Randal William: A Virginia Boy in the 1880s

Figure 1.--Randal is pictured here at about age 1 in his white baby dress. This looks like te standard baby dress worn by boys and girls in the late 19th century.

When I was a child many years ago, my parents used to drop me off at my grandmother’s house on weekends when they needed a break from parenting. Grandmother (or “Bama” as I called her) lived in a turn-of-the-century Victorian home with lots of history in it and many rooms to explore. On one occasion, I came across a box of old photographs stashed away somewhere which showed my grandmother and grandfather along with other old photo and Daguerreotypes of the family. In the collection, I saw some pictures of a very pretty young girl whom I had never heard my family talking about. I took the box down to Bama and showed her the pictures.” Lawd,” she said, "those are pictures of your grandfather. You see, back in those days most little boys and girls were dressed the same way until school. It was just the fashion.

At the time I had no idea that boys ever wore dresses. But I grandmother had said that his mother put him in dresses until he was 6 or 7 years old and kept his hair long, often curled in ringlets. I noted this with curiosity; after all, in my Winnie the Pooh books, Christopher Robin wore “dresses” (I think they were smocks) and had bobbed long hair. When I recently came across the HBC site, it reminded me of granddad’s pictures and it occurred to me that viewers might find his story interesting. So in this essay, I provide some details of his life and include some photos which portray his fashions.

HBC Note

It was quite common for younger boys to wear dresses at the time, especially boys from wealthy families with fashion conscious mothers. Most boys were breeched at about 4 or in the 1880s commonly 5 years of age, but still wearing dresses at 6 was not terribly unusual, some boys wore dresses and kilts to anever older age. His mother insisted on dressing him in the latest fashionsof the day. Since he was the first son, she doted on him.

Family Background

My grandfather came from a well-to-do Virginia family. His father Emil, my great grandfather, had emigrated from Germany (actually Baden) to the United States in the early 1860s. At the age of 14, he had jumped a ship bound for America and worked for his passage across the ocean as an assistant in the ship's galley, where he served as a baker’s apprentice. Evidently he set out only with the names of one or two family relations. He made his way to western Virginia, where he settled near Lynchburg. Whether due to business sense, luck, or some combination of the two, he started a mercantile business that soon became very profitable-a kind of classic Horatio Alger story. A rather wealthy man by his early 30s, he courted and married Cynthia Hutchins, who came from a landed, upper class Virginia family. She was a member of the "first family of Virginia,” those who traced their lineage back to the founders of the Virginia Colony.

Cynthia was evidently a beautiful and vivacious young woman--witty, cultured, and full of fun. Great grandfather, on the other hand, was a stern, reserved and dour man who put all his energy into the development of the business. Cynthia was more a social butterfly, quite socially active, and probably secretly looked down on my great grandfather’s humble past. A story handed down in the family has it that while great grandfather was a “beer” person, she was a “wine” person. They were obviously mismatched, but in the Victorian era one generally got married for life; divorce, if it existed, was sub rosa. Great grandmother had a big house and a number of servants--including a nanny and tutor for my grandfather. She loved to entertain and liked to have people around her all of the time-definitely an extravert. Most of her attention was spent on fashion, giving and going to house parties, and of course, on her son.

My hunch is that she took the emotional energy that would otherwise have been invested in her husband and transferred it to her son, of whom she was quite possessive and protective. Elsewhere on the site I have written about the influence of the times on the relationships between mothers and sons and how the mother’s psychological and emotional makeup may have influenced their tendency to dress their boys as girls.

My Grandfather

Randal William, my grandfather, was the first child and only boy in the family, with two younger sisters. He was born in the early 1880s, and as a boy he wore dresses and long hair until he was breeched at about 6 years of age. His mother Cynthia was very fashion conscious and insisted on dressing him and his sisters in what she considered the highest fashions of the time. With servants, she had plenty of time to plan and attend parties, make social visits, and attend to the details of my grandfather’s dress.

Randall was her firstborn and she doted on him. According to family lore, she loved to have the latest fashions made for him and for herself. His clothes took up two large closets in the bedroom, including some, which were purchased but never worn. He wore different outfits every day, usually dressed by his nanny, but his mother insisted on doing his hair herself. Evidently she and her husband had “words” about his hair length. Great grandfather wanted it to be cut at about age three, but great grandmother insisted so strongly that it not be cut at all that he finally gave up. Grandmother recalled that Randal was not allowed to play outdoors much as a child, especially as during that time various epidemics were occurring and Cynthia hoped to avoid illness by keeping him indoors.

