Why Did Mothers Outfit Boys in Dresses?


Figure 1.--It is virtually impossible to determine the gender in many early photographs. The low necklines here are simply the fashion of the day and not a style just worn by girls.

The modern reader often asks the question of why were boys outfitted in dresses. This of course was done by doting mothers as they were the ones caring for small children. It was done across class bariers for centuries. This was not an exclusively Victorian custom, rather, it was the norm in European cultures for centuries and it continued well into the 20th century. The Sears Catalog used to sell complete baby layettes suitable for either sex, complete with frilly dresses, into the 1940s.

Modern Perspective

Actually the question is posed from our modern abhorance of dressing boys in anything remotely femine. This is in part of traditional gender values holding womenin low regard. Note while boys can not wear girl's clothes, girls quite commonly wear boy's clothes. In fact the history of boys fashions is often of styles being appropriate by girls and thus eventually rejected by boys: sailor suits and hats, kilts, short pants, and other styles. Other styles such as pants, including jeans--boys have stubornly clinged to. Previous generations would in fact view with equal abhorance the dressing of girls in pants and other male garments. Remember, Joan of Arc was burned at the stake, ostensibly for wearing mens' clothes. >Our ancestors would probably have answered the question of why attire boys in dresses with a simple, why not? They probably would not have understood our modern puzzlement over this practice.


Figure 2.--It was not just small boys that wore dresses. Some doting mothers kept boys in dresses at even 10 or 11 years of age. At the time it was the mothers perogative and boys exercized little control over how they were dresses.

Girls' Clothes

Some phrase the question differently, asking why boys were dressed like girls. With a few exceptions, boys were not dressed as girls, they were dressed in dresses, which were a unisex style for infants and younger children. Even so, by the late 19th Century there were marked differences in the styles of dresses for boys and dresses for girls. For centuries, boys wore dresses instead of male attire not only when they were infants but also when they were 6 or 7 years old or even older. During all that time no one could think of a good reason that boys shouldn't wear dresses. Then, in the 1890s, boys began wearing trousers earlier and earlier. A new garment - the one-piece romper - was introduced for toddlers and infants. At first, rompers were unisex, just like baby dresses. But gradually our modern masculine and feminine rompers evolved. By the 1930s there were distinct romper styles for girls and boys, in addition to the unisex rompers. Dresses continued to be worn by newborn boys until well after World War II. It wasn't until 1957 that Sears, Roebuck dropped the white baby dress from its unisex prepackaged layette. Clearly parents by the 19th Century saw it important to distinguish the young boy from the man and the younger boy from the older boy. But why were boys dressed in dresses which until the late 19th Century were generally styled like those of adult women. Atireing 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 mothers.

Concepts of Childhod

The modern concept of childhood did not begin to form until the Georgian era around the mid-18th Century. The practice of keeping boys in dresses lasted about 150 years after the modern concepts of childhood begin to coalese in the European mind. Childhood was much shorter than in the past. Thus a boy might spend a good bit of his rather short childhood in dresses before he began working with his father or began an aprenticeship at about 12 or 13 years of age. After the mid-18th Century Europeans began the modern tendency of prolonging childhood and ever expanding requirements for schooling.


Figure 3.--Many mothers even after having to breech their sons, refused to cut their long ringlets which they so lovingly curled.

Modern Concepts of Gender and Clothes

Despite the polarity of infants' clothing, children today are freer of many of the sex-based distinctions that were common in 1900, or even in 1960. Girls play baseball, and boys play with dolls. So why aren't baby clothes more androgynous? Sex-differentiated clothes may be more for the parents. Most adults expect to have gender information provided, to the point of feeling uncomfortable or even annoyed if the sex of a baby is not obvious. One fairly modern development is the color conventions for identifying gender. While I am just beginning to investigate this topic, geder specific color conventions appear to be a relatively recent development. In our modern liberated age, we don't like to admit it, but we seem to believe that clothing has the power to teach gender. Advocates of nonsexist childrearing ardently believe that unisex clothing will teach children to be androgynous. Traditionalists put their girls in ruffles and their boys in suit jackets to teach them to be little ladies and gentlemen. Both groups react with confusion when the girl wearing overalls begs for a frilly party dress or when the little lady rips her pinafore while climbing a tree. They needn't be so surprised. There is no proof, historical or psychological, that clothing is as powerful as they think it is. When all American children wore dresses from birth until they started school at age 6 or seven, they grew up to be masculine and feminine in all the usual variations. Gender differences are either innate, or they are much more complicated than we think they are; my own inclination is to believe the latter. And either way, it isn't the clothes that make the man.

Historical Development

The reader should note that the practice of attiring young boys in dresses before men were wearing pants and trousers. Knee breeches were not widely worn until the late 17th Century and early 18th Centuries and men did not begin wearing long trousers until the early 19th Century. The outfits worn by 15th and 16th Century men were clearly unsuitable for small boys. Thus by the the 18th Century with knee breeches appeared, the custom of attiring boys in dresses was firmy entrenched. The idea of changing the attire of their soms because of changes in men's fashions simly did not occur to 18th and 19th Century mothers.


