Girl's Historical Clothing: Garment Gender Connotations

girls pinafores
Figure 1.--The pinafore was a very common garment for children because it protected clothes which were compared to modern clothes, relatively expensive. They are mostly associated with girls, but younger boys ore them as well.

Many garments have strong gender connotations in our modern world. The general rule seems to be that girls can wear boys clothes, but boys canot wear girls' clothes. This was quite different in the 19th century when young boys and girls were dress similarly, often in clothing more assocaired with girls. Girls on the other hand were not allowed to war boyish garments like pants. HBC has addressed the topic of just who wore specific garments and styles. We have primarily done this from a boys' point of view, but in fact these discussion contain insights on just what girls were wearing. We will thus provide the pertinent links here. Readers should be aware here that there are significant differences over time and among countries. Until after World War II, girls in most countries generally wore dresses and assocaited garments like smocks, pinafores, and pantalettes.


Headwear was a very important part of both girls and boys dress througout the 19th and first half of the 20th century. Much nore important than today. Hats were especially important. And we see quite elaborate, heavily decorated hats. Some were plain like the hats woorn by nmen and boys, but often the hats wornm by women and girls were often heavily heavily decorated. We do not note a lot of girls' hats that were national styles, except for folk costumes which were commoanly localized. At least in Europe and North the Americas tthe styles were country specific. This was somewhat kless true of the caps worn by boys, in part bcause of the military and sports influences. At this time we have country pages on America, England, and Germany.


Both boys and girls wore bow, especially in the late 19th-and early 20th centuries. There were substantial differences in how boys and girls wore boys. Of course the most statling use of bows were the huge collar bows boys wore. This was less common for girls. But girls wore huge hair bows which were much less common for boys. There were mzny other gender difference abd these varied over time. Generally usage was inverse. A factor here is that boys generally did not like dressng like girls. Thus when we see boys with huge cillar bows, we do not see girls with collar bows. Girls did wwear collar bows, but they were less common znd generally snaller. We see gie=rls wearing collar bows, shoulder bows, hair bows, shoe bows and other bows. Overall the bow is more associated with girls, but the huge bows worn by boys makes this general convention less pparent than it normally would be. We note variations in girls' use of bows affected by a range of factors, including age, chronology. country, social class, and other factors.


The shirt-like garment generally worn by girls is the blouse. Yhis was generally the case in the 19th and early-20th century. By the late-20th century we see girls wearing many garments that look like shirts although blouses are still common. Here the collsr is easily observable. Girl often wore larger collars than boys. There are many many gender pages in the shirt, blouse, and collar pages. We will gradually link those pages here. We have a German lace collar page. Lace collars were worn on both dresses and blouses.

Skirted Garments


Dresses are of course primarily associated with girls and until World War II (1939-45), girls promarily wore dresses. It was unusual to see girls in shorts and pants until after the ar. In some countries, well after the War. HBC at this time does not have detailed information on girls' dress styles. This would be very helful in helping to ssess undated image and to comapre with styles of dresses boys wore over time.


Skirts are of course closely rlted to dresses, bring the bottom half or theportion of the dress below the waistline. We do not jave a great deal of information about skirts as a separate garment yet. The word first appeared in Middle English during the 13th century, a word acquired from Norse. We seem to note dresses more commonly in the photographic record than blouses and skirts. We do tend to notice skirts more commonly in the 1890s, but more with young women than girls. That is just an initial assessment at this time. The skirt appears much more common in the early 20th century. The skirt became a staple for girls after World war I and we note girls wearing both dresses and skirts to school. Suspender skirts became a popular style.

Unlike many clothing items such as sailor suits, kilts, Fauntleroy suits, etc., smocks do not appear to have initially been made specifically for boys. Rather they were generic children's clothes, but primarily used for girls. There were many styles of smocks, involving color, buttoning (side, front, or back), embellishments, collars, pockets, trim, belts, ties, etc. Some mothers bought identical smocks for all their children. Some styles seemed to have been preferred by boys and girls. By the 1950s styles specifically for boys or girls evolved in many countries such as France where they were commonly worn.


The pinafore is essentially a girl's garment. They wereonce very commonly worn by girls in both America and Europe. Girls often wore them to school, even older girls. Younger boys in Europe have also worn pinafores as well as a smock-like garment that was more of a pinafore. This was, however, much less common than for girls to wear them.


No discussion of girls' clothing ould be complete without considering Amelia Bloomer and her infamous bloomers in the mid-19th cenury. American reformer Amelia Bloomer (1818-94) was born in Homer, New York. She lectured and wrote to support the temperance movement and women's sufferage, two inter-linked issues. She is best knowm for energetic promotion beginning in 1848 of the "bloomer" costume. Bloomer in fact did not device bloomers, but merely endorse them as a practical alternative for the restrictive women's fashions of the era. Bloomers were in fact originally devised by Elizabeth Smith Miller. Although ultimately unsuccessful, they were an important step in the development of modern practical clothing.


HBC is unsure about the gender conotations of early rompers. I believe they were worn by both boys and girls, especially the rompers worn for play. I'm less sure about the dressier styled rompers. Probably a girl would be nore likely to wear a dress for formal occasions. HBC has, however, very little information on rompers, so this assess,ent is highly speculative. By the 1940s, rompers had, except for infants, become a casual style for girls. Rompers were commonly used as girls' gym costumes with the romper legs relatively long until the 1940s. They were often worn with long black stockings. Schools did not generally consider shorts apropriate for girls until the 1940s. Rompers also continued into the 1950s and 1960s with shorter legs. I can remember as a Virginia high school student in 1958 that the girls wore rompers rather than shorts for gym.