Figure 2.--Randal is pictured here at about age 1 1/2 - 2 years of age. He is with his parent's and wear a white child's dress. There are no boyish touches to this dress, although boy dresses had begun to appear.


My grandfather wore many different types of dresses and hairstyles, though from the photos it appears that his mother styled him in both natural hair (which was at least partly curly) and in ringlets. The fact that his mother refused to let his hair be cut is shown in the photos, where it appears that his hair grew progressively longer, especially the last photo in the swing, where his hair seems longer than most other boys at his age. From the photos, it is evident that his mother liked white dresses, which were common for children of both genders at the time. The exceptions are the Fauntleroy dress and the light, but unknown color play dress. There are some ribbons and other trim, but the black and white photography of the day does not offer any clues about what colors were used.

Baby dress

HBC notes that the author’s grandfather wore long white dresses from a very early age. The baby dress looks quite similar to the ones generally worn in the late 19th century. Such baby dresses were very popular for younger children. The dresses used by rich families could be very fancy, but even families of modest means would dress children in these dresses, albeit less fancy than the one shown here. One photograph taken about age 1 shows Randal in a long white baby dress. Details of the dress are not clear, but it does appear to have a lace collar. It has long sleeves and there is lace trim at the hem.

Randal even at that age he had long naturally curly hair. His mother must have considered doing his hair in ringlets at a very early age. Ringlet curls became enormously popular after the publication of Little Lord Fauntleroy in 1885, but some mothers curled their sons' hair well before Mrs. Burnett published the book.

Fancy child's dress

A photograph taken at 1 1/2 to 2 years shows him in another white dress, this one a fancy child's dress. It has a low waist tied with a ribbon, either white or a light-colored pastel. Unfortunately in these old photographs, color can not be discerned. A light blue ribbon would seem likely, but a white ribbon is not impossible. Note that the modern color conventions of blue for boys and pink for girls were not well established in the late 19th century. Some fashion writers of the time even suggested pink for boys. Randal wears short socks and white strap shoes. The sleeves come below the elbows and have double ruffled flounces. The hem is cut into little "v's." I think such hem work was customary on girls' dresses, but less common on the dresses that had begun to be marketed as boys' dresses. There are in fact no boyish touches to this dress. It could just as easily been worn by a girl. The low-waisted dress was a popular style for girls in this era. In the fashion magazines this was referred to as a "Princess style dress". As in this case, it was frequently worn with a hairbow matching the ribbon sash.

Figure 3.--Randal at about 3-4 years is wearing a very plain dress or smock. This presumably was a typical play dress. Notice the hairbow. Also notice how he is similing. So many of these photographs contrasrt with the often glumb dimenor in so many late 19th century portraits.

It is not apparent from the photograph if Randal is wearing pantalettes. The pantalettes widely worn earlier in the century had not yet fully disappeared, although they were much less common by the 1880s and no longer worn to show as was once the convention. The photograph does, however, suggest that he might be wearing them. No information is available from the author’s family lore on this topic. Given the dresses that his great grandmother selected, however, it seems likely that she may have chosen pantalettes as well.

Randal is wearing white three-quarter length socks with white strap shoes--apparently with little colored poms. Long stockings were commonly worn by children in the late 19th century in America. Until close to the turn of the century it was unusual to see children with bare legs wearing socks, except for very young children, both girls and boys who had not yet been breeched.

Randal is pictured with his mother and father, all of whom are smiling--unusual in an old photograph. (It was partly because they had to hold still due to the slow emulsions and resulting long exposures. But since they were a quite wealthy family, they may have had access to the latest equipment.) They certainly seem to pose as a happy, “ideal” 19th century family.

My grandmother recalled from her family stories the circumstances surrounding this picture. They had traveled to Richmond at Cynthia’s insistence to “present” young Randal to relatives. She convinced her husband to have a family picture made at the finest studio. But shortly before the photo was made, he insisted that Randal be changed into less “sissy” clothes-at which point Cynthia began to “throw a tantrum.” So they went ahead as planned. The smiles were put on to cover over their argument and present a “good face.” Cynthia was a stubborn woman (in spite of her public graces) and nearly always got her way in matters affecting her son.

It looks like his mother has begun to form ringlets with his long hair. This is the earliest photograph that exists with ringlets. Many children at this age may not have had sufficient hair to form ringlets, but Randal did. His mother may have also added a hairbow, or more accurately a hair ribbon, although this is unclear in the image. Hairbows were not widely worn in America, but available photographs show that they were not unusual for boys wearing ringlet and other long hair styles. Hairbows were, however, much more common in France.

