Victorian Boys in Dresses

No photo description available.
Franklin Delano Roosevelt (Wikipedia)

As you may know, I collect nineteenth-century photographs. I belong to a few Facebook groups on the subject, and quite often someone posts a photograph of a small boy in a dress, usually resulting in cries of “That’s a girl!” or, too often, “That’s horrible! He must have been humiliated!” In fact, dressing small boys and small girls in similar clothing predated the Victorians by centuries and lasted until early in the twentieth century, although especially in the later part of the nineteenth century, there were subtle differences between boys’ and girls’ dresses. Small boys weren’t “humiliated” by the practice, as their friends would be dressed similarly.

No photo description available.
Jim Stone’s Boy (my collection)

Although the similarity in clothing means that for us, at least, small boys in photographs can be difficult to distinguish from small girls, boys usually wore side parts or little top knots in their hair, although girls, especially older ones, can be found with side parts as well.

As for the reason behind the practice of dressing small boys and small girls similarly, uncomplicated frocks like the one above no doubt simplified toileting and laundering, but as Jo B. Paoletti points out, the continuation of boys in dresses long after they had achieved mastery of the toilet suggests that parents may have associated the practice with childhood innocence. Some may have simply not wanted their youngsters to grow up too fast.

No photo description available.
Two lads from my collection (alas, one squirmed a little)

Eventually, however, a boy would be “breeched”–put into pants, usually between the ages of two and seven. Charles Dickens, who was traveling, wrote to his sister-in-law on September 26, 1858, concerning his six-year-old son Edward (“Plorn”): “My best love to the noble Plornish. If he is quite reconciled to the postponement of his trousers, I should like to behold his first appearance in them. But, if not, as he is such a good fellow, I think it would be a pity to disappoint and try him.”

No photo description available.
No photo description available.
Charles W. Robins of Baltimore in his first pants (my collection)

As the nineteenth century wore on, boys began to transition to trousers at earlier ages. In reply to a lady known as “Harry’s Mother,” a New York Times columnist wrote in the July 9, 1893, issue, “Little boys jump nowadays almost from baby clothes into trousers, the age of four or even of three and a half years not being considered too early for such advancement. The size and figure of the child should guide the parent, however, as some of the tiny, slim-legged youngers present an absurd apperance in their scraps of trousers. A safe rule is five years, and as the mother loses her baby when he puts on the trousers this is not too long to possess him.” Three years earlier, in its December 1890 issue, Godey’s Magazine pronounced, “As for little boys, they are all sailors; and contrary to what has been the fashion for many years past, it is now considered extra chic to put them early in trousers. Not long since, boys wore knickerbockers until twelve or thirteen; now they are hardly out of short frocks when they are dressed as middies, with funnel-shaped trousers and jackets. It is quite amusing.”

No photo description available.
From my collection

Small boys often had luxurious, flowing locks, which sometimes were left in place for a while even after a boy was breeched. Julia Grant, wife of Ulysses S Grant, recalled in her memoirs, “I insisted upon our second son, Ulysses, wearing his beautiful curls, which reached quite to his waist, until he was eight years old, when, being no longer able to resist his importunings (all his many instincts rising in rebellion against this girlish adornment), I consented to the shearing of my lamb. He announced this to his schoolmates, who appeared in force Saturday morning petitioning for some of ‘Deliciousness”’ curls, which, of course, they got.”

No photo description available.
Nebraska lad from my collection, showing off his curls

Sources:

Jo B. Paoletti, “Clothing and Gender in America: Children’s Fashions, 1890-1920,” Signs, Autumn 1987.

John Y. Simon, ed., The Personal Memoirs of Julia Dent Grant (Mrs. Ulysses S Grant).

Graham Storey and Kathleen Tillotson, eds., The Letters of Charles Dickens, Volume 8, 1856-1858.

Scroll to Top
Scroll to Top