Breeching and Curls

Figure 1.--This little boy looks to be about 2 years old and was probably photographed in the 1860s. He has not yet been breeched or his curls cut. Note the pantalettes.

Breeching and cutting a boys curls was a tremedously varied peocess with differed greatly from family to family. In most families mother decided how and when to conduct the process of breeching and cutting a boy's curls. In some families father controlled every thing, but in most families it was mother's decission, especially for younger children. Many fathers would eventually intervene if mother delayed the process beyond what he felt was appropriate. The conventions for both breeching and cutting a child's curls varied over time. Outfitting boys in dresses and other skirted garments was quite common throughout the 19th Century. Hair styles were much more variable. Long hair esecially ringlet curls were much more common in the 1880s and 90s than earlier in the centurty. We note several different options for both younger and older boys.

Younger Child

Many mothers decided to breech or cut their sons curls at a relatively young age. Some boys did not have curls at all. It is not clear to me which was the more common practice. We would say based on the photographic record that cutting the girls first was the most common. There seems to be ample photographic evidence that both practices were wide spread. Breeching and cutting a boys curls seems most common among poorer children. But many boys from affluent copies were breeched or had their hair cut, even both, an early age.

Figure 2.--This little boy looks to be about 3 years old and given the fact that his new suit is a size too large for him, he has probably just been breeched.

Breeching first

The age of breaching varied widely from family to family. Some boys might be breached at avery young age. Few boys were breacged at 2 years of age, but we see some breached a 3 years of age. A wide range of social and chronological factors were involved. There were also chronolgical trends to consider. There was also variation about cutting a boy's hair, but based on our initial assessment it was more common to breach a boy first than to cut his hair first. Some mothers believed that a boy should be breeched at a young age, but saw no need to cut his curls. I see no evidence that one choice was more common than the other. It was very common for little boys to wear dresses throughout the 19th Century. Even so, some quite young boys were breeched. Outfits like Fauntleroy suits were often available in sizes beginning at abot 2 1/2 or 3 years of age. It was highly unsusal to see boys breeched before they could walk, but even in the 19th Century some boys were breeched as soon as they could walk. There are many examples archived on HBC of boys who have had their hair cut short still wearing dresses. A good example is an unidentified American boy in the 1880s.

Figure 3.--This little boy looks to be only about 1 year old and already wears short hair like his older brothers.

Cutting curls first

Other mothers believed that a boy should have his curls cut first, but did not believe he should be breeched until later. In the late 19th Century the choice was often long shoulder length hair, often curled into ringlets, or short hair worn by older boys. By the turn of the century other alternatives werebecoming popular like Buster Brown bangs or over the ears hair, instead of shoulder-length ringlets. There is one problem in assessing hair styles on younger boys. Lots of children naturally have very little hair before the age of 2 or 3. This is especially true of boys with blond hair. Thus it is not always readily apparent if a child has had his hair cut, or if he just naturally does not have thick hair that could be grown long. A good example here is an American boy, C. Olin Boyden, in 1852. He was only 2 years old when he had his curls cut.

Breeched and curls cut at the same time

Other mothers thought that a boy should be breeched and his curls cut at the same time. It is unclear if this was the mother's choice or perhaps the father beieved that the process shouls take place as soon as possible. This varied over time. This choice was most common among working-class famnilies. We are not positive how common this was as in the available phptographic archive it is not possible to determine precisely when the breeching and hair cutting occurred if a boy had his hair cut and was breeched at the same time. This is possible only if a before and after portrait was taken. But this occurred in only a small number of instances. The fact that many portraits show boys wih short hair and pants, we suspect that this may have been occurred quite a bit.

Figure 4.--This boy's mother has decided to delay cutting his long hair, but has breeched him. He wears knees pants with a lacey Fauntleroy blouse. He looks to be about 6 or 7b years old. The photograph was probably taken about 1890.

Older Child

Other mothers decided to wait until their son was older about 5 years old before breeching him or cutting his hair. There was not set age. Many boys had to wait even longer. For many mothers, the child's size was more important than his chronolgical age in determining when to breech him or cut his curls. Again it is unclear which process alternative was most common, but the photographic evidence suggests that for older boys that breeching was most likely to proceed having the curls cut. The mother was most likely to make the clothing and hair style decisions for the younger boy. Often the father considered such concerns beneath his dignity and left it up to his wife. As a boy got older, it became more and more likely that the father would get involved in incouraging his wife to breech their son or have his hair cut. While mothers would usually take their sons to the store to but dresses, kilt suits, Fauntleroy suits, Buster Brown suits, or even sailor suits, once it was time to purchase a more mature looking suit, it was often father who took the boy to his tailor or department store. Another complication is siblings. Boys with older sisters might wear their hand me downs, thus delaying breeching. It is unclear what the impact of older brothers was. It appears to have varied. Some families seem to have set a specific age at wehich each son in turn was breeched or his hair cut. Other families appear to have varied the prcess based on the child's height. In other instances mother seemed to have like dressing the children alike. Thus a boy may have been breeches or his hnair cut early to be dressed like his older brother. In other instances, older brothers might be kept in dresses longer or be kept in curls so they could be dressed similarly to their younger brothers.

