Dresses and Frock Suits


Figure 1.--It is common knowledge that little boys for several centuries, like this 2-year old New York boy in 1889, commonly were outfitted in dresses. Less well known is that much older boys in the late 19th century often wore dresses.

Europeans for centuries dressed little children, both boys and girls in the same styles of dresses, often referred to as petticoats. For most of this time, no special clothing existed for childrn, boys or girls. Boys when they were "breeched", were simplly dressed in smaller versions of the knee breeches and other clothes worn by their fathers. Special clothes for children appeared in the late 18th centuty with distinctive styles for boys and girls. Even so, many mothers continued to dress small boys in dresses for more than a century. This fashion also became common in America and persisted well into the 20th century.

Historical Eras

Information is available on the dresses worn by boys since the 1500s. The fashion of dressing small boys in dresses appeared at about the mid 16th century. At first the tops were more like their fathers, but by the end of the century the dresses were indistinguishable from those worn by girls. There were no specialized children's clothing at the time. And this practice continued through the late 18th Century when specialized childrens' clothes developed. Little boys continued to wear girls dresses in the varying fashion of the day. Mothers were advised to give more consideration to comfort in their children's dresses. The dresses often had low necklines and were ankle length at the beginning of the century. Boys continued wearing dresses little different than their sisters until the late 19th Century when dresses styled specifically for boys appeared, The practice of outfitting boys declined after the turn of the 20th Century, but did not finally disappear until affter World War I.

The Historical Record

This fashion is not well documented in the historical record. Much of the available information on fashion concerns adults, especially women.Details such as the age boys were "breeched"--allowed to wear mens' knee breeches, is often unclear and has to be decuced from paintings of the day. The age at which this occurred varried greatly from family to family and was up to the disgression of the mother. This appears to have been generally about 4-5 years of age. The more detailed information available on the late 19th century, shows that some boys wore dresses beyond that age, although other boys got knee pants at an earlier age. The fashion of dresses for young boys appears to have been a widespread practice throughout Europe, but have little information on many countries. Relatively little written material exists on the styles of the dresses worn by children for the 16th-18th centuries. Much of what we know has been deduced from contemporary portraits and other paintings. It is amazing to some modern observers to find when studying the contemporary portraits of children that one often cannot tell boy from girl except by name. This is because there was little differentiation in the styles of the dresses worn by girls and boys rather there seem to have been generic styles for children. We also know relatively little about what the boys of the era thought about wearing dresses. As destinctive styles for children did not exist for much of the period and the children involved were very young, it is likely that the fashion was of less concern to the boys than was the case for more modern generations. In addition, children of the era generally deffered to their parents on such matters. The specialized children's clothes developing in the late 18th Century were primarily boys clothes. Any attempt to distinguish children by their clothes was generally confined to the boys. Little girls wore dresses identical to their mothers, except in size. Girls' dresses were distinguished only by the false' sleeves, abandoned in the 18th century, as if childhood separated girls from adult life less than it did boys.

Construction Elements

A dress has several different contruction elements. These include among others the neckline, collar, sleeves, yoke, bodice, waitline, and skirt. The style of these various elements might be adopted for gender differences, although boys also wore the same dresses as their sisters. This caried from family to family and chronologically. We will attempt to assess the various construction elements to determine gender-based differences if any. The problem for HBC is that we just do not know very much about dress styles. We will work on styles that occur to us, but if HBC readers who are more acquainted with dress styles have any suggestions here, we would appreciate your insights. Hopefully as we archive more images we can develop more information on gender differences.


Figure 2.--It is sometines difficult to determine the gender of children in old-time photographs. This photograph taken about 1890 appears to show two brothers and a sister. Often Victorian and Edwardian mothers made very significant clothing dictions based upon the age of the child. The older brother wears a boyish looking suit and cap with short hair. The younger brother wears a Fauntleroy kilt with ringlet curls and cap like his sister. Note the different style of bikes for the boys and girls.

