Boys' Dresses: Sanitary and Practical Reasons?

Figure 1.--Social reformers recommended skirted garments for young children, boys and girls to provide the maximum freedom of movement.

Some are convinced think that the reason boys wore dresses was entirely practical. Choosing dresses may have just been an artifact of the fact that women were caring for young children and dresses were easier to care for and made dressing easier. Many stress the a concern that would be understood by any parent who has cared for young children. It is obviously easier to care for a child that is not toilet trained if the child is in a skirted garment. In the days before modern sanitation toddlers, like their parents, wouldrelieve themselves wherever the need took them in the gutter in adarkish corner of the yard etc. Think of an "untrained" child in an emergency--which would be quickest and least likely to soil what mightbe its only garment? A skirt or pantaloons? No velcro or zippers either, only buttons! Perhaps an example of necessity becoming custom.

Rubber Pants

Accepted view

Most modern readers when addressing this question stress the practical side. HBC has received numerous comments from readers with comments like, "Before the invention of rubberized pants to wear under clothing, boys wore dress so the mother could easily change the dippers. It was imporant to change the diapper before it soaked through. The rubber under cloths changed all that. Dresses were no longer needed. Boys could be put in any style of clothing."

Modern writers

Several authors do in fact stress this practical and sanitary explanation for attiring boys in dresses. These modern assessments have to be taken with considerable skepticism. Many make sence, but what seems logical and obvious to modern readers may are may not be the primary reason for this well estanlished convention. Observers in different countries report many of the same assessments. It seems that these practical factors were important, but this does not mean of course that this was the exclusive factor as some of these modern observers suggest.

Contemporary sources

HBC does not yet have contemprary early 20th century sources confirming that the introduction of rubber pants after the turn of the century was a major factor in the decline of dressing boys in dresses, It certainly seems plausible, but HBC would like to see some contemprary sources on the subject to definitively confirm this. By thesame token, HBC is also searching for contemporary sources on the entire breeching topic. At this time, HBC has no historical evidence from contemporary sources that the decision as to when breaching occurred was connected to toilet training. That of course is not to say that such material does not exist, certainly this topic musdt have been discussed at length in women's magazines. HBC up-but to this point, however, has not found any such material.

Historical references

HBC has noted a varietybof contemporary historical references to dressing boys in dresses and other skirted garments. The ones found to date, however, do not mention sanitation. It is interesting to note that so many modern observers stress the sanitation issue, bit so few contempeary writers mention this aspect.


Many observers stress sanitation when considering the practical reasons that boys were outfitted in dresses. Another practical matter which has to be considered is laundry. Today with all of our modern appliances, laudry is not a major consideration. Even in the early 20th century, laundry required an enormous effort. Thus anything that could reduce the laudry load undoubtedly made more sence for harried mothers.

Figure 2.--HBC has noted various reference to social class and the dressing of boys in dresses and smocks. Opinions vary on the subject. This boys name was Harold M. His parents were Amos and Belle. The image suggest that they were a family in comfprtable circumstances. Harold wears a dress and slick-backed hair. The portrait was taken in Lockport, New York.

Profound Impact

One modern expert on childrens clothing stresses the profound impact that rubber pants (diapper covers) had on children's clothing, especially boys clothing, at the turn of the 20th century. "Rubber diaper covers, at the turn of the century, would have a profound and lasting influence over the design of children's clothes. At first Brownie suits ["koveralls"/overalls] were advertised in mail-order catalogs as suitable to boys from 4 to 14 years. But, within a few years, the new rubber pants would enable toddler boys to wear trousers before they were toilet trained. Denim was the fabric used for the practical and tough little Brownie suits, advertised as "a boy's everyday go-as-you-please suit." Stores proclaimed "They are worn everywhere this season," and "Let your boy play in the healthy outdoor air this summer in a Brownie suit!" Colors were blue or gray solids, or gray and white striped (heavy duty). .... It would be a few years before little girls would also be allowed to play in this form of trousers. .... One of the most outstanding contributions to child development resulting from rubber diaper covers and young children's overalls was in the area of crawling and walking. Children had previously learned to walk while in skirts; old dresses in museums showing worn out front hems tell the story of how difficult it had been. By comparison, how easy and comfortable it has been for twentieth century children to learn to walk in overalls." [Estelle Ansley Worrell, Children's Costume in America, 1608-1910 (New York, 1980, Charles Scribner's Sons), p. 187]

Social Class

HBC has noted various reference to social class and the dressing of boys in dresses and smocks. Opinions vary on the subject. Upper-class mothers were more influenced by fashion, but here we are unsure just how they were influenced. Practical factors would seem to suggest that working-class mothers might keep their younger boys in dresses. Working-class children were also exposed generally exposed to peer pressure at an earlier age than more affluent children.

Upper class

Some suggest that it was the upper class that continued dresssing young boys in dresses and kept them in dresses for longer periods. Upper-class mothers were more influenced by fashion, but here we are unsure just how they were influenced.

Working class

Others suggest that skirted garments for young boys were more cpmmon in working class families. Practical factors would seem to suggest that working-class mothers might keep their younger boys in dresses. Working-class children were also exposed generally exposed to peer pressure at an earlier age than more affluent children.One English contributor to HBC comments that he can remember in the 1930s baby boys with bare behinds under tunic-like garments--but by then 'class' had entered in and only the poor (still without indoor sanitation) most commonly did this. Smocks were unisex wear among the poor, as easier and cheaper to construct, and frocks a normal garment for the toddler of all classes inVictorian times. I think it probably had a lot to do with the number of layers worn by children and the greater ease of getting at the relevant part of the small boy before disaster occurred. There is a lot less sense in putting boys and very little girls intotrousers now - a lot less practical when the cry of "Mummeeeee! I want to go!!!..... goes up."


HBC does not discount the rubberized pants theory as a factor in the declining use of dresses for boys. It of course sounds reasonable. HBC is not at all convinced that it is the only factor. It doesn't account for boys still wearing dresses long after they were potty trained. It also does not account for the fact that boys from wealthy families might wear dresses longer than those from more humble families--although as mentioned above, there is some disagreement on this matter. If one had servants to care for the children, convenience would seem a less important factor. There are in fact no simple explanation that fits all of the facts, but the fact that many boys wore dresses at 5 or 6 years or even older, clearly suggests more was involved in this custom that simple sanitation. It also would not expalin notable differences between countries. If practical matters were the primary factgor that one would suspect that there would be only minor differences among different countries.

A reader writes, "Many years ago I asked my grandma (Who was born in 1874) why the little boys were in dresses in old photos. She said they were dressed that way to accomodate easier diaper changes and potty training. Grandma had 10 children 5 girls and 5 boys and I think she was right on the money. This was an age before snaps, zippers and washers and dryers. Dresses were less apt to get wet than tight fitting pants. Families had lots of children and had little time for extra laundry. Anyway, it makes sense to me."

A HBC reader writes, "I find these santitary reasons very weak. Boys become potty trained at about 2 years and in the 19th century probably earlier. In addition boys dresses oftern included petticoats, pantalettes, long stockings, which would hardly be santitary. I believe the change occured because of the new awareness of gender. This was also the time when the great psychological theories were coming into vogue with their emphasis on the releationship of the child to the Mother."


Fogle, Nancy. E-mail message, June 29, 2006.


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Created: March 10, 1999
Last updated: 12:03 AM 8/6/2006