Play dress

Another photograph shows the grandfather in a play dress at about 4 years of age. Most people would think that he was a girl. He wears what looks to be a very plain dress, probably a play dress. It has a high waist, contrast it to the low-waisted dress above. It is not smocked, but may be a smock rather than a dress. It appears to have a very plain collar and long sleeves with wrist cuffs without any fancy ruffles or lace. It is clearly back buttoning. There are no front buttons or belt, common features on the boy dresses which were appearing in the fashion magazines and catalogs. It is light colored but is not white. I'm not sure just what color it would be.

One of the interesting questions about boys before they were breeched is what they wore for ordinary clothes to play in during the day. Often the formal portraits show them in very fancy dresses that they certainly would not have worn around the house for play. This less formal photograph shows what one boy wore for play.

His hair has been very carefully styled. It is not done in ringlets, but hangs well below his shoulders. This is extremely long hair for a boy. I have seen it longer on some boys, but it was not very common. This photograph suggests that Randal did not normally have his hair curled. The ringlets may have just been curled occasionally for special events or to have his photograph taken. Randal in this photograph is wearing a hairbow, but it is not very visible. It does appear to be the same color as the dress.

He wears ankle socks with black, high band strap shoes. This high band style appears for the first time in the 1870s and 80s (HBC is not precisely sure when) and persists through the 1920s, even into the 1930s. It was exclusively a dressy shoe and contrasts with the plain play dress. The shoes have little bows. He is playing with what is noted as a "favorite" doll that has hair, dress, and shoes just like his. Perhaps it was his favorite because it looked so much like him--down to the shoes. It looks to be a rather expensive doll; it certainly is quite large. Available images show that boys in this era played with dolls, however, this was almost always before they were breeched. It is very rare to see a boy after breeching pictured playing with a doll. After the turn of the century photographs of boys playing with dolls become rarer, although they are often pictured with teddy bears.

He is playing with what is noted as a "favorite" doll that has hair, dress, and shoes just like his. Perhaps it was his favorite because it looked so much like him--down to the shoes. It looks to be a rather expensive doll, it certainly is quite large. Available images show that boys in this era played with dolls, however, this was almost always before they were breeched. It is very rare to see a boy after breeching pictured playing with a doll. After the turn of the century photographs of boys playing with dolls become rarer, although they are often pictured with teddy bears.

My grandmother observed that this picture looked particularly feminine. In addition to keeping Randal indoors much of the time, his mother also encouraged him in activities which were mostly feminine. She bought him dolls, tea sets, a dollhouse, and also a rocking horse, but none of the toy trucks, guns, bow and arrows, etc, which most boys had. He was also an early reader and was supplied with a number of children’s books. A rather shy and quiet child, he spent a lot of time indoors playing with toys and reading. He was also musically gifted and taught himself how to play piano at about 5. This especially pleased his mother (another thing to show off) and she bought a new grand piano and had a piano teacher in once a week for lessons. She also taught him how to sew and how to knit. While she was reading or writing letters, she would have him sit next to her and practice by sewing buttons on her dress.

Given the toys, his activities, his feminine dress (Cynthia evidently preferred girls’ styles over boys’), his hairstyles, and his relative lack of contact with other boys, it is possible to infer that Cynthia had really wanted a girl instead of a boy. Since it was socially acceptable, especially among the wealthier classes in that era, to crossdress young boys almost completely as girls at home and in public, this would not been seen as particularly unusual. Grandmother suggested that Cynthia’s aversion to the “common” class of people led her to dress Randal as she did to emphasize the family’s upper class standing. This may have been reinforced by the fact that although she had married a wealthy man, she had also married “down.” Since her marriage was evidently much less satisfactory than she had hoped, much of her affection (and control) evidently was redirected toward Randal.

By the time Randal was breeched about six, the first girl baby had been born. This may have given her another outlet for her intense feminine nurturing and reduced the pressure on Randal. And it may have decreased the intensity of the relationship between mother and son. This may also explain why she did not protest so strongly when his father finally took him to get his hair cut at age six or seven, after which she began dressing him in knickers and other more traditional boys' attire.

Figure 4.--Randal is pictured here in a Little Lord Fauntleroy dress. He is about 5 years old. This was a popular style in the 1880s for mothers that liked the Fauntleroy style, but were not ready for them to be breeched. Note the ringlets which his mother referred to as spiral curls.