Length

We see boys weatring different lengths pf dresses. The same was true of other skirted garments like skirts and kilt suits. We see dresses with skirt lengths from the knee to the ankle. We do not fully understand the various lengths. We do see some dresses reflecting stlistic changes over time. There were stylistic changes. Empire dresess in the early-19th century were worn down to the ankles. Both women and gils wore the same long dressess. Dress styles in the early-19th century are difficult to follow because photograph was not yet invented. As hems rose they at first wore long pantalettes with them. Shorter dresses were worn with pantalettes in the first half of the 19th century just as girls did. An here age was a factor. Girls began wearing shorter dresses than young women and adults. After mid-century, we have much more information because of the large number of phoytograhic images. Pantalette lengths rose alomg with skirt lengths. Subsequentky long stockings were worn. They do not seem to relate to age or chronological period. Nor does skirt length seem it seem to relate to stylistic trends. Small babies both boys and girls wore very long dresses. This may have been a way of keeping them warm. We are not sure. One source suggests thar the length of the dress was in part an indicator of social class and family status. Again we are not sure. Affluent parents could also afford longer dresses as well as fancier trims. When the boy began to learn to walk, of course such long dresses would be encumerances. Boys began to wear shorter dresses. This varied because we also continue to see boys with long skirted dresses. Thiswas not a gender matter because we also see girls with long dressesas well. This seems to be the case regardless of age or chronological stylistic changes. Except for the shift from long baby dresses, dress length were not a question of age, but stylistic chronological shift of fashionable hem lines. And another factor was surely that children grow. Thus the hem line when the photograph was taken could be different thasn when the dress was originally purched or sewn.

Specific Dress Styles

HBC has noted a number of specific styles or types of dresses worn by boys. Much of this information relates to the 19th century. Earlier boys, like their sisters, generally wore just smaller versions of their maothers' dresses. We note quite a number of different dress styles. Some are easy to classify, such as sailor and Fauntleroy dresses. Other styles are more difficult to classify, in part because our knowledge of dress styles is rather limited. The popularity of the different styles of course varied over time. We see special boy dressing appearing in the late 19th century. These dresses coild be worn by girls as well, but by the late-q19th century we see fewer boys wearing the fancier styles. This was basically up to the mother and we thus see see considerable variety.

Underwear

We do not know a great deal about the underwear boys wore with dresses. This is because our primary source of infotmation is the photographic record which does not provide a great deal of information about underwear. The underwear boys and girls wore was similar and in some cases identical, but there were some differences. The basic choices in addition to union suits were petticosts, pantalettes, and pants. We note all three. Both boys and girls wore petticoats and pantalettes, but pants were exclusively for boys. Pantalettes could be fanct, but some were plain and mihht be called drawers. The primary difference between plain pants and pantalettes was ghe material used. Presumably boys wearing pants wore some kind of underwear under the pants. It is sometimes difficult to tell the difference between pantalettles and pants--primarily meaning knee pants. Here a helpful factor is that underwear was usually, but not always white. Our ability to assess this is limited because children commonly wore dresses and other skirted garments at rather long lengths. Here there were differences over time and among countries. And tgo the extent tghat hem lines rose we have more information about underwear. Europeans mothers seemed mote infortable with higher hemlines showing more of the child's legs than American mothers. This convention can also be seen in hosiery choices. With long hem lines we commonly have no idea as to the underwear being worn. Chronological factors are also important.


Figure 3.--Boys in the late 19th Century began wearing plainer, less fancy dresses. Not all boys, however, wore these specialized boy dresses. Some mothers preferred quite elaborate dresses for their sons. This boy wears an elaborate dress, but note the front buttons. I do not have the date of this photograph, but would estimate 1875-85. He appears to be wearing a plaid skirt or pantalettes under his dress. Note his hat with flowers or decorations on the crown with a very wide, but short streamer.

