face of his strong opinionated mother who had very definite ideas on the subject.


The clothes Elizabeth chose for the boy reflected fashion trends at the mid-19th century, although there was considerable differences on how boys were dressed. Elizabeth was a doting mother and dressed her son accordingly in some of the more romantic boys' fashions of the day. We are positive at what age Pen was breached, and it is a little difficulr describing his clothes at age 11 (figure 2). One biographer points out that at the age of 11 Pen was still not not allowed to wear "boy's clothes". [HBC would have written "standard boys' clothes.] He was trucked out in white satin and ribbons, with dainty ankle socks and strapover shoes. Golden ringlets fell to his shoulders since his mother vetoed the "barbarism" of male haircuts. [Finlayson] A photograph of Pen taken in 1860, shows him with his mother at 11 years of age. He is dressed in a fancy jacket with short below the knee pants, white socks, and strap shoes. He wears long over the shoulder hair, more than 20 years before Mrs. Francis Hobson Benett launched the Fauntleroy craze in 1885-86. Robert's hair was not cut until his mother's death in July of 1861. HBC believes that it is not correct to say he was dressed as a girl as girls ould not have worn such outfits, but rather dresses. It is true that the outfits seems rather juvenile for the age. He was not the only boy dressed like this at the time, but it was certainly not very common. Mothers at the time, however, were given wide lattitude on how their children should be dressed.


Biographers of the Brownings commonly speculate that she really desired a daughter and dressed "Pen" accordingly. A recent biography of Mrs. Browing has a photograph of Pen at 9 years of age wearing a dress over with voluminous petticoats, lace trimmed pantalettes and carefully arranged long ringlets (figure 1). A biographer of Robert writes, "Browning: A Private Life' is a new biography of the poet Robert reports that Elizabeth was apparently disappointed with not having a girl and attempted to conceal Pen's gender. [Finlayson] The biographers we have read support this theory twith a description of Pen's clothes. This is usually done with 20th century sensibilities based on the fact that the clothes look girlish. It must be remembered that 1) boys were commonly wore dresses in the 19th century (although most but not had been breached by age 11), and 2) Pens clothes as shown here (figure 2) were not really girlish, but rther juvenile. We know of no written evidence in her papers suggestingthat she desired to conceal Pen's gender or that she wished he was a girl. We do not dismiss the suggestions of the various biographers, we simply point out that alluding to his clothes does not in itself prove their point.


Elizabeth carried on a regular correspondence with a friend over the years where the subject of their children's clothes are discussed. I would like to add some pasages from this correspondece to this web site and would be very interested in any copies visitors to this web site could provide. Opinions of the day varied widely from family to family and between income levels. It appears that Elizabeth friend who had several boys had very different ideas on boys' clothes. Elizabeth mentions in one of the letters that her friend's youngest son who is several years younger than Pen is already wearing tunics.

Elizabeth and Fashion

Despite her romantic poetry, Elizabeth was not a woman absorbed with fashion. Elizabeth's interest in Pen's clothes is fasinating, given her lack of interest in fashion. It was on Pen's behalf that she was most extravagant. She bought him a white felt hat with white satin ribbons and feathers and trimmings of blue, and a pair of "such ridiculous tiny trowsers up to his knees" and long white gaiters. Wilson said people turned in the street to look at her charge, to Elizabeth's gradification. apparently Pen as he got older was less pleased.

Pen's Opinions

Pen as a younger boy did not object to the clothing. He seems to have enjoyed the attention Elizabeth lavished upon him. As he got older, however. he began objecting to the dresses, pantalettes, tunics, lace collars and other rather romantic outfits Elizabeth chose for him, but he had little success in changing his mother's mind on the subject which was firmly set. As much as she endulged the boy, she did not yield on this subject.

Figure 2.--The romantic English poet Elizabeth Barring Browning pictured here in 1860 with her 11-year old son, "Pen".

Robert Objects

I have no information on how Robert was dressed as a boy. We do know, however, that as Pen got older he disagreed with the clothes Elizabeth chose for him. The two discussed every aspect of Pen's upbringing in great detail. They had had "words"--just as she had once said married people were supposed to--over how she dressed Pen. Robert thought it time that he looked more like a boy. People were always admiring his son as the prettiest of little girls and he did not like it. There were heated discussions on the issue. Elizabeth leered at him and swept aside his objections, once more repeating that it was absurd to declare some clothes for children masculine and others feminine. She argued "if you put him into a coat and waistcoat forthwith he only would look like a small angel travestied". As far as she was concerned, children of two were neither boys nor girls but "neuter." Despite his personal thoughts on the matter, it is likely that he considered the subject of Pen's clothes a matter for his wife to decide. At any rate, he did not insist on the issue, fearing that it would damage his relationship with Elizabeth, her feelings on the matter were so strong. Perhaps Robert there were more important issues. Given that they disagreed on many tpics, he may have decided that given her definite opinions on the matter--he appears to have been reluctant to question her on the issue of Pen's clothes.

Father-Son Relationship

Boys being boys, presumably Pen must have asked his father to intervene. We know Pen was very close to his mother. Less information is available on his relationship to his father, but they do appear to have been on good terms. At any rate, as a younger boy Pen's clothes were not unusual. Pen did not begin to question his mother until he was older. In fact, Pen for his part as a younger boy did not complain at all. In fact he appears to have liked the attention. Pen apparently liked his girlish dress when young, because of the attention he received from adoring adults (woman); however, as he grew older, he begin to ask, without much success, for more boyish clothes, shoes, and haircut. She relented once and allowed him to wear pants while riding his horse because otherwise he tore his "pretty clothes". I'm not sure just when he began to bring up the subject. By the time he was 11 and becoming increasingly self-conscious about his clothes, his mother's health was deteriorating. Presumably neither Pen or his father would not have done anything to disturb her at that time. I do know that right after Elizabeth's untimely death, Pen was allowed to have his hair cut and get more boyish clothes.

Contemporary children's clothing

The question arrises as to how common it was for boys to be dressed like Pen. We are of course discussing how boys from affluent families were dressed. I think it was fairly unusual, at least for boys beyond 5 or 6 years of age and especially by the time they reached 8 years of age. When Pen was a boy in the 1850s-60s, English public (private) schools had no consistent system as to when boys began school. By the 1870s-80s most had settled on admitting boys at about 13 years of age. Preparatory schools developed for younger boys, usually beginning at about 8 yearolds. (An interesting view of English preparatory schools with historical background is available in a photographic book Boys' Preparatory Schools. Thus mothers could often dress their sons with considerable lattitude, until they were sent away to their boarding preparatory schools. Boys at that age who did not conform to the standards of the other boys would be mercelessly teased. But boys who were schooled at home like Pen were kept isolated from most other children and thus the mother could outfit her son just as she saw fit. While Pen's clothes and long hair for a boy 11 years old might have been uncommon, he was not the only one to be kept in such elaborate outfits. A decade later, the sons of the great English poetlauret Alfred Lord Tenneyson were kept in long hair and child-like tunis until their teens. It is interesting to note, that while other boys might tease Pen and the Tennyson boys, other mothers did not seem to look uncritically at this practice. In fact many admired the outfits selected for the boys.


Finlayson, Ian. Browning: A Private Life (Harper Collins).

Forster, Margaret. Elizabeth Barrett Browning: A Biography.


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Created: September 11, 1998
Last updated: February 15, 2004