Dresses: Movie Depiction

Figure 1--Little boys throughout the 18th century wore dresses like their sisters. Augustus the youngest son of George III wore dresses just like his sisters.

Europeans for centuries dressed little children, both boys and girls in the same styles of ankle-length dresses, often referred to as petticoats. For most of this time, no special clothing existed for childrn, boys or girls. Boys when they were "breeched", were simplly dressed in smaller versions of the knee breeches and other clothes worn by their fathers. Special clothes for children appeared in the late 18th centuty with distinctive styles for boys and girls. Even so, many mothers continued to dress small boys in dresses for more than a century. This fashion also became common in America and persisted well into the 20th century. Some period movies movies accurately depict the styles of various historical eras. 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.

Skirted Outfits

Younger European boys in Europeand America commonly wore a variety of skirted garments. Curiously, we know very few films where boys were actually costmed in dresses. We know of know filns in which boys wore pinafores. Another popular skirted style wee kilt suits, but again very few films have outfitted boys in kilt suits or Highlnd kilts. The same was true for tunics. Unlike the other skirted garments, we do know a number of films in which boys wore smocks.

Movie Costuming

It is interesting that despite the fact that 19th century boys commonly wore dresses and other skirted garmnts, they are rarely depicted in movies. We believe this is primarily because of the chornology of movies. Movies appeared at about the turn of the 20th century. This was about the time that skirted garments as well as long hair and curls began to decline in popularity for boys. When we speak of movies, it should be remembered that until 1930, most movies were silent films. Silent films, however, are mostly unknown to modern viewer. Many in fact have been lost. In terms of sound movies, boys are almost never depicted in dresses. Of course by 1930, boys were no longer commonly outfitted in dresses. We are unsure why so many historical movies portray boys in eronious costumes. Perhaps many costumers were poorly informed. Or perhaps producers thought that such costuming would not sit well with modern moviegoers, especially the boys. Some young actors may have also object to more historically accurate costumes.

Historically Accurate Dresses

We know very few films in which boys were outfitted in dreses reflecting the common practing of clothing younger boys in dresses and other skirted garments. Despite the paractice being almost universal (although ages varied) in America and Europe, it is very rarely reflected in period movies.

Figure 2--Here the boy Gonza wearing a dress is shown romping with his sister in the French movie, "Sunday in the Country".

Sunday in the Country (France, 19??)

HBC had thought the title of this film was "A Day in the Country". A HBC reader tells us that the title is actually "Sunday in the Country". I am not sure what the original French title was. This movie takes place probably just before or just after World War I. The main character in the movie is an old impressionist painter who lives in the country. He is expecting a visit from his son and family (2 boys and a girl) and is getting ready to walk to the railway station to meet them. The painter has two grown children, a son named Gonzo and a daughter named Irene. There are a number of conflicts in this movie between the painter and his son, the painter and his daughter, and the two children. However, I won't go into the plot. If your interested in the movie you can check it out at Blockbuster in the foreign movie section. Anyway the painter throughout the movie has flashbacks to his life when his children were at home and his wife was alive. The first of these occur when he walks out of the gate on his way to the railway station. In the background you hear children laughing and someone calling Gonzo, Gonzo, Irene, etc. Then suddenly appears two little girls. They wear very pretty dresses, more like party dresses than play dresses, and hats decorated with ribbons and flowers. The youngest girl has very long hair and the older one long hair, but cut shoulder length. The actors are of course girls, but I think the youngest represents Irene and the oldest Gonzo as young children. The old man, however, doesn't seem to recognize them. These two children reappear in the movie when the old man is out walking with his son. Of course, the old man is the only one that sees them. After they disappear from view he asks his son where they went. Later in the movie there is also a flashback scene where the painter and his wife are having a picnic on the lawn. The wife calls, Gonzo, Irene several times. Finally, two children emerge from the house, a little girl wearing a dress, and an older boy wearing a skirted suit. The boy looks to be about 10 - 12 and the girl several years younger; the same relative age difference as the two little girls (?) seen earlier in the movie. There is also a painting of two little girls which the painter keeps for sentmental reasons. I assume, his children were the models for this painting.

The Madness of King George (England, 19??)

Another movie that has several scenes showing both boys and girls' clothes is "The Madness of King George". All of the youngest children are shown wearing identical dresses, including his youngest son, Augustus.

Comedic Devices

Boys also have been costumed in dresses as a comedic device or for a variety of other reasons. Here we are not talking about dresses as garments that boys were actually intended to wear.

Beverly Hills Brats (US, 19??)

"Beverly Hills Brats" revolves around the boy called 'Scooter Miller' who is fed up of being ignored by his parents and family. He stages his own kidnapping and pays someone to send ransom notes to his parents. Through a good part of the movie, he wears a dress and wig which used to be a fancy dress costume his parents bought for him. He is trying to disguise himself from the police and dresses as little bo peep. I'm pretty sure a disguise like that would attract attention rather than hide his identity.

Lady Bugs (US, 1992)

Amusing little film, a passable Rodney Dangerfield vehicle. In this film he is coaching the company's losing girls' soccer team to please the boss. The plot is enlivened by a teenage boy (Jonathan Brandis), about 14, who went on the play a youth in the TV series Sea Quest. The boy plays Rodney's son who he disguises as a girl to give his inept players a chance to win. He wears page-boy bangs and is rather a believable girl. Several scenes of the boy in girls clothes. He giggles at Rodney who dresses up to play his mother.

Our Gang

In several "Our Gang" shorts Alfala or some of the other boys wind up in dresses for comedic purposes.

Member of the Wedding (US, 1952)

A family plans a wedding while the black maid brilaintly played by Ethel Waters looks after a young boy and his older sister who wants to go alone on her older brother's honeymoon. Brandon De Wilde, the boy in Shane, plays the part he played on the Broadway stage. The story unfolds on a very hot day in the South and he wears bib-front shorts. Near the end, in a charming scene, he puts on his sisters dress. This is no a comedic scene, but rather something a small boy might do. On in all a superb performance by Brandon who played in both the Broadway play and film, beinging him considerable natioanl attention and undoubtedly landing him the unforgetable role of Joey in Shane.

You Can't Do that on Televisions (Canada, 1980s)

Boys wearing dresses were a common gag routein on rge Canadian Television program, "You Can't do that on Television" in the 1980s. You Can't Do That On Television was a kid's answer to Monty Python. It was a saving grace for television at the time. This Canadian TV program produced in the 1980s was picked up by American cable networks, especially Nickolonian. Many episodes included clothing. Often skits were built around the boys being dresses in dresses, kiklts, sailor suits, Fauntleroy suits, diappers, and other outfits boys might find enbarassing. I think some of the skits were thought up by the boys themselves. Interestingly the skits involving the girls rarely touched upon clothing. Sometimes the boys appeared in tights and tu-tus. I'm not sure just why other than for comic relief.


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Created: May 15, 1998
Last updated: November 7, 2003