Boy Dresses: Stylistic Features

The dresses worn by boys for several centuries were not notably different than those worn by their sisters. Specialized boy dresses did finally appear in the late 19th Century. This did not mean that boys only wore these styles. Some mothers insisted on dressing their sons in the same elaborate dresses as their sisters. Some choose identical dresses or smocks for the entire family. Other mothers simply chose fancier dresses than were available in the boy styles. Several stylistic elements characterized boy dresses, but the authors stress that some girls had dresses with some of these elements. In addition, some boys wore fancy dresses with none of these elements. It was all up to mothers fashion tastes. Mother could chose what she wanted and, as a result, some boys wore much fancier styles.

Age

Boys of widely different ages wore dresses in the 19th century. Much depended on the preferences of the mother. Social class was another important factor. The were also variations among countries. After the turn of the 20th century fewer and younger boys wore dresses. As so much depended on the preferences of the mother, realtively little is written on this topic. Some basic information, however, can be deferred by examining available images. For many years boys were breeched at about 4-6 years of age, but some mothers delayed in even later. Here there were substantial differences from family to family. Late in the 19th century mothers began breeching their sons earlier and this process continued into the early 20th century when the custom disappeared.

Social Class

We have only limited information on dresses and social class at this time. A reader writes,"I would presume (correct me if I am wrong), that boys from more wealthy families would be the ones to wear the kilts/dresses, as opposed to the general population." Well this is a complicated question. Boys wore dresses for about 500 years and our information for much of this period is limited. We know the most obviously about the 19th century. As best we can tell, the practice was probably most pronounced with the middle and affluent classes. At least we believe that the boys from these families probably wore dresses to older ages as well as fancier dresses. It appears, however, that the practice was very widespread. We note children from pooe families wearing dresses into the early 20th century. A factor to consider here is that one reason the practice endured was that a dress was a practical garment for children not yet toilet trained. This factor wouls have made the practice attractive for poor fmilies that would not have had the resources for hiring help to assist with child care.

Headwear

We are not sure what kind of headwear boys in dresses wore. This is difficult to assess because most portraits of boys wearing dresses are indoors portraits and the nothers involved have generally removed the child's hat to better show the child's hair and face. What we do not know is if the child wore girlish or boyish headwear styles. Nor do we know if the conventions changed over time. We do know that that some boys wore girls' hats and bonnets. We also know that some boys wore more boyish headwear like Scottish glengaries and sailor hats and caps. We believe that trends vared over time. Our general assessment is that boys with dresses wore girlish headwear in the early 19th century, but were more likely to wear boyish headwerar by the late 19th century. This is, however, only a working hypothesis and we do not yet have sufficent images to draw any form conclusions. There may be differences ampng countries, but we are not yet able to asess this.

Why Did Boys Wear Dresses?

It is interesting from an historical perspective to speculate as to why little boys were dressed as girls. Many qu estions come to mind. Many stress the practical factor of the ease of caring for small children in skirted garments. This was probably a factor, but practicality was not the only factor. Clearly the mother that lovingly dressed her son in frilly Little Lord Fauntleroy suits and curled his hair did not place practicality high on her priorities. Also the practicality arguement does not expalin why some boys were kept in dresses well past the age of toilet training. Clearly more was involved andvpeople in past generations saw it important to distinguish the young boy from the man. Attiring boys in dresses did set them apart from men, but did not set them apart from adults--as until the 19th century they wore dresses much like their sisters and mothers. Why was the boy's costume not distinguished from that of a woman's? This question leads to some interesting insights into pschological power relationships and the staus of women in previous eras.

Transitional Style

We note in some early photographs taken in the 1850s and 60s that young boys seem to be wearing a kind of transitional outfit that looks like the bodice of a dress, often with a low colarless neckline, and trousers. We do not know if this was also a European style. All of theimages we have are American. Nor do we know when this style began. We first see it in the 1850s, but his may be because 1840s photographs are quite rare. I believe that I have seen some earlier portraits by naive artists, but cannot recall specific portraits at this time. we assume that this fashion was a kind of transition from dresses to trousers worn with more boyish shirts or blouses. The boys pictured look to be about 4-6 years old. Many have their hair done in curls.