Breeching first

The most common alternative for boys by the time they reached 5 or 6 years of age was to brrech the boy first, but many mothers delayed cuttingbhis curls, sometimes for several years. Boy dresses generally were made in sizes to about 6 years, alyhough presumably a boy might wear it for a year making him 7 before he was breeched. Boys without older sisters were especially likely to be breeched first. Kilt suits were made in sized up to 7 or 8 years. Some boys might swear dresses longer, but it was unsual. Curls on the other hand might be worn by boys even at 10 or 11. Most boys had their curls cut at about 5 or 6, but there is ample photographic edvidence of much older boys being kept in curls by their doting mothers. Ringlet curls for boys were especially popular during the late 19th Century as part of the Fauntleroy craze. Boys of a wide age span wore ringlet curls with their Faunteroy suits and lace collars. A boy might be breeched and bought his Fauntleroy suit any time from 3 years of age to 8 or even 10 years old. Some boys as old as 13 are known to continue wearing their velvet Faintleroy suits, although by then their curls were usually cut. Mothers who were enchanted by the Fauntleroy look, but did not yet want to breech their sons could always select a Fauntleroy dress or Fauntleroy kilt.

Figure 5.--This boy stills wears a boy's kilt suit, but his hair has been cut short. The photograph was probably taken in the the 1890s. He looks to be about 6 years old.

Cutting curls first

While a less common alternative, boys did have their curls cut, but continued to wear dresses or kilt suits for several years. It would be interesting to know what was going through a mother's mind that were cut her son's hair, but keep him in dresses and kilts. Unfortunately, I have no contemporary material written by mothers or fashion experts describing this alternative or the thought process and/or family discussions behind it. One might thaink that if a mother decided to cut an older boys' curls because he was growing up, that almost certainly he should be breeched. But this is 20th Century logic. However, a not inconsiderable number of mothers did not make this connection. Another unknown is the boy's wardrobe before breeching. Once a boy wearing dresses was purchasesd a proper boys' kilt suit, did he continued wearing dresses, perhaps alternating with his kilt suit for different occasions. And what dress or kilt was appropriate for what occasion. Or were the actual one-piece dresses put away and did he just wear kilt suits? There is also the complication of wether breeching involved a complete new wardrobe or did the boy continue to wear his dresses and kilts for home wear or formal occasions for a while after he received his first pair of trousers. A further complication is provided by smocks and pinafores. These issues are discussed in greater detail in the breeching pages. An example is Peter Kunkle an American boy in the early 1880s.

Figure 6.--The first suit for a boy breeched in the late 19th Century was often a Fauntleroy suit. Sometimes younger boys might be breeched and dressed up in a Fauntleroy suit, but older boys wore them also. Note the length of the ringlet and how this boy's long ringlet was carefully placed where it would show in the photograph to best effect.

Breeched and curls cut

Some boys may have had been breeched and had their curls cut at the same time. We do not know how common it was to combine these two events in a boys' life. It would seem logical to do it at the same time, but the largevnumber of available images clearly shows that many 19th Cebntury mothers saw breeching and cutting a boys' curls as two very different events that needed tomtake place at different times and under different circumstances. Unfortunately I have no actual accounts of this process. Many questions present themselves. Was the boy taken to the barber shop before or after he received his first pair of trousers. Was he taken to the barber shop by his mother or father? Did his brothers accompany him? Did mother clip off the ringlets first? Many nothers in the 19th Century may haver cut their son's hair at home? Did she make it a ceremony with the family watching? Or was it perhaps a private moment between an adoring mother and her son. Hopefully as HBC researches this topic that actual published or unpublished accounts will focus to shed light on this poorly understood, but important event in the libes of children. Once a boy was breeched and his curls cut, there were many alternatives. He might during the late 19th and early 20th Centuries wear a velvet Little Lord Fauntleroy suit just like boys who were breeched before their curls were cut. American boys wore their Fauntleroy suits both with and without ringlets curls. While Fauntleroy suits were also worn in Europe, it was in America that ringlets were the most popular for boys. In France, where Fauntleroy suits were also popular, many boys wore them with long hair--but usually not curled into long inglets. At the turn of the 20th Century, Buster Brown or tunics suits were popular. Once of the most popular outfits were a variety of sailor suits. Boys by the time they were 10 or 11 were increasing likely to wear a proper suit, often with kneepants.

Figure 7.--Boys by the age of 12 or 13 were generally wearing more adult kneepanrs suit. Some mothers still liked to add large floppy bows.

Individual Boys

HBC has noted a number of portraits where we believe a boys' breeching was being recorded for prosterity by proud parents, probably mostly mothers. Some of these boys already had their curls cut while other kept their curls even after breeching. It seems less common for a boy to have been breeched and his curls cut at the same time. Much of our infornation is American, primarily because HBC has acquired morre American images than images from other countries. Also it seems that ringlet cirls were more popular in America than other countries.


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Created: July 13, 1999
Last updated: 8:55 PM 9/29/2007