Pantalettes were once worn by both girls and boys. There were both palin and fancy pabtalettes. The plain ones were more common for boys, but some boys also wore fancy pantalettes as well. Pantalettes or pantalets/pantaloons are esentially long drawers worn to modesestly cover the legs. They were made in both plain and fancy styles with a lace frill, ruffles, or other finish at the bottom of each leg. They were widely worn by women and children (boys and girls) during the first half of the 19th century. The pantaletts extended below the hem of the dresses worn by boys and girls and the ankle and calf-length trousers worn by boys. In the mid-19th century it was not considered proper for even small children to have bare legs. In fact the word leg was not used in polite company, rather the acceptable term was limbs. The lacey pantaletts covered the legs to the ankles.


Girls until recently always wore dresses. Little boys might wear dresses, but girls almost never wore trousers. It was not considered proper. Actually pants for eomen appeared in the mid-19th century, chpioned by Amelia bloomer and the dress reform movement. It was not very successful, only a handful of strong-minded women wore them and as far as we can tell, even fewer girls. We see a few images, however, of what look like girls wearing pants in the 19th century. As most of these photographs are of unidentified children, we can not yet be sure. One example is an unidentified Austrian child. We note American girls after the turn of the 20th cetury wearing bloomers for highschool gym classes. I'm not sure if this was the case in Europe. After World war I we see rural girls wearing overalls and fashionable women wearing pants in the 1930s. We also notice girls at summer camps wearing bloomer rompers or short pants. After World War we begin to see girls wearing a variety of pants: short pants, capri pants, and jeans. These were considered casual clothes. Girls still wore dresses to school and when deressing up. It was not common to seeing girls commonly wearing pants to school in America until the 1960s. Most other countries still required girls wear dresses to school until the 1970s.

Sailor Suits

Sailor suits were first worn by boys, but sailor outfits were eventually worn by both boys and girls. HBC has received several inquiries about girls sailor outfits. Unfortunately there is no sister site to address historic girls styles. Some basic information on girls sailor outfits is helpful in assessing old photographs. Girls generally wre sailor outfits of middy blouses and skirts and eventually sailor dresses. Boys appear to have worn early sailor dresses. Girls dresses from a fairly early period appear with elements of sailor styling before they can be called actual sailor dresses. Conventions varied greatly over time and between cuntries. Girls may have worn sailor suits with bloomers. HBC has not noted sailor suits with trousers, either short or long trousers. Girls did wear sailor tunics like the ones worn by boys.


We do not yet have much information on girls' underwear. Girls tended to war fancier underwear than boys with added rufflels, lace, and bows. We have noted girls wearing the plainer underwear like boys, especially younger girls. This was less true of boys who rarely wore the fancier underwear boys wore. An exception here for a time was pantalettes. We do have a page on English underwear.


Girls hosiery conventions have changed over time and varied among countries. There are also important age conventions. Generally boys and girls in the 19th century wore essentially the same, often identical hosiery. We note changes in the 20th century, especially after World War I. At first the primary difference was color. Over time the type of hosiery also changed. There were important differences from country to ciountry. A major difference was color. White stockings and knee socks became more common for girls than boys, but their were variatioins from country to country and the the time line varied. White hosiery was most common for girls in America and Britain, but we see German and French children wearing white socks, including knee socks. American girls in the1940s became known as Bobby Soxers because of their destinctive white socks. Major differences developed in the 20th century concerning both knee socks and tights. Knne socks conventions were once similasr, but gradually gender differences devrloped. There have been differences in tights since they first appeared after World war II, but this varied from country to country. We have developed some hosiery pages with gender information. An example here is the German sisters page.


We do not yet have a HGC girls footwear page, but there are some pages with footwear information. An example here is the German sisters page. We notice girls and boys waring similar styles in the late-19th century. Younger boys wore strap shoes and sandals likec girls in the early-20century. We note American boys and girls wearing similar leater shoes in the mid-20th century. Saddle shoes were worn by both boys and girls. Footwear in the late 20th century became more gender specific. A exception for aime was sneakers, but we not invreasing gender differentiation here in recent years.


We have begun to develop some infornation on jewlry, although our information is still very limited. Generally speaking we think that jewlry is more common with girls than boys, but this is probably more complicated than one might think. And it depends in part on the specific jewelry item. We think that ear fings are an indicator the child is a girl. Although we note that tgere was an ear ring fad for boys during the 1990s. Necklases are also probably more common with girls, although we note younger boys not yet breeched wearing neclasses, often with lockets, in the 19th century. There may have been substantial differences among countries. We think necklasses weee more common in Catholic countries. We are less sure about rings. This is a jewlry neutral item, but we would guess that they were primarily worn by girls. This is a littke difficult to research in the photographic record because unlike earings and necllasses, a child has to hold his hand just right to show the ring. A good example is an unidentified American girl holding her hand on a table so a ring shows. Also a children's rings tend to be very simple. Both boys and girls wore watches, but styles varied. We think that boys may have more commonly worn them.


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Created: 3:19 AM 5/21/2007
Last updated: 4:12 PM 5/27/2018