Why Did Mothers Outfit Boys in Dresses?


Figure 1.--Younger boys in the 19th century commonly wore dresses or other skirted garments. This was a convention that had existed for centuries. This convention sharply declined within a decade around the turn-of-the 20th century. It is not clear just why this change occurred in such a short period of time. The unidentified boy here, we think in the 1870s, wears a plain dress, we think with a petticoat. Notice the striped stockings.

The modern reader often asks the question of why were boys outfitted in dresses. This question largely exists because of the invention of photography. Thousands of photographs from the mid- and late-19th century show boys wearing dresses and this does not even count the images of boys with long hair who are commonly seen as girls in these old images. This of course was done by doting mothers as they were the ones caring for small children. It was done across class barriers for centuries. This was not an exclusively Victorian custom, rather, it was the norm in European cultures for centuries and it continued to the turn-of-the 20th century. Actually we have three questions here. 1) Why did boys begin to wear dresses. 2) Why for about five centuries did boys wear dresses. 3) Why did the centuries-long convention largely disappear within the space of only about a decade?

Why Did Boys Begin Wearing Dresses?

Why did boys begin to wear dresses. This is perhaps the most difficult question to answer because it concerns a period for which actual records are limited. We can only speculate at this time. We think that the development is associated with the development of pants/trousers. Throughout the medieval period men and women dressed similarly in long skirted garments, often referred to as gowns. This can be seen clearly in period paintings. Women's dresses were somewhat different, but the basic garments were quite similar. Younger boys simply continued the long established practice of wearing skirted garments. So actually the question should be, why did men stop wearing skirted garments or gowns. Male fashion began to change in the Renaissance when younger men began wearing tunics with long hose rather like tights. A HBC reader makes replica tunic costumes for medieval/Renaissance historical reenactments, you can check the site at www.historicalclothingrealm.com. These long hose gradually evolved into pantaloons or modern trousers. It is at this point that boys and mens clothing diverged. Young children in the care of women continued to be dressed alike. It is not clear why young boys continued to be dressed like girls. It may be that mothers who were the parent caring for younger children saw no need to make this change. Here they may have been sociological factors. Women may not have seen the need for dressing boys as men or thought it very important. There may have been practical reasons such as toilet training which would have been more difficult for little boys wearing hose/tights and pantaloons/trousers. We have not yet found any written work addressing this question.

Why Did Boys Wear Dresses?

The modern reader often asks the question of why were boys outfitted in dresses. This question largely exists because of the invention of photography. Thousands of photographs from the mid- and late-19th century show boys wearing dresses and this does not even count the images of boys with long hair who are commonly seen as girls in these old images. This of course was done by doting mothers as they were the ones caring for small children. It was done across class barriers for centuries. This was not an exclusively Victorian custom, rather, it was the norm in European cultures for centuries and it continued to the turn-of-the 20th century. Boys continued to wear dresses through most of the 19th century. We only see the popularity of this fashion waning after about 1895 and by about 1905 it was no longer a major fashion convention. It did not entirely disappear and we continue to see a few boys in dresses until after World War I. After the War, however, it became the exception rather than the rule. Only infants wore dresses. The Sears Catalog used to sell complete baby layettes suitable for either sex, complete with frilly dresses, into the 1940s.

Why Did Boys Stop Wearing Dresses?

Why did the centuries-long convention largely disappear within the space of only about a decade? This is another issue that we have not see addressed in other sources. Here we can only speculate at this time. It may relate to changing attitudes toward childhood. Children were regarded as asexual beings until Freud's work in the late-19th century. We are not sure, however, to what degree this had penetrated the popular mind. Freud's work, however, was affecting professional thought. Another factor is public education. Younger children were no longer closeted within the family, most boys began school at age 6 years. They could not wear dresses to school. And their little brothers would not be happy wearing dresses. Modern media exploded at the turn-of-the century. Newspapers and magazines could print photographs for the first time. Movies began to become popular. This meant that popular fashion became increasingly pronounced, leaving less latitude to the doting mother. The development of rubber training pants may have been an important factor. One researcher suggests that the earlier Little Lord Fauntleroy craze was a factor. Mothers rushed to breech their boys so they could wear Fauntleroy suits. And perhaps those grown up boys remembering the indignities of the Fauntleroy suit, involved themselves in how their younger sons were dressed to a greater degree than their fathers. A reader writes, "Some people at the time, most prominently President Teddy Roosevelt, were stressing that boys had to be "real boys". [Nugent] The word "sissy" then began to be used more frequently. People become more gender conscious, promoted by advertising companies. As I said in an earlier e-mail, did the people want gender differentiated garments/shoes, or was it the companies' profit motives?"

Sources

Nugent, Benjamin. American Nerd (2008).







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