“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.
Philosophers and educators had been opposing the standard practices of child rearing for centuries, but Jean-Jacques Rousseau was in the right place at the right time. His writings encouraged children’s rights and age-appropriate methods of child rearing. The Industrial Revolution and Queen Victoria in England helped make Rousseau’s ideas of the purity of childhood more achievable by parents. He saw children as people in their own right to be cherished for the blank slate of their potential.
If at first the new industrialization took advantage of young child workers, the products of that industrialization in the end helped liberate the children from those very factories.
Queen Victoria ascended to the British throne in 1837 and served as a role model when she dressed her nine children in sailor suits and kilts which allowed a child to be more “natural.” This was a child-friendly way of dressing infants. Her fashion tastes quickly spread to other royal families of Europe.
The rising industrial economies began to create a middle class that emulated her life style and fashion sense. Ready-made factory clothing allowed children all over Europe and the United States to look like the children of the affluent class. This created a social class contest with the affluent class continually upping the ante with more lace and fancy fabrics to distinguish their children from those of the middle class.
Eventually, children’s clothes became very elaborate and easily as confining and uncomfortable as the adult versions they had replaced. Toward the end of the 19th century more informal styles of clothing began to be introduced.
The factories made something else that was required for the dresses worn by all these children . . . the cloth diaper. By 1887 the cloth diaper was mass-produced. There was already a type of fabric weave known as “diaper.” Since this type of fabric was used, it became the namesake for the final product. Babies were no longer swaddled and their clothing was more liberating.
The Victorian home was full of newly purchased furnishings, rugs, and decorative objects that needed to be protected from the liberated children. Special furniture was also designed to help contain the child and protect them from the house and protect the house from the child. Cribs, high chairs, and playpens are just a few of the new conventions to become part of the new child- centered home.
Within the space of a few decades, child-rearing practices were reversed, formal education was delayed and a return to nature was desired. Children were blank slates and needed play to develop their mind and body. Clothing and homes were adjusted to the child’s body and activities. Industrialization allowed more everyday parents to actually enjoy their infant children and not force them into adult behavior. Parents found this period so delightful they extended it as long as possible. Children were to remain innocent (translate “sexless”) as long as possible. In many old photographs it is difficult to tell boys from girls.
It was very common for children to remain in this state of dress until they entered formal school or even later if the boy was schooled at home. When boys reached this age they were “breeched” meaning dressed in pants. It was an emotional time for many a mother who was losing her “baby.”
The fashion trend of boys in dresses slowly died out as the ready to wear clothing market offered clothing choices that became even more child centered. By the 1920’s, most boys and some girls were dressed in a “romper,” a one-piece jumper pantsuit. Some “child experts” then became concerned that dressing girls in pants would somehow destroy their femininity!
Why did little boys wear dresses? It appears the original decision to place boy infants in a dress was a practical choice to facilitate wearing or not wearing a diaper. Extending the number of years that boys wore dresses is a larger story of societal change, philosophy, industrial and marketing forces, emotional needs and an array of other factors.
Even on a relatively narrow subject like this, when studying history, there is no simple answer.
The Pendleton Historical Museum is open weekends May through October from 1 to 5 p.m. There is no admission charge. The museum is in Pendleton’s Falls Park.
“No, they didn’t!” The group of third-grade students exclaimed.
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