Gender Conventions: Garments

Figure 1.--Here this American mother has dressed all her children in dresses, two girls and a younger boy. Notice the huge sashes the girls have. Here the girls have long ringlet curls abnd the boy's hair has been cut short even though he looks tio be only about 2 years old. Some mothers at the gime did their boy's hair in ilthough usually doing their daughters in different styles. This cabinet card is not datedc, but looks like the late-1880s, perhaps the ealy-90s. The studio was Griffon and Colburn in Wilkes Barre, Pennsylvania.

There are very strong gender conventions involved with children's clothing. Girls wear dresses and long hair and boys wear pants and short hair. These differences are useful in interpreting old photographs when the persons are not idntified or the dates and countries unknown. The problem is that the conventions change over time. Today for example girls commonly wears pants like boys. Many girls in fact dislike dresses. Some conventions are stronger than others. The fasshion trends tend to be one way, girls adopting boys' styles, rarely boys adopting girls styles. Many of the major fashions with gender conotations that have changed over time. While HBC has focused primarily on boys' fashions, we have created many gender convention pages for major styles. At this time, we have not yet made the linkages to this opage, but it is something we have now begun to do. It will take some time to make all the needed linkages. In addition we are also working on a girls section to provide information specifically on girls clothing. Here we will need reader support to fully develop the subject.

Skirted Garments


Many mothers when dressing boys in dresses would add boyish touches. We assume they did this of their own volition. Fathers would probably not get to involved with dress styling, although they may have suggested breeching at an earlier age than mothers. Thus we see plainly styled dresses or dresses with boyish features. Perhaps dresses dome in plaid were meant to suggest kilts. We also note portraits of boys in dresses where boyish props like drums/buggles, farm implements, whips, and others were added to indicate visually that the child is a boy. These boyish touches were very common, but they were not always present. Some mothers took an entirely different approach. We see some boys wearing frilly dresses and sometimes even girlish props. One wonders about the mother's motivation. Perhaps she wanted a girl rather than a boy. Care shold be taken in assessing motivation here. Even in the 19th century there was criticism od such approaches, especially beyond the todler years. It should also be understood that a common attitude at the time was that younger children were essentially genderless. Here Freud of course began to change attitudes, but it took some time for his work to percolate down to popular attitudes. We can sometimes idntify boys when mothers have used boyish styles or props. Of course the only way to tell that a child is boy when mothers have used girlish styles and props is when the portrait is marked in some way identifying the child.


Pinafores are another garment that are today associated entirely with girls. Both boys and girls, however, in the 19th century wore pinafors. The garment was mostly worn by girls in the latter 19th century, but some fastidious mothers continued to use them for boys at home to keep their clothes clean.


The smock is one garment that even today is considered suitable for both boys and girls. Although smocks are not generally liked by boys. Today only very young boys wore them. Earlier they were idely worn by school boys, even boys of 12-14 years of age in France and other European countries.

Shirts and Collars

Lace Collars

The lace collar is also widely considered to be for girls. In historical period they were widely worn by boys and even men. Caviliers in the 17th century used copious quantities of lace in their clothes. For a breief period in the late 19th century, the lace collar was a popular feature on Little Lord Fauntleroy suits.

Decorative Items


The use of bows is well established as a part of girls' fashions. The bow, however, has commonly been employed in boys' fashions, including hair, collar, shoulder, pants, and shoe bow. This was particularly common in the late 19th century.


Pants and Trousers


Pantalettes appear to the modern reader to be a girls' garment and often assume that children wearing them have to be girls, regardless of the hair style. In fact both boys and girls in the 19th century wore pantalettes. Girls more commonly wore the fancier pantalettes, but this was not always the case.


Hosiery gender conventions have changed over time. Children generally wore similar hosiery during the 19th century. We see both boys and girklsing striped long stockings during the 19th century. We see gender differences developing in the 20th century, especially after World War I. This varied from country to country. We have several other gender conventions pages, but are still in the process of making the links.


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Created: 7:58 PM 8/18/2011
Last updated: 7:58 PM 8/18/2011