Fauntleroy dress

Randal at about 5 years wears a Little Lord Fauntleroy velvet dress. Since the image is dark, I cannot tell if it is a dress or kiltsuit. It is front buttoning with a very elaborate lace collar with jagged edging and matching cuffs. It looks black, but could be a dark blue or burgundy. It is knee length and he wears dark long stockings with boots rather than the strap shoes he wore when younger. He wears his Fautleroy suit with a large flouncy tam. His carefully styled ringlet curls fall over his shoulders. My grandfather turned five about the time that Little Lord Fauntleroy was published. His mother read the book to him, was entranced by its maudlin fantasy, and decided that Randal should have Fauntleroy suits right away. Grandmother mentioned that he had several Fauntleroy suits and that he would often be dressed up in one so he could be “displayed” at his mother’s various social functions, much to the delight of the onlookers. And he often entertained the crowd by playing the piano. (This is somewhat similar to Frances Burnett and her use of her son Vivian as a subject of display at her gatherings.)

Fancy child's dress

The last photograph of Randall, in a fancy child’s dress was taken when he was 6 years old. He is pictured on a studio swing with his mother. He is now wearing what looks to be a white dress with a fancy, but not overly large collar. It looks to be a back buttoning dress. As it is all white, it is difficult to see styling details. There is fancy trim on the lower part of the long sleeves. His hair appears even longer than when he wore the Fauntleroy curls, but it is not styled into formal ringlets, He appears to be wearing a fancy hat with a plume, and he and his mother are smiling. The photograph certainly seems to be a happy event. His hair in this photograph is very long, extending well beyond his shoulders, rather unusual for an American boy and more like the French custom of the day. In this photograph it is uncurled. Interestingly, the dresses that his mother chose for Randal usually did not have the features that had begun to appear on dresses made for boys in the 1880s. However, boys did not have to wear these styles. Many dresses for younger children were simply called "children’s" dresses. The boy dresses were plainer and often had belts or front buttons. Randal’s dress had front buttons, but it is hardly plain. His mother obviously did not like the style of the dresses specially made for boys.

Boy dresses

Interestingly, the dresses that great grandmother chose for garandfather usually did not have any of thefeatures that had begun to appear on dresses made for boys in the 1880s. Boys did not have to wear these styles. Many dresses for younger children were simply called "childrens" dresses. The boy dresses were plainer and often had belts or front buttons. Only grandfather's Fauntleroy dress had front buttons, but it is hardly plain. Great grandmother obviously did not like the style of the boy dresses.


Randal's attitude

I am not sure what grandfather thought about wearing dresses. As a rather passive child dominated by a persistent mother, it is unlikely he had much say in the matter. I guess he just felt it was normal. The boys he played with came from elite families and were dressed much the same, and he had little contact with what his mother characterized as "riffraff." In addition, he had a nanny and tutor and went to public school somewhat later than normal. Thus he was isolated from interactions with “ordinary” boys and seems never to have been teased about the way his mother dressed him. And since he went to school after he was breeched, the occasion for him to be teased probably never arose


As mentioned above, he was put into pants at about 7 years of age, shortly after the above photograph was taken. He was "breeched" and had his curls cut at about the same time. When grandfather was about seven, so the story goes, his father one weekend abruptly came into the parlor and dragged him off for his first haircut. Shortly thereafter, he directed his wife to put him in pants. Family lore says she was forlorn and depressed to “lose” her "sweet little one." One question HBC has concerning breeching was whether it occurred abruptly or whether a boy continued to wear some of his dresses even after his first pair of pants. If so were the first pants play clothes or party clothes. There may well not be any one answer to this; it may have varied from family to family. Up to the time Randal was breeched, however, he does not seem to have ever worn pants, even for play

Other Outfits

Little information is available at this time on what grandfather wore after he was breeched. I think grandmother said he had worn Faunteloy suits in the early 90s, but I know of no photographs nor do I have any details. Though grandmother hovered over him, she dressed him pretty much in normal attire for the period.

Adult Life

His childhood experiences did not appear to have much of an influence on his adult life, another indication that his clothing was not viewed (at least by him) as anything exceptional. Grandfather graduated from school and went on to college (unusual for the time). This was largely his mother’s idea: “a bright mind must not be lost.” Upon graduation, he went into banking with a friend of his father’s. However, he didn't have the drive or ambition of his father, and, unlike him, viewed work as a necessity rather than a calling. He remained a vice president of a small town bank until he retired.

Father's Clothes

My Dad says he was reared in "normal" boy’s clothes-no frills. Grandfather may have insisted on it, but I do not have any details. Father wore mostly shorts and knickers, and later long pants.


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Created: November 23, 1999
Last updated: 12:11 AM 4/30/2005