The Herald Bulletin

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Community

October 10, 2009

In History: Why little boys wore dresses

“No, they didn’t!” The group of third-grade students exclaimed.

“Yes, they did. Little boys used to wear dresses,” I said.

The group was touring the Pendleton Historical Museum on a school field trip. I had stopped at a small black-and-white checkered dress with white lace on the collar. The children went silent, and some shook their heads from side to side.

Finally, one boy looked up at me and asked, “WHY would they do that?”

I told him that was a good question and let them come up with some possible reasons why little boys might wear dresses.

Later I did some research into why, for at least a century, little boys wore dresses. I discovered that children’s clothing is a barometer of the concept of childhood and the social roles of children through the few centuries of United States history.

During the 18th century ,childhood mortality was high. Less than 50 percent of infants reached the age of five and only half of those children made it to age 10. Infants were swaddled with strips of linen or wool that were tightly wrapped and crisscrossed around the body. This helped to contain the infant in homes full of dangerous items like open fires and rough flooring. Infants spent most of their time with adults so they could be civilized as soon as possible.

Education began early and a child was dressed as a miniature adult. The goal was to get the child to adulthood as soon as possible because life expectancy was only 30 years. Discipline was often harsh, even violent, in order to force conformity to adult standards.

In the long run this was believed to increase the child’s life span in a risky world because childhood was just too dangerous. Also, for those living in poverty, it could get the child working at age five or so in the local factories to help support the family.

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