Dress styles appear to have changed significantly from the early decades of the century. While women's dresses were still long, dresses for children became shorter. At mid century they might be worn with pantalettes to cover the leg, but by the 1860s children might appear bare legged with short ankle socks. Various source soffer guidelines for interpreting these images. We have begun some chronological information for the mid-19th century. Scholars looking at drawings and paintings from the early 19th Century and even photographs by mid-century still frequently have trouble differentiating girls from boys. Dresses for boys and girls were virtually identical at the turn of the Century. Some minor differences as the century progressed. The most significant difference, however, appears to have been in the pantalettes worn by the children. By mid-century, elaborate dresses for boys were not recieved with universal enthusiam. Some criticized the elaborate styles in vogue for both boys and girls. Boys at mid-19th century were also wearing a variety of related skirted garments. Some like the kilt suit were just beginning to become popular. The popularity of many of these garments varied widely among countries.
Dress styles appear to have changed significantly from the early decades of the century. While women's dresses were still long, dresses for children became shorter. At mid century they might be worn with pantalettes to cover the leg, but by the 1860s children might appear bare legged with short ankle socks. Here there were some differences among countries. A 1845 American "primitive" painting by Susan Waters, The Lincon Children appears to show two twin sisters in identical dresses and pinafores. The child between them appears to be a boy. He wears a dress without a pinafore. His hair is not nearly as carefully done. He wears a shorter dress than his sister, but his legs are modestly covered by pantalettes.
One scholar offer some clues. He suggests when trying to interpret a drawing in a woman's magazinefrom the 1850s, ... the child, though barefoot, is dressed in mid-century clothing. It appears to be a girl, based on the length and fullness of the skirt, the low neckline of the dress, thelength and dressing of the hair, and the slimness of her ankle (boys generally being depicted with astockier build). One stylistic element which seems particularly girlish to the modern viewer is the the open neckline. The commentator above even suggests that it is an indicator that an unidentified child in a dress may be a girl. I am not sure, however, that he is correct about this. It appears that many boys in the early and mid-19th Century wore dresses with low
necklines, just like their sisters. It appears that childrem, both boys and girls, wore dresses with contemporary styling, whatever the neckline, hemline, or other stylistic fashions involved. We know this was the case for 18th Century dresses worn by boys. I know of no evidence indicating that this changed in the early 19th Century. Dresses especially styled for boys do not appear until the late 19th Century. The first references I know of to boy dresses occurred in the 1870s and became more common in the 1880s. References to boy dresses were quite common by the 1890s.
W e have begun to collect some chronological information about dresses during the mid-19th century. We are adding links to the appropriate pages alreasy loaded on HBC. Unfortunately many of the images we have found are not dated. We can tell they are from the mid-19th century, but describing them to a specific decade is more difficult. We see a wide range od styles. Necklines were quite varied. Styling could be very plain, especially in the 1840s, but we see fancier styles by the 60s. Boys and girls were still kept in similar dresses, even past the toddler period--often until about the age of 5 or 6 years. The style of those dresses changed as the child grew. Infants might wear long dresses. As the reached an age where they were learning to walk, the dresses were made shorter. Both wore "dresses" of cotton or wool around the house. The graceful, soft Empire dresses that allowed for freedom of motion had disappeared by the 1840s. Even little girls once ore began to be trussed up in bustles, stays, and bows. The usual child's dress was long or short sleeved to suit the season, with slim sleeves, round or boat-shaped neck and the waist was lightly fitted with a set-in belt. Preferred fabrics were linen and cotton, for ease of care. Little boys continued to wear dresses like their sisters. Children's dresses like their mothers grew increasingly elaborate by the 1850s. Women's and children's clothing saw a tremendous surge towards excess by the 1850s. Women's fashions, skirts widened so that wire frames had to be used for support. Massive skirts sported flounces, laces, ribbons, or any variety of other often gaudy trimmings. The dressing of children was fully in a mother's, thus this taste for high ornamentation couldn't help but spill over into children's clothing. Young boys still wore dresses in the 1860s. The age at which they were breeched was still left to the disgression of the mother and, as a result, could vary widely.
Class destinctions had some impact on breeching. While most younger boys might wear dresses, generally it was boys from wealthy families that were kept in
dresses the longest. Raised at home under constant supervision of nannies and governesses, boys from wealthy families, closted in nurseries, often had very little contact with other children. The interactions that did occur were mostly with relatives or children of the same social class and this other boys who may have also be kept in dresses. We note an American boy wearing a dress in the 1860s. Another example is an American boy in 1865.
We note children wearing both sold-colored and pattern dresses. A good example of solid colors and patterns is a portrait taken of unidentified American children, we think in the late 1850s.
We are not yet sure anout which was more common or the different types of patterns, We have noted plaids and checks. We are not entirelyv sure of the gendr conventions involved, but believe that olaid was popular for boys.