Figure 4.--Ease of care for young children partially explains why young boys were kept in dresses. It does not explain why older boys were kept in dresses after toilet training.

Why Dresses?

There are of course reasons why any social custom developed. Some may be lost in the fog of time, but we can explore some of the reasons for the custom of dressing little and some not so little boys as girls. They are not always reasonable (logical) reasons, but there are reasons. Some of the reasons for any given behavior are lost in the fog of time. Sometimes logical explanations for given behaviors are constructed post facto. While they may be eminently reasonable, they may in fact have nothing to do with a given behavior. Listed below are a variety of explanations for the custom of outfitting boys in dresses. There is almost certainly no single explanation. The real explanation is probably an unknown combination of many of these factors and almost certainly others factors not yet examined. Some insights occur to the author, although they are just infomal musings at this stage. I'd be interested in any insights readers may offer:



Figure 5.--A fashionably dressed young boy in the 19th century wore dresses. Until the late 19th Century there were no specifically designed dresses for boys, they wore the same styles as their sisters. Gradually boy styled dresses appeared.

Child raising practices

Many upper class English mothers didn't have a clue on how to raise children, especially boys. They were raised by nannies. Many children recall much closer contacts with their nannies than their mothers. The nannies virtually ruled the nurseries where the children were raised. They were often kept apart from their parents, restricted to the nurseries except for supervised outings in the garden or to the park.. They often never experienced close emotional contact with their mothers. Their parents visits to the nursery were often more like formal events than spontaneous familiar contact. Sometimes the children werre dressed up and "presented" to the parents in the drawing room. Victorian and Edwardian parents often did not eat with the younger children who took their meals in the nursery.

Childhood experiences

After those childhood experiences, women were expected to have babies, but not necessarily function as mothers. Children appear to have been more of a nuisance for many women. Many of these woman were not well educated. Most families considered it important to educate boys , but that education for women was frivilous and might indeed distract them form their primary goal of finding a suitable husband. This attitude in fact continued well into the 20th century. Wealthy Victorian and Edwardian women did lead a rich social life. Many accounts of this period are endless accounts of socail events. A good bit of the day was spent visiting friends and receiving callers and preparing for social events. How women spent their free time is less well documented. I've seen reports that it was quite common for middle aged Victorian woman to play with dolls even after they had 6-7 children. Perhaps this accounts for the elaborate costume their children sometimes wore. As mentioned before, the children as they were raised in the rather closed environment of the nursery had only limited contacts with other children wore whatever clothes their mothers deemed appropriate.

Concept of Gender

Why was the boy's costume not distinguished from that of a woman's? Surely this must provide insights into the poorly explored subject of societies consciousness of its behavior in relationship of age and sex. The turn of the 20th century was the time when the great psychological theories were coming into vogue with their empharise on the releationship of the child to it Mother. Until Sigmund Freud and his work after the turn of the century, Europeans basically viewed small children as small genderless beings. Thus dressing boys and girls alike would seem reasonable. The new awareness of gender fostered by Freus and other psychologists affect how childhood was viewed and may have had a significant influence on how boys were dressed.

Cost

Up until the Renaisance boys up to about 8-10 of almost every class wore a simple unisex "dress" because making cloth, until recently, was time consuming and expensive. The cost factor was still significant into the 19th Century. Children grow quickly and in the large families that generally existed, clothing could be a major expense. For the less affluent it was hard to come by. Thrift was an important value for the Victorians and many families that could afford new clothes still used hand-me-downs. Thus a boy with older sisters may have worn dresses to an older age than a boy with older brothers. The dresses that you see on boys may have well belonged to an older sister that had outgrown it, in other cases it was simply a shirt that had belonged to papa that was redone for a new babe in the house. In every source I ever read and when I spoke with costumers in Williamsburg Vairginia, I have found that is was an extremely common habbit. It was not dressing boys as girls so much as it was that all children were dressed in long gowns like our current christening gowns. The purpose of this was not to confuse people or any such thing but that the gowns were easily let out as the child grew and any person with a child knows they grow like weeds. As the kids grew up, the arms were let out and the hem dropped,this way they didn't have to keep making or buying new clothes.
Middle class:
Working classes:

Fashion

While there were practical and societal factors explaining why boys wore dresses, fashion should not be discarded when asing why boys were outfitted in dresses. Women with the means to do so, liked to dress their children fashionably. Of course it was dress fashions that women were most familiar with. Some dresses worn by boys seem rather plain and utilitarian. There are, however, many images of boys wearing very fashionable dresses. In some cases they are the sames dressess and styles worn by their sisters. In other instances boys wore dresses specifically styled for them. These boys dresses might have pleated or tailored skirts. Some in fact were called kilts, but would more accurately be called skirted suits. Styles of course varied over time. Boys dresses were less frilly and had less lace and other trim. Although plainer they are unmistakeably dresses with much of the same detailing used in dresses for girls, including collars, piping and trim. Puff sleeves were less common in boy dresses, but were not absent.

