Boys in Girls’ Clothes

A curious fact, not generally known, is that European and American boys were traditionally dressed in gowns and dresses until the early nineteen hundreds. At the time, dresses were generally perceived as children’s wear and not specifically associated with little girls. Hence, the occasion when small boys were first dressed in breeches or trousers, known as ‘breeching’, was anticipated with great excitement by family and friends and celebrated as an important rite of passage. 

During the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, breeching generally corresponded with what was regarded as the age of reason, considered to be about seven. However, in the nineteenth century, the age of breeching fell closer to two or three years. But breeching was not the first important change of clothes in a young boy’s life. Before they were breeched, they were ‘shortcoated’. Shortcoating, however, applied not solely to boys, but to both boys and girls, signifying the time when they were taken out of the very long dresses worn by babies. Such baby garments extended well beyond the infant’s feet and survive as christening gowns in modern times.

The main reason for keeping boys in dresses was probably a very practical one, namely to facilitate toilet training. Additionally, dresses could more readily accommodate spurts of future growth in children, at a time when garments were after all considerably more expensive than they are today. However, another explanation, which is of a superstitious nature, is sometimes given with regard to this custom. It concerns a fundamental attitude towards female children at the time. As children were thought to be in special need of protection from evil forces, and since girls were at one time in Europe considered far inferior to boys – as is still the case in many non-western countries – it was argued that no demon would bother to attack a girl, which is why boys dressed as girls were considered safe. The exchange of clothing between the sexes was also seen by many as an attempt to avert the evil eye. Amongst European royals, the tradition was considered protective because young heirs to the throne were thus shielded from would-be assassins who could not easily distinguish between the sexes.

Because all young children wore dresses, it was often difficult to differentiate between boys and girls by looking at their external appearance. Therefore, commissioned portraits of the wealthy sometimes included distinguishing props for boys, such as whips for toy horses, drums, and bows. In a well-known portrait depicting the children of Charles I by the Flemish painter, Anton Van Dyck, only the absence of a necklace and his dress colour set the four-year-old James I apart from his little sister Elizabeth. Some decades later, several other subtle distinguishing features evolved. For instance, girls’ hair was usually parted in the middle, whereas boys displayed side paths; girls’ bodices generally reflected adult styles and never had buttons down the centre of the bodice – this was reserved for the boys.

After World War I, the tradition of young boys wearing dresses finally seemed to die out.


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