Activities

Another interesting question about the boys outfitted in dresses is whether this affected the activities they pusued. Most of the boys in dresses were younger boys. Most boys were breeched by 5 years of age or earlier, although some observers suggest stature was more important than age. This was an age when the boys were still at home and closely sipervised. As we have seen, however, some boys were not breeched at 5 years of age, but might wear dresses and kilts for another year or two or even longer. The question arises as to the activities these children might engage in. Did they go hiking or fishing in dresses? Did they go horse back riding and if so did they ride side saddle? What kind of tricycles and bikes did they have? Granted the boys kept in dresses might have been more closely supervised than other boys. They were presumably schooled at home. But surely they were not kept at home and closeted in the nursery as they got older. So the question as to their activities is an interesting one.


Figure 4.--Low necklines in dresses did not signal that the child was a girl, but rather just reflected the styles of the day. This boy was probably painted in the 1860s. The little blue ribbon may have been added to inform the viewer that the child was a boy, but some authors dispute when color conventions developed. Note the boy's side part.

Children's Health and Warmth

Modern authors have postulated a connection between high infant mortality rates and dress. Some suggest that infant mortality was higher in Western Europe during the 18th and 19th Centuries than in other areas. I'm not sure about this, but have no data to contest this. The clothes for younger children may well have been contributing factors to the rate of infant deaths. The normal outfit for younger childern, both boys and girls, was a light dress with a scooping, rounded neckline--and minimal sleeves. Medical experts instructed mothers, "The truth is, a new-born infant cannot well be too cool and loose in its dress; it wants less clothing than a grown person in proportion because it is naturally warmer, and would therefore bear the cold winter's night much better than any adult person whatever." It was not unknown as late as the 1890s for doctors to repeat this advise. One doctor advised rooms no warmer than 68 degrees. Fortunately by the mid-19th Century, some experts were beginning to stress the need for warmer clothes. An expert advising mothers in a 1857 woman's magazine warned, "Very many children are sacrificed, or permanely injured, by the mistaken ideas of mothers on head warmth. [Godey's Ladies Book, 1857, p. 267.

Leading Strings

Leading stings were commonly employed on children's dresses from the 16th to 18th Century. They were precisely what they sounded like. The strips of fabric matching or coordinated with the dress fabric that were sewn on to the dress at the shoulders. The other end fell freely down the back of the dress. Some dresses did not have leading strings sewn on directly, but they would be pinned on if the mother so desired. The "strings" were considered practical for assisting younger children and controlling rambunctious children for whom they were used rather as a lease. Practices and conventions varied for boys and girls. Eventually leading strings in popular parkance became to be used more and more as a restraining device rather than walking aids. The term "harness" gradually became more and more popular . From 1900 to 1950, parents used the term "leather baby harness" for a 1 to 5 years old and "toddler harness for children from 2 to 5 years old.

Country Trends

Boys throught Europe, Britain, and America in the 19th century wore dresses when young. I most cases these were pre-school ages boys. In other instances we note school-age boys still wearing dresses. Presumably these were boys being schooled at home. There were various differences from country to country. Not only did dress styles vary, but the fasdhion of outfitting boys in dresses varied from country to country over time. We notice differences in the pervasiness of this convetion, the style of dresses, the age of the boys, and various other factors. Details on these differences are not yet available, but HBC has begun to assess this question.

Coordinated Outfits

Some parents liked to dress the children alike or in coordinated outfits. This convention was limited depending on the gender and age of the children. Often the approach was used with different outfits for the boys and girls. Sometimes styles could be coordinated. Here a popular choice was sailor styles. One of the limitations here during the 19th century was that girls did not wear pants (trousers) and only younger boys wore dresses. The age at with boys wore dresses, however varied from family to family. Thus we do see some mothers who dressed the entire family in dresses, sometines identical dresses. There were other alternatives such as smocks. This was not a common approach in the 19th century, but we do see some instances of it in the photographic record. More common was age grading, but we do see anumber of families with all the children in dresses.