Fancy dress

Another tendency which, like archaizing and effeminizing probably originated in the, taste for fancy dress, led the children of middle-class families to adopt features of lower-class or working dress. Here the child would forestall masculine fashion and wear trousers as early as the reign of Louis XVI (1638-1715), before the age of the sans-culottes. The costume worn by the well-dressed child in the period of Louis XVI (1754-93) was at once archaic (the Renaissance collar), lower-class (the trousers), and military (the military jacket and buttons in the 17th century there was no distinctive lower-class costume and a fortiori no regional costumes. The poor wore the clothes which they were given or which they bought from old-clothes dealers. The lower-class costume was a second-hand costume, just as today the lowerclass car is a second-hand car. (The comparison between the costume of the past and the car of the present day is not as artificial as it may seem: the car has inherited the social signficiance which dress used to have.) Thus the man of the people was dressed like the man of the world a few decades earlier; in the streets, of Louis XIII's (1755-1824) Paris. He wore the plumed bonnet which had been fashionable in the 16th century, while the women wore the hood favoured by ladies of the same period.

Foke lore

We have noted some association between boys wearing dresses or other skirted garments and the folklore of different countries.
Ireland: It was customary in Ireland customary to keep young boys dressed as girls so they would not be stolen by the "wee folk". This again is an example of a higher value placed on boys, apparently the "wee folk" were not much interested in girls.
Scotland: I have been told that the practice of keeping boys in skirts was related to an old Scottish habit, based on the "murder of the innocents" in the Bible, but that was only hearsay.



Figure 8.--By the turn of the century, distinctly boy dresses were available, although not all mothers brought these plainer dresses for their sons. Others chose tunic suits that looked like dresses.

Parental roles

Certainly one factor is that in European society and most other societies around the role, a young child is entrusted to the care of his mother with fathers playing only a minor role. This has changed today in Europe and America, but it is only a relatively recent development. Most mothers and father until the second half of the 20th century saw the raising of young children as the often sole provinve of the mother. Thus outfitting a young boy in dresses seemed for several cengturies as entirely appropraiate as the young boy was generally not deemed to be old enough for the society of men.

Physical development

Some of the early proponents of specialized childrens clothing as early as the 17th century stressed the idea that a child's clothing should allow for freedom of movement. This is a principal that Rosseau strssed in his classic Emile. It was echoed by many other, but not all, 18th Century authors. Skirted garments allowed for more freedom of movement for young children than breeches and trousers. This is of course especially true for younger children learning to walk. The authorities of the 19th century, including doctors, writing in child care books and ladies magazines advised mothers that it was important that younger children should be unencumbered around their lower extremities. This made it easier for them to learn to walk and then as they grew older to romp about--running, climbing, and jumping. This was especially important for boys who were and expected to be more active than girls. Being free to engage in healthy activities, it was felt, helped boys to grow stronger at an early age. Some experts insisted that trousers would actually inhibit their growth. Thus it was demed healthier to keep mall boys in dresses, even though they might prefere to wear trousers like their fathers and older brothers.

Sanitary/practical reasons

Some think that the reason 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, would relieve themselves wherever the need took them in the gutter in a darkish corner of the yard etc. Think of an "untrained" child in an emergency--which would be quickest and least likely to soil what might be its only garment? A skirt or pantaloons? No velcro or zippers either, only buttons! Perhaps an example of necessity becoming custom.


Figure 9.--The mother of these children preffered the fancier dresses with ruffles and lace for her son than the plainer boy styles which had become available. This boy wears an elaborate pinafore over his dress.

Societal Factors

Many behaviors and especially those related to fashion and clothing are significantly affected by social class.
Aristocracy: There are accounts that aristocrats might dress boys in dresses because they were afraid that male children would be abducted/killed because of succesional disputes. Since girls didn't generally count as a threat, boys were sometimes made to look like girls. This accounted, however, for a relatively small number of boys.

Power

A deeper possibility is that men held all the power in society and until boys began to assume some responsibility they did not merit male attire and the power it conveys.

Breeching

Quite a little ceremony could be made of 'breeching' a boy, giving him his first manly pair of pants at 4 to 6 years of age. Some times a boy also got his first haircut, but practices varies and depending on the mother's point of view, a boy's hair could be cut before or well after breeching. The breeching was a boy's rite of passage into the male world, causing mamas to shed a tear and papas to take notice of what was no longer a baby but that most valuable item--a full-fledged son.

A Psychological Perspective

An HBC contributor, who is a psychologist, has studied the role which the mother's emotional state and personality characteristics may have played in dressing their sons as girls, as well as why some mothers insisted on keeping their boys in curls and dresses until almost 10 or 11. He suggests that such characteristics, as well as the unique circumstances of the times, help explain why some mother's had such a strong interest in dressing up their boys. His essay raises some intersting questions and offers some insightful answers.






HBC





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Created: March 10, 1999
Last updated: 11:58 PM 8/5/2006