Mothers and Boys' Clothing in the Late 19th Century: A Psychological Perspective

Figure 1.--It is often difficult in 19th century photographs to be sure about the gender of unidentified children.

From the perspective of the late 20th century, it strikes us as unusual that many mothers from the 1870s through the early 1900s dressed their boys in what we would now consider to be a girlish fashion. And though we may see it as a curious aberration today, dressing young boys and girls alike was common practice among the middle and upper-middle classes in the late 19th century. There are a number of economic explanations for this phenomenon--the industrial revolution, the intensification of social mobility, the transition from agricultural to an industrial society, the emergence of new bases of wealth, the appearance of the wife who could afford to remain in the home, and so forth. But what is often missing from this analysis is the psychological dimension of mothersí relations with and special attachment to their sons and the role, which this may have played in the fashions chosen for them.

The Civil War and Parenting Styles

Most mothers in the latter part of the 19th century were themselves reared during a period of intense and brutal social conflict. They saw fathers, brothers and male relatives killed or maimed during the Civil War from 1861 to 1865. The war was fought by men, and hundreds of thousands of them, North and South, died for their "cause". The Civil War and its aftermath, in fact, claimed more American lives than did World War I, World War II, and Vietnam combined. [HBC note: For more on the impact of war and social disorder, see "War and Social Upheaval".]

History suggests that there has frequently been an inclination (evident in Greek and Christian mythology, for example) for some mothers to crossdress their young boys to protect them (in fantasy) from the perils of war. They hoped by doing this to delay their childís identification as fully male and postpone his entrance in the male "realm". The motherís fantasy was that if they could make their son temporarily a female, they might "protect" him from being male and from having later to fight and kill. Though not well known among the general public, it appears there was a similar (though much more covert) phenomenon during and after World War I and World War II. Psychologists have encountered a number of male clients whose mothers quietly dressed them as girls in the period from 1910 to 1950 --sometimes presenting them as "real" girls in public during early childhood.

Figure 2.--Some mothers in the late 19th century delayed breeching their sons. Others delayed cutting his curls. Some mother did both.

Additionally, especially in the Victorian age, most fathers were the heads of the household, often stern and frequently dictatorial. Many were autocratic and domineering, and physical punishment ("spare the rod and spoil the child") was the order of the day. It is likely that part of the motive for mothers to delay breeching and thus their boys becoming "male" was to shield their sons from his wrath.

Social Status and New Wealth

It is often noted that feminine styles for boys in the 1880s and 1890s were especially prominent among the middle and upper classes of society. During the 19th century, American social status was changing from an aristocratic, agrarian base to a moneyed and capital base; status was shifting from how much land one owned to how much money had been accumulated. It was this new wealth that allowed many more mothers than before to hire servants and to have time to spend extra hours with their children. Many wives had married up, often to men with newly acquired wealth who themselves were "self-made" men from lower socio-economic backgrounds. Often they were recent immigrants who had come to seek their fortune in America and had been rewarded.

Still there was much "old" wealth around, and the parents sought through display of wealth to gain acceptance by the older elites. Since both husband and wife were often upwardly mobile from poorer families, they usually tried to play their new roles to the hilt. Psychologically, this may had led them to "over identify" with the trappings of upper class style--especially in housing and fashions. Since prolonging the time for breeching was frequent in established upper class families, many novae riche mothers mimicked this convention and kept their boys in dresses. This was a period of much social mobility, and those who had reached the middle or upper middle class hoped to buttress their status with the trappings and fashion styles of the establishment.

Sexual Repression

The Victorian period, as well known, was (at least in theory) especially repressed regarding sex and basic sexual instincts. Women did not have legs, they had "limbs"; they did not sweat, they "glowed"; and apparently they never belched or passed gas. Sex was rarely if ever discussed in the home and many women were ignorant of sexual anatomy, not to mention intercourse. In the spirit of the times, most of these women had "saved" themselves for the marriage bed; and virginity on the wedding night was widely preached if not always practiced. Sometimes, their first experience with sex was quite unpleasant, even repulsive. (Their new husbands often knew only a bit more than they.)