Gender Approaches

Many mothers wjen dressing boys in dresses would add boyish touches. We assume they did this of their own volition. Fathers would probably not get to involved with dress styling, although they may have suggested breeching at an earlier age than mothers. Thus we see plainly styled dresses or perhaps dresses dome in plaid to suggest kilts. We also note portraits of boys in dresses where boyish props like drums or whips were added to indicate visually that the child is a boy. These boyish touches were very common, but they were not always present. Some mothers took an entirely different approach. We see some boys wearing frilly dresses and sometimes even girlish props. Of course the only way to tell that a child is boy in such circumstances is that the portrait is marked in some way identifying the child.

Fashion Reversal

It's interesting to observe that boys in the 19th Century wore clothes ranging from those of adult men to those of little girls. Girls were, on the other hand, pretty much dressed in clothes distinctly feminine. It was in fact considered unusual or actually distasteful for girls to wear boys clothes. Remember that Joan of Arc was ostensibly burned at the stake for wearing men's clothes. Fashion has made a complete cirlcle. Today, the reverse istrue. Girls wear anything they want, from the most feminine outfits toclothes indistinguishable from those of their brothers. However, I must saythat I've never seen a little girl with a crew cut--although bobbed hair became very popular in the 1920s. We don't consider the way modern girls are dressed as unusual. However, boys never wear any clothes that are considered girlish attire.


Figure 5.--White dresses were popular for children in the early 19th Century, but less common in the late 19th Century. This photograph was probably taken in the early 1880s. Note the small bow. The image is not very clear, but this may be a kilt suit rather than a dress.

Asessing Unidentified Photographs

Photogrtaphs are marvelous depictions of period dress. Unfortunately often basic information about a photograph is not available. As boys were often kept in long hair and dresses, even identifying gender can be a difficult exercise. Thus it is frequently difficult to identify who is who among the childern in early images. Some basic tips like the toys are artifacts they are playing wit h help. Sometimes the faces give clues, but this is difficult as young boys can have girlish looking faces and visa versa. I am posting some particularly difficult images to assess. Please let me know if you have any insights. To help evaluate some old-time photographs, I have prepared some guidelines which HBC believes offer some basic indicators in assessinf old photogfraphs. These are, however, tentative guidelins and HBC incourages readers to carefully consider these guidlines and suggest alternative interpreations or additional guidelines.

Personal Experiences

One interesting question is what the boys involved thought about wearing dresses. Here our informatin is very limited. Unfortunately most of the boys involved didn't describe their experiences. Many were too young to write and as adults often forgot. Some boys, however, did rembember. Or perhaps their sisters and mothers jotted down notes. Family letters are a rich source of such information. There are some interesting acciunts in some biographies. Here is some details on the experiences of actual boys or a detailed analysis of pertinent images. If in your reading you have come across actual accounts, please do forward them to us. This is an interesting section that we hope to expand.

Institutions

Some institutions have reportedly had a uniform of pinafores and dresses for boys. This does not mean smocks. Boys wearing smocks at institutions and schools was quite common in the late 19th and 20th Ceturies. Nor does it mean tunics. Many English charity schools, the hospital schools had tunic uniforms. Rather some institutiions had boys wear dresses and simple frocks. The most common examlple of this was the English workhouse. There may have been other such institutions and this phenomenon requires further investigation.

Breeching

One of the most important events in a boys life was his breeching. Donning trousers, or breeches in the 18th Century, signaled to the world that a boy was growing up. Dressing like his father has always been important to a boy. But it is an event that has been poorly chronicled by the social historian. In part this is because most social historians are women and they often fail to recognize the importance of the event to a boy. There are many unanswered questions about breeching. One of the most interesting is if a boy was only bought a party suit with knee pants and continued to wear dresses for a while at home when not dressing for special occasions. Or was a complete new wardrobe purchased for him. Perhaps different families did it differently. Perhaps practices varied by country or social class. Little appears to have been written ob the subject.

