Breeching Boys: The Process

Figure 1.--This boys appears to be wearing a top worn with a dress, but has been breeched because he is wearing trousers. Boys who had just been breeched might wear such mixed outfits until there mother purchased a complete new set of clothes.

HBC has acquired relatively little information on precisely what the process was for breecvhing boys, but am beginning to obtain some information on the process.

Telling the Boy

One wonders how the decission was presented to the boy. Was it the result of extensive discussions? Perhaps boys' clothes were presented to him as a surprise, perhaps on his birthday.

The New Cothes

HBC at first assumed that portraits of boys in skirted outfits and pants mean that the boy had just been breached. This may in fact be the case in many instances, but there are several other alternative possibilities. One of the questions HBC has is if many boys might for a while wear pants and skirts and what the convetions were for deciding what a boy would wear. >One of the poorly understood aspects of breeching was precisely what was done. Did the mother suddenly put away all a boy's dresses and buy boys' clothes. Or did she purchase a boy's party suit or boy's play clothes first and only gradually put away the dresses. Which was more likely to be the first pair of pants, for a dressy party suit or for play clothes. Perhaps for a short period a boy's party outfit continued to be a dress and he wore boys' clothe s for play. Little is known about the process. Probably the answer is all of the above, depending on the predelections of the mother. Some boys may have for a while wore a mixture of clothes before a complete set of new clothes were acquired. I have no personal accounts on such experiences. Some availavle images, however, do show boys in a mixture of clothes, shhowing ghat such experiences did take place. Usually the combinatiob is trousers or knee pants with a girlish looking top or blouse. Long trousers were more common at the mid-19th Century while kneepants more common in the late 19th Century. Boys wearing such mixed outfits may or may not have had their curls cut. Different mothers had varying attitudes on this. Thrift probably also affected the breeching process and the boys' new clothes beause some mothers may have wanted to get the good out of a boy's dresses before putting them away. The availability of dresses from older sisters was another factor affecting the age of breeching. Queen Victoria herself is known, for example, to have used the clothes from the older princes and princesses for the younger children In relative terms, clothes were much more expensive than is the case today.

The Event

At whatever age a boy's breeching took place, it was considered a joyous event and a sign of the child's growing manhood. Given 18th and 19th Century values, this meant a significant increase in the child's status in the home. We have, unfortunately, very few actual accounts of the event. In some homes, breeching apparas to have taken on the solemnity of an initiation rite. In other homes in may have been made in to a joyous event--rather like a birthday party. In fact, some families apparently chose birthdays for the big day.

William Hutton wrote of his breeching in the 1720s:

Being four and a half years old and dressed in my best suit, a cocked hat and walking stick my sister took me by the hand to Gilbert Bridge's for the evening milk, which in the future was to be my errand. One of his buxom daughters in a gay mood snatched off my hat...I gave her a blow with my stick; she returned the hat.
Sometimes elaborate family celebrations sometimes occured at a boy's breeching. Breeching parties are not infrequently mentioned in women's dairies and corresondence. "You cannot believe the great concerne that was in the whole family here last Wednesday, it being the day that the Taylor was to helpe to dress little Frank in his breeches in order to the making an everyday suit by it," wrote Anne, Lady North in a letter dated 1678.

At least one poem described event of a boy's breeching:

Joy to Philip, he this day
Has his long 'coats cast away,
And (the childish season gone)
Put the manly breeches on.
Sashes, frocks, to those who need'em-
Philip's limbs have got their freedom.
[Mrs. Leicester, "Going Into Breeches"]

Reader Comments

A HBC reader writes, "I was struck by the psychology of shedding clothing in such a dramatic way." HBC has no information on the psychology involved. We suspect that there were no real psychological consequences at a time that skirted garments for younger boys were quite common, but we know of know actual stufdies on this issue. We stress, however, thsat we are not dure that the breaching process was either draamatic or complete at a given timr. It may well have been thsat the boy was just bought one outfit for best and then wore out his old skirted outfits. There were also pinafores and smovcks which may hsave been worn. In fsact, we have many images, but not detailed descriptions of the breaching process.


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Created: February 15, 1999
Last updated: 3:46 PM 7/20/2004