Contemporary personal journals which do mention sex, frequently portray "consummation" in starkly negative terms and as a burden, rather than something natural to be enjoyed. One new wife who discussed the wedding bed with her mother was advised to "just lie back and think about trimming a hat." For many of these women, sex was both unpleasant and a duty; masculinity and the male sexual role was seen as negative, hostile, even as a threat.

Psychological theory (even going back to Freud) suggests that one defense against a "hostile masculinity" was a denial of the full sexuality of their sons. One could reduce or help neutralize the "maleness" of a boy child by such devices as dressing him in feminine ways, letting his hair grow and be curled, and by encouraging an interest in more feminine activities. By subconsciously transforming the boy into a girl and by postponing breeching, the recognition and acceptance of his masculinity could be delayed. One reason that so many accounts of breeching and the cutting of curls (from the motherís viewpoint) describe the devastating feelings that accompanied these events was that the mothers felt they were "losing" their child to the sinister world of the masculine.

Research indicates that the more hostile the motherís relationship to her own father and husband, the more intense to hold on to the feminine boy. This certainly contributed to the motivation of some women to delay the age of breeching sometimes even until early adolescence.

Figure 3.--Often we know little or nothing about the 19th century boys in old photographs. In the case of this Virginia boy, we know a great deal about him and his mother. Click on the image for details.


Another important psychological factor among many of these mothers is narcissism, or what psychologists now call a "narcissistic personality disorder". Such women have experienced serious conflict with the males in their lives and transferred to their sons much of the emotional energy which otherwise would have gone into an intimate connection with a husband or father. The relationship between mother and child becomes intense, and the child is allowed little if any emotional "space". For a narcissistic mother, her child is not seen as a separate individual with his own needs, but rather as an extension of herself. He becomes a symbol, a plaything, a doll which can be manipulated to the motherís ends. As such, he fills the motherís need to be the center of attention and to act on the stage, which she has created. Her children become actors on this stage and exist for the satisfaction of her needs rather than theirs. (This would seem, for example, to characterize the relationship of Frances Hodgson Burnett with her two boys.)

The need for control of the otherís behavior is a central feature of narcissism. When combined with denial of the childís gender, as discussed above, the result is often a highly controlled, feminized boy. The son becomes a focus for the motherís control; and his clothing, eating, and activities in and outside the house are carefully managed. This is further enhanced when the father is remote and uninvolved, and here the feminine becomes a stronger role model than the masculine. As noted above, dressing a young boy child as a girl still occurs today, though generally hidden from public view due to the stigma attached to it. In some instances, research indicates, this practice coupled with a motherís narcissism may be a factor in transsexualism. For most boys so reared near the turn of the century, the repercussions in later life appear to be minimal. Yet there were some whom it obviously affected. One was Ernest Hemmingway, dressed as a girl until 7 or 8 years, who spent much of his adult life, his biographers suggest, trying to overcome his feminine rearing. His emphasis on masculinity and grit, which are strong themes in his writings like The Old Man and the Sea many be interpreted as an attempt to compensate for his overly feminine childhood.

Richard Schott


HBC encourages comments and discussions on the essays. The following comments have been received on this essay. HBC streesses that this is not to criticise the authors, only interesting, provocative essays are posted. Rather the issues under cinsideration or complex, often poor understood practices and conventions. HBC seeks to stimulate discussion of the issues involved to better understand them.

Ron comments: A well written essay, but I disagree with a lot of it. For one thing I disgree with the analysis of the effect of Civil War on clothing styles. Clothing styles for young boys did not clhange significantly after the Civil War. Boy wore dresses before and after. On the other hand clothing styles for young boys changed drastically following World War I. This war nearly wiped out a whole generation of young European men yet after the war young boys were less likely to wear dresses and long hair. I personally believe it was the psychological revolution in the early 20th century that ended this practice. Freud and others pointed out, correctly or incorrectly, the effect of early childhood, especially the relationship of young boys with their mothers, on later behavior. Thus, I'm sure that many popular publications were warning Mothers against feminizing their sons or at least discouraging them by promoting more mascluine fashiions. I once read an article in which the author recommended dressing a young boy in pretty clothes so that he would feel as wanted and admired as his sister. I don't think you would find an equivalent opinion expressed after World War I.

Christopher Wagner

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Created: December 4, 1999
Last updated: December 4, 1999