White Dresses

Figure 1.--Little boys in the early 19th century wore dresses like their sisters. This brother and sisters wear dresses in the French Empire style.

One popular color for children's dresses was white. The white was in keeping with the image of inosence and purity for young children. There was, however, also a matter of praticality in the era before washing machines and laundry detergents. These white dresses were worn for everyday wear and were also worn as party clothes. They were often wore with pinafores. We have little hard information on white dresses, but do note countless example in the photographic record. We have begun to pull together some information. Please let HBC know if you have any information or insights.


One popular color for children's dresses was white. The white was in keeping with the image of inosence and purity for young children. Mothers in particular appear to have liked white dresses. Modern readrs will probanly think of white as impractical for young, active chidren. Actually in the era before modern laundry detergents, white was the most practical because unlike colord clothing bleach could be used. And white did not fade even after reprated washings--something necessaey for children's clothing.

Figure 2.--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. Note the side part.


We have few details on the varying chronological trends in the popularity of white dresses. I have no information on white dresses in the 18th Century. I have begun to note them about the turn of the 19th Century. They appear to have been particularly popular for children during the Empire/Regency era. Almost all the dresses we note are white or light colred pastels. I know less about the mid-19th Century, but we note some bright colored frockks in the 1830s. . I have a general feeling that, except for babies, they declined in popularity, but this may be because I simply have inadequate information. While we see colored dressed, we still see quite a number of white dresses even in the late 19th century. Note the white dress worn by James Cromwell in 1879. I have begun to note increasing numbers of white dresses at about the turn of the 20th Century.


HBC has archived quite a few portraits of boys wearing white dresses. We hope to eventually link mant of these images to the page here. Some of the boys are identified. A good example is an American boy George Dewey Howell, probably in the 1890s. Many other portraits are unidentified.

Figure 3.--White dresses were popular for children in the early 19th Century, but appear to have been less common in the mid-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.



White dress styles followed the styles current at the time. I know no special style common for white dresses. Mostly the white dresses were actual dresses and not kilt suits. A few boys did wear white kilt suits, but this was not common. It probably was a summer style.

Sailor Dresses

One popular dress style for boys were sailor dresses. Many such dresses were white. These wereavailable both as dresses as well as middy blouses worn with kilt/skirts.


We believe that to some extent white andother light-colored dresses were seasonal. They were more commonly worn during the spring and summer months than during the winter. We do not yet have, however, any contemporary sources to substantiate this, but is strongly supported in the photographic record. .


We believe white dresses were most common for younger boys. Quite a large number of younger boys in dresses during the late 19th century had their portraits taken in white dresses. To some extent this could reflect the children being dressed up to have their portraits taken. It is much less clear what these boys may have wofn at home for every day activities. Older boys were less commonly dressed in them. Such decisions, however, were up to the mother. And some older boys also wore white dresses.

Figure 4.--Special boy dresses, plainer than the girl styles, appeared in the 1890s and were widely sold in the 1900s. Many mothers, however, preferred the frillier styles for girls.


White was by far the most popular color for formal baby dresses. The dresses addressed in this page, however, are dresses for boys beyond the baby and toddler age.

These white dresses tended to be party clothes because of the difficulty of keeping children's clothes clean. They were often wore with pinafores for this reason.

Smocks and Pinafores

White dresses were often wore with smocks amd pinafores for this reason. The dressier smocks and pinafores were themselves mostly white. The available photographic record, however, probably is not a good reflection of how commonly worn these garments were. Most photographs before the turn of the 19th century were formal studio portraits. The children for these portraits would have been dressed up in their best outfit and would have been unlikely to wear eith smocks or pinafores.

Country Trends

We do not yet have much country information. We do, however, notice in the photographic record large nunbers of children in many countries wearing white sresses. We do have a page for the United States.


I am unsure if boys or girls were more likely to be dressed in white dresses or if such conventins varied over time. Based upom available images, HBC believes that it was more common for boys in dresses to wear white ones than for the girls to wear white ones--although white dresses were common for both boys and girls.

Figure 5.--This boy Theodore Wellington wears a crisp white dress with white ribbon ties at the shoulders. The photograph was taken in 1902. Note the hairbow and elegantly outfitted mother, also wearing a white dress. Click on the image for a closeup of Theo.

Hair Styles

Boys in white dresses had a varied hair styles which changed in keeping with the styles of the day. Many boys had their curls cut while still in dresses. That was a major decision for mothers of the day, whether to cut their son's curls, before or after breeching. Many of the boys wearing dresses also had long hair. Sometimes their hair was curled, an especailly popular style furing the Fauntleroy era of the late 19th Century. Some boys with especially doting mothers also wore hait bows with their curls. I do not yet know if boys in white dresses were more or less likely to wear curls.

Additional Information


Some period movies depict boys in long hair and dresses. 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 long hair, probably exercised considerable attention to detail.

Dress quiz

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Created: March 27, 1999
Last updated: 9:33 PM 3/5/2015