Boys' Recollections about wearing Dresses

Figure 1.--These brothers in the 1860 or 70s wear identical kilted skirts. The small collar and bows they wear help to date the image.

Parents and fashion experts discussed the practice of outfitting boys in dresses all through the 19th and early 20th Century. There are also many litterary references. Some of these discussions are reproduced below to provide an idea of what contempraries thought of this practice. Some observers refer to the custom of outfitting boys in dresses as a Victorian custom, but in fact in predated the Victorian wra by centuries.

The 1820s

Robert Sharp, 1827

In parts of Yorkshire, at least, the transformation to more grown-up 'boys' clothing called 'button clothes' was often marked by giving the boy a penny, as Robert Sharp of South Cave (ERY) noted in his diary entry for 9th October 1827: "Sometimes when I first see a little Boy in Button Clothes, I give him a penny to put in his Pocket, which I know from experience is very gratifying. I can remember very well the first time that I got on Coat and Breeches Roger Pinder gave me a penny, I know the place [in Barmston, ERY] to a yard where I then was; what scenes have passed over since then, which is Half a Century ago ..."

Figure 2.--This Dagerotype was probably taken in the 1850s. It is probably a sister and brother, but it is quite difficult to tell.

The 1840s

John Beames, 1844

John Beames, remembering his childhood, writes that at age 6 in 1844, "I was now promoted to male costume. Hitherto I had worn the usual child's costume of those days: a frock like a girl's and white calico drawers. But now I had a cloth jacket and waistcoat, very short trousers buttoning over the waistcoat, a stiff round cap of white horsehair with a long tassel and leather peak, and Blucher boots." [Memoirs of a Bengal Civilian, first published Chatto & Windus, 1961]

The 18?0s

Louis May Alcott, 18??

In Little Men (I think) by Louis May Alcott (written in period), there is a mention of her toddler son becoming old enough - mature enough - to wear pants instead of the baby dresses. When I reread this after raising sons, I realized that she was referring to potty-training. It is a lot easier to change a diaper on a child wearing something loose that can be lifted out of the way (even with our modern snaps and velcro). We now can let a child wear only a shirt indoors, but we have warmer houses and are more easy-going about exposed legs!

Figure 3.--Notice the huge collar on this boys' dress in the early 1900s. His dress was purchased in a large size so he could wear it for several more years.

The 1870s

Unknown mother, 1874

A mother sends a question to a Q.& A. column in 1874: "I have a little boy between 5 and 6 years of age,...I do not like dressing children like men so young...yet I suppose I cannot keep my boy much longer in petticoats...I intend him to have the tunic and knickerbockers...but do not know what he ought to wear under...." [Englishwoman's Domestic Magazine, 1874]

The 1890s

Pam, 1991

I have a studio portrait photograph of my grandfather taken in 1891 when he was aged 5. He has hair below his shoulders, a round "sailor" hat on the back of his head, dark jacket, knee-length white dress with lacy hem, pantaloon-type drawers reaching about 6 inches below the hem, button boots, and a very sulky expression.

My grandmother explained to me that boys always wore girls' clothing until they were 5 and usually had long hair like a girl. At 5 they had the hair cut and went into boys' clothes. Families who could afford it often had a photograph taken to mark the event.

Christopher Wagner

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Created: November 17, 1998
Last updated: October 1, 2000