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When Little Boys Wore Dresses

Until about a century ago, in the western world, you couldn’t tell whether a young child was a girl or a boy from the way he or she dressed. All young children dressed alike, irrespective of their gender, in girls clothing complete with girly shoes, long hair and ponytails. Trousers or breeches wasn’t worn until boys were at least four, but some continued to wear skirts, gowns and petticoats until they were significantly older—about eight years of age. By that time, the boys would eagerly look forward to wearing their first pair of trousers. The donning of trousers was a very significant milestone in the life of a young boy, and this momentous event was celebrated with a ceremony known as “breeching”.

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The five children of King Charles I of England in 1637. Second from left with red sleeves is James, still unbreeched at four. Standing near him in full red is his older brother Charles. The rest are girls.

The practice of dressing little boys in girl’s clothing began in the United Kingdom, possibly in the middle of the 16th century. The reasons were practical. Young kids and toddlers lacked potty training, so dressing them in skirts and other open-ended dresses made it easier for their mothers and nannies to change their nappies, as trousers and breeches often had complicated fastenings. Zippers or Velcro were not invented then, and neither were diapers. Dresses, tunics and gowns also allowed room for further growth. This was important because children grew fast, and at that age before the Industrial Revolution, clothes were much more expensive than they are now. Nonetheless, the breeching ceremony had little to do with social or economic status and was practiced across all class lines.

Four to six was usually the age when boys discarded long dresses for trousers. The event called for a small private celebration, to which family and friends were invited. Gifts were showered and those parents who could afford gave their son a small toy sword, as a token of the real sword he would own as an adult. For the boys, breeching was an important rite of passage in their life, marking their progress from babyhood to boyhood. For the rich, it meant going away to boarding school, while for the working class, it may well have marked the start of a life of slavery.

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Portrait of two children, a boy on the left with a squirrel and probably a girl on the right. Art by John Badger, circa 1755-60.

Once breeched, boys were expected to behave like small adults. Breeching was also the time when boys would leave the care of their mothers and enter the world of men. Many mothers so dreaded the change that they would delay breeching until their sons were seven or eight.

By the late 18th century, society began to acknowledge the important phase of life called childhood. New philosophies of child-rearing called for clothes that were appropriate for a toddler. British and American boys began to wear short pantaloons and short jackets, while very young boys wore something called the “skeleton suit” which was not unlike modern rompers. But wearing dresses did not completely went out of fashion. Knee-length dresses over white pantaloons, worn equally by little girls and boys became very popular in the early 19th century.

It wasn’t until the end of the First World War, that parents began to dress their child according to their sex. But as the 20th century progressed, gender distinction once again declined as parents began to clothe their child androgynously in t-shirts, jeans, sweatshirts and sneakers.

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A Victorian Boy in a dress

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A photograph of Franklin Delano Roosevelt at age 2 1/2, circa 1884

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On the left is a young Charles II of England. On the right is Velázquez, the eldest son of Philip IV of Spain.

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