Scholars looking at drawings and paintings from the early 19th Century and even photographs by mid-century still frequently have trouble differentiating girls from boys. Dresses for boys and girls were virtually identical at the turn of the Century. Some minor differences as the century progressed. The most significant difference, however, appears to have been in the pantalettes worn by the children. The ones worn by the girls were much frillier than those normally worn by the boys. There was no definite rule on this. It was basically up to the predelections of the mother and some mothers had a preference for frilly children's clothes, for their sons and daughters. There appears to have been no effort to make dresses specifically designed for boys, although there were clear differentiation in pantalettes. Later in the 19th Century, specifically designed boys' dresses did appear, although some mothers still preferred the fancier dresses made for girls. There were still very few differences between dresses for boys and girls at mid-Century. Often one can only look to props, hair tyles, and the context of the photograph for clues. But even these can be misleading. Many mothers for example, did not believe in cutting their son's hair until after he was breeched.
By mid-century, elaborate dresses for boys were not recieved with universal enthusiam. Some criticized the elaborate styles in vogue for both boys and girls. One fashion spokes woman, Sara Hale, waged a very lady-like war on the over abundance of decorations for infant and toddler clothing. According to Mrs. Hale, "A large pattern of embroidery, isnot suited for an infant's slip, neither arewide ruffles, nor a coarse pattern of lace...Rich embroidery and Valenciennes lacecannot make the little creatures a lot morecomfortable or heighten beauties which arevisible only to the eye of nurse andmamma..." To aid her in the campaign, she some times enlisted other acknowledged experts suchas Mrs. Tuthill (author of the Nursery Book for Young Mothers) who scolds,
"It is bad enough, in all conscience to pervert the mind and character of girls, and render them dressed up bundles of vanity, butboys --boys who are to become men--it is shocking! Of all weaknesses in a man, what is more despicable than an inordinatelove of dress, added to an exorbitantdesire for admiration of self...?" Should mothers not heed the warning, Mrs. Tuthill predicts dire consequences: "If you make him a peacock now, there is much reasonto apprehend that he will never become an eagle.
Boys at mid-19th century were also wearing a variety of related skirted garments. Some like the kilt suit were just beginning to become popular. The popularity of many of these garments varied widely among countries.
The kiltsuit that would become popular in the 1870s began appearing in the 1860s. They differed from dresses in that they were two piece garments. The kilt was in effect a skirt. The style of making the jacket and skirt out of the same muted suit material had not yet developed. The jacket in the 1860s was often of a quite different style or material from the skirt. The
early kilt suits, especially 1860s suits, had jackets that buttobed at the collar and then
fell apart down the chest. Only the top was buttoned. The rest of the jacket was parted
showing the blouse or shirt, usually white with a modest collar.
I notice some images beginning about the middle of the century showing children wearing a blouse and skirt rather than a one-piece dress. This fashion might have been worn earlier, but just becomes apparent at mid-century because of the advent of photography and the rapid escalation in the number of available images as well as the broadening of the income level of the people portrayed. Photography while still not cheap by the 1850s, was much less expensive than a formal painted portrait. Some mothers clearly outfitted their sons in skirts and blouses. Theoretically the blouses could be used even after the boy was breeched. I am not sure at this time if there was ang gender differences with this fashion. It may have been more common for boys than girls, but I can not yet determine this.
Boys might also wear protective garmets over their clothes. Clothing was expensive before garmets were mass produced and a considerable expense to modest and low income parents. The cost and time devoted to laundering clothes before washing machines was another factor arguimg for protective garments. Over an elaborate frock a "pinafore,"or apron was pinned to the front, often of sheer linen, embroidered and lace-trimmed. Pinafores were worn by girls and small boys in the mid-19th century, but by the late 19th century had become regarded as a girls' garment. Both boys and girls, however, wore smocks. Many families at the time were quite large. Some mothers would by identical smocks for all their children--boys and girls alike. Some smocks were play clothes others were more dressy to protect their children's good party outfits. Smocks might be used over dresses and frocks or more boyish clothes.
Smocks appear to have been most popular and widely worn in European countries such as France and Italy as school wear. It is likely that there use as school wear in part explains their greatervusage at home. They were also in America and Britain, but usage varied. There appears to have been social differeces in both America and Britain. Smocks were more common in affluent families than families of more modest circumstances. This does not appear to have been the case in Frace and Italy.
Mothers as a boy approached the age of 4 or 5, had to think about breeching him. While some mothers kept their sons in dresses well beyond their 5th birthday, most boys were breched by 6 years of age. One alternative for a mother that did not believe her little darling was quite ready for pants, could choose to dress him in kilts. Since Queen Victoria popularized the kilt by dressing her s ons in them, mothers without Scottish ancestry could also choose kilts and kilt suits for their sons. Many mothers used the kilt as a transition to more boyish kneepants suits. This proved increasingly popular and by the end of the decade many little boys were wearing kilt suits rather than more girlish dresses.
Some period movies depict boys in long hair and dresses. Movies of course can vary greatly in historical accuracy. It is likely, however, that those who have gone to the trouble of depicting boys in dresses and long hair, probably ercised considerable attention to detail.
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