Petticoats

The petticoat is a girl's undergarment worn under a skirt or dress. The term pettiskirt is also used, but not as commonly. I'm not sure of the derivation of the term. I would guess the petti means small and thus a small coat. The term first appeared in the English language in the late-14th century. The basic meaning is an underakirt, but is often used to mean one that is cull full using a decorative fabric and trimmed with lace and or ruffles. The term is so assiciated with girls and women that it has offensive connotations when used to describe men.

Pantalettes

Little boys in the early 19th Century often wore pantalettes like their sisters. Some boys wore them with skeleton suits and the lace of the pantalettes were visible at the ankles of their long trousers. Pantalettes became more important as dresses got shorter as it was considered in appropriate until mid-century for even children to have bare legs. Gradually the length of pantalettes were shrtened and they were worn only slightly longer than the dress. Pantalettes became less common in the 1870s, but were worn by some boys into the 1890s.

Pinafores

Little boys in the early 19th Century still in dresses might wear pinafores. This was more common in the early half of the century, but was not unklnown even after the turn of the century. I believe it was mostly boys still in dresses that might wear a pinafore, but have little evidence to substantiate this. It was also probably more of a play garment to be worn around home than a garment to be worn for dress occasions. Pinafores were part of the children's uniform (both boys and girls) in some institutions, such as work houses for destitute families in England.

Behavior

A HBC reader writes, "Thank you for your interesting and informative HBC site. I have got a lot of helpful information there and now have a question on the background of our own studies (cultural and gender differences in moods or gestures of motivation). What would you say: During periods when boys and girls (especially their sisters/brothers) - of a given age were/are dressed, more or less, in the same way (whether in jeans or dresses etc.) in which other aspects did or do they have to behave in the same way, too? For example compare your pages on ridding horses or, as everybody knows, male and female Occidental gestures of greeting distinguished from about the 17th to after the middle of the 20th century (at least for kids). Do you have any idea/information if saluting boys in skirts had to bow rather their heads (upper body) or knees (lower the lap)?" [Jahreiss] HBC does not have a definitive answer to this question. We suspect that boys regardless of their dress were taught boy manners and visa versa, however, I have no information to confirm this. One thing that is almost certain is that most boys will want to emulate their fathes or older brothers and girls their sisters and mothers.

Vintage Dresses

Both girls and little boys wore dresses in the 19th century. Here we have archived a range of vintage dresses. Vintage garment are especially important as they provide color information which we do not have from the black and white portraits of the 19th century. The problem with vintage dresses for HBC is that unless the name of the child that wore that is known, it is difficult to tell if it was for a boy or girl. This is a problem we continually face when assessing unidentified 19th century portraits, although some portraits are indentified or the gender of the child can be deduced. We are collecting here dresses that we believe were worn by boys. A Vintage clothing dealer tells us that a red Victorian child's dress (girl or boy) was found with other clothing that dates back to 1870- 1880. We also note a white dress worn by American boy James Cromwell in 1879. We also notice a sailor dress which a dealer is convinced was a 1890s boy dress, but we are not positice about this.

Modern View

Historical fashion is of special interest to girls. Some boys are also intrigued about the clothes worn by boys in different eras. The prevalence of dressess for boys comes as a great surprise to the modern boy whose as no idea that young boys until relatively recently commonly wore dresses.

Movies

Some movies with poeriod themes depict boys in skirted garments. We have note only a few boys costumed in dresses. Much more common are boys costumed in kilts or kilt suits. long hair and dresses or kilt suits. Especuially unusual is boys costumed in tunics. Movies of course can vary greatly in historical accuracy. It is likely, however, that those who have gone to the trouble of depicting boys in dresses and other skirted garments have given considerable attention to detail.

HBC Quiz

Other interesting insights may be noted by taking an HBC quiz. We have loaded some images on this page. Some are easy. Others are more difficult. Some are difficult and we haven't really figured out yet. At any rate, see if you can determine the child's gender. Then click on the image to see if you were correct. (The link will take you to the page where the image is discussed.) Good luck.

Sources

Jahreiss, Olaf G. E-mail message, August 18, 2004.






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Created: January 1, 1998
Last updated: 2:19 AM 3/18/2014