English Boys' Clothes during the 1850s: Pen Barrett Browning

Elizabeth Barett Browning and Robert Browning are two of England's most noted romantic poets. Elizabeth grew up in a priviliged, wealthy family. She had 11 brothers and sisters. Her mother dressed the boys just like girls in long hair and dresses. Elizabeth was very upset when her father had the boys' hair cut. After marring Robert they had one son, Pen in Italy. Pen was the light of Elizabeth's life. She spoiled him outrageously. He was schooled at home by Elizabeth and Robert. While not interested in clothes herself, she bought elaborate expensive outfits for the boy. Elizabeth kept Pen in dresses with the same flair as her romantic poetry even at 9 years of age and at 11 wore a tunic with lacey pantalettes. Robert was dubious about how Elizabeth dressed Pen, but apparently did not intervene. Until Elizabeth's untimely death, Pen wore long carefully curled hair. Pen did not object as a younger boy, enjoying the attention and compliments from his mother's friends. As an older boy he began to object, but with little success in the face of his strong opinioned mother who had very definite ideas on the subject.

Figure 1.--This photograph of Pen at age 11 about 1860. Pen's Hair is done in finglets. He wears a small lace collar and jacke with trousers looking somewhat like pantalettes.

Robert Wiedeman ("Pen")--Arrives

The Brownings while still in Italy had a son Robert Wiedeman Barrett Browning, who she called "Pen". The boy was born March 9, 1849. A charming picture emerges of the Brownings' mutual aid, to the pouring out of the coffee. She benefited from their unconstraint, their regime of hard work, their interchange of encouragement. Pen was the delight of her life. She devoted her self to his upbringing she put into effect theories about the upbringing of children which she had held since brothers Sette and Occy were born. Elizabeth had very definite ideas on child raising and how children should be dresses. She also liked her baby to have total freedom of movement. Cultural outings were one of the other issues on which the new parents disagreed on about Pen. Elizabeth and Robert discussed evry aspect of Pen's upbringing and they often disagreed. Discipline or better the lack of it and his clothes were two areas of disagreement.

Italy and France

Elizabeth and Robert lived in Italy and France. In part this was because the warmer Italian climate was considered better for her delicate health. Pen thus grew upmsurounded by Italian, French, and English and managd tom mix and butcher all three. It amused Elizabeth and irritated Robert. When Pen was taken out for a stroll, both his beautiful clothes and strange accents attracted much attention. Elizabeth never missed an opportunity to show that she thought caring or fashion was frivolous, although that was not entirely true. She did have some interest in fashion, and she expressed much of it in her choices of outfits for Pen.

Pen's Clothes

The clothes Elizabeth chose for her son, as least as a younger boy, reflected fashion trends at the mid-19th century, although there was considerable differences on how boys were dressed. Elizabeth was a doting mother and dressed her son accordingly in some of the more romantic boys' fashions of the day, influenced by her ideas on feminism and women's rights. Biographers of Mrs. Browning speculate that she really desired a daughter and dressed "Pen" accordingly. A recent biography of Mrs. Browing has a photograph of Pen at 9 years of age wearing a dress over with voluminous petticoats, lace trimmed pantalettes and carefully arranged long ringlets (figure 1). Elizabeth carried on a regular correspondence with a friend over the years where the subject of their children's clothes are discussed. Opinions of the day varied widely from family to family and between income levels. It appears that Elizabeth friend who had several boys had very different ideas on boys' clothes. Elizabeth mentions in one of the letters that her friend's youngest son who is several years younger than Pen is already wearing tunics. Their family maid Wilson said people turned in the street to look at her charge, to Elizabeth's gratification. Robert despite his personal thoughts on the matter, seems to have considered the subject of Pen's clothes a matter for his wife to decide. Boys being boys, presumably Pen must have asked his father to intervene. At any rate, as a younger boy Pen's clothes were not unusual. Pen did not begin to question his mother until he was older. In fact, Pen for his part as a younger boy did not complain at all. In fact he appears to have liked the attention. Pen apparently liked his girlish dress when young, because of the attention he received from adoring adults (woman); however, as he grew older, he begin to ask, without much success, for more boyish clothes, shoes, and haircut. I'm not sure just when he began to bring up the subject. By the time he was 11 and becoming increasingly self-conscious about his clothes, his mother's health was deteriorating. Presumably neither Pen or his father would not have done anything to disturb her at that time. I do know that right after Elizabeth's untimely death, Pen was allowed to have his hair cut and get more boyish clothes.

Adult Life

We do not know a great deal about Pen after the death of his mother. We do know that he became a poet and artist, although never achieving his parents stature.


Forster, Margaret. Elizabeth Barrett Browning: A Biography.


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Created: September 11, 1998
Last updated: February 14, 2004