One of the least studied events of boyhood by social historians is breeching, a major rite of passage for boys. This event for centuries was an important event in a boy's life until the 1920s. Boys until that time wore dresses. For several centuries European and American boys wore dresses just like their sisters, with perhaps only little clues such as sashes to distinguish them. By the late 19th century, some dresses were made specifically for boys, usually plainer than the styles for girls. Boys did not, however, always get these boy dresses. Many dresses were designated as "children's styles" for both boys and girls. Some mothers did not like these plainer styles and purchased the more elaborate girls' styles for their sons. Other boys inherited the hand-me-downs of their older sisters. I hope to acquire references to breeching in the correspondence of mothers. There appears to be relatively few accounts on the part of boys as they were rather young to remember much. (More accounts appear to exist about Little Lord Fauntleroy and curls as the boys were generally older. Happily the developing science of photography have beginning in the 1840s has left us some actual images of the breeching process.
We at first were not sure how to spell this word, but as the term was first used to mean donning breeches, it must be "breeching". Webster's provides "to clothe with breeches" as a definition of breeches. When first used men and boys were still wearing breeches rather than trousers. the Oxford English Dictory,
which is commonly considered the ultimate authority provides two meanings of "breeching": (a) "the action of clothing [a boy] with breeches" and (b) whipping a boy on his buttocks [or breeches] with a birch rod. The second meaning is no longer commonly used. The word breeches is of ancient origins. The spelling "breeches" began to be used about 1000 AD, but the term was used in Middle English as "breeche and old English brec. (Note that both are plural forms.) We are less sure when the first was first used with the meaning of dressing boys in manly breeches rather than dresses. It must have been used in the 18th century, the last century in which breeches were commonly worn. The OED reports that the first noted usage was the term in the sence of clothing with breeches was the early 17th century (1604).
Boys through the early 20th commonly wore dresses until they were about 5 years old. Some boys with doting mothers might continue to wear dresses for several more years. The dresses boys wore until the late 19th Century were virtually identical with the dress their sisters wore. In fact many boys wore hand-me-downs from their older sisters.
Most modern readers find it strange that boys used to wear dresses. Many modern observers describe the practice as dressing boy like girls in a tone of disapproval. Actually boys were not being dresses as girls. In fact, dresses were considered to be children's wear not specifically girls' wear. There are many reasons why this practice developed. Actually it is a common practice in human society to distinguish boys from young men, often by clothing or in primitive societies body adornment. (Notably it is not nearly as common to distinguish girls from young women.) Often elaborate ceremonies accompany coming of age celebrations. There were also practical reasons for outfitting boys in dresses. One very practical reason was it was easier to care for a young child in a dress who was not yet toilet trained. Other social issues were involved. The care of young children was considered to be the almost exclusive concern of the mother who generally felt dresses were more attractive outfits for boys than trousers.
Actually breeching was not the first major change of clothes in a boys' young life. Shortcoating and breeching were two important events during the 18th century in the lives of children. Very young children wore long robes called mantles. These long garments extended well beyond the children's feet. As a child grew and began to crawl and eventually walk shorter garments were necessary. This process of dressing a child in ankle-length skirted garments or frocks was called shortcoating. This process applied to both boys and girls. Boys as they matured underwent an even more important rite of passage called breeching, in part because many boys remember being breeched. While girls and boys were shortcoated, only
boys were breeched. There was no equivalent rite of passage for girls, who remained in petticoats and frocks. Shortcoating is more associated with the 18th than the
19th century, although breeching remained a major event in the lices of 19th century boys.
The proper age for breeching a boy was a matter of heated debate throughout the late 18th and 19th century. There was no set age for wearing dresses. It was basically at the digression of the mother. As a result, there was a wide range of age for boys wearing dresses. For the most part, almost all boys wore dresses when they were 1-3 years old. At about 4 years of age you begin seeing boys wearing tunics, pants, kneepants, and knickers and the other more boyish outfits of the day. Until the late 18th century this mean scaled down versions of their fathers' clothes. Beginning in the late-18th Century and early-19th Century specialized clothing for children appeared. Most boys by the age of 5 or 6 years began wearing boys' clothes. Some doting mothers, however, did not want to lose their little treasures so early. So boys were not infrequently kept in dresses for several more years. Such boys might wear dresses until 7 or 8 years old and some boys as old as 11 years are known to have been kept in dresses--although this was relatively unusual. There was considerable discussion during the late 18th and 19th Centuries. Earlier such discussion were primarily held within the family. By the early 19th Century, however, an increasing number of magazines were being published offering advise to mothers on child raising. One of the issues addressed was breeching. It was not unusual for "experts" to claim that breeching shouldn't be done before the age of 8 years. Most commonly the experts advised that the age had little to do with breeching--much more important was the child's size. Though the precise age was mostly left to the mothers digression, the general consensus was that breeching should take place before it was too late. "Her disposition, with her natural feminine tastes and tenderness, is always inclining her to deck her child with the gewgaws of finery and coddle him with the delicate appliances of luxury," one 19th Century book advised mothers. The expert continued, "The timely check from the manly boy may therefore prevent her from persisting in an effeminating process which would be sure, if continued, to deprive him of his best characteristics." [Bazaar Book of the Household, p. 214]
One interesting aspect of breeching was who made the decision and was it discussed among the parents, nannies and governesses, as well as the boys themselves. It appears to have been primarily a mother's decision. Certainly she must have discussed the issue with nannies and governesses--depending on her relationship with the staff. Some mothers might have sought guidance. Given the behavior of wealthy people, especially in the 19th Century, the mother may have simply given orders. Many mothers probably did discuss this major step in a boy's life with their husbands. Some fathers may have intervened if the mother delayed too long. Unfortunately all of these discussions would have been personal conversations within the household and thus there is no written record. One would think, however, that the correspondence of the day may contain some references to breeching. Mothers certainly must have written to their mothers, grandmothers, aunts, sisters cousins, and close friends and may have asked for advised or relayed plans. This would seem to have been one of the topics that women would have wanted to discuss among themselves. A great deal needed to be discussed. Certainly much was involved in this decision. When should it take place. How it would take place. To what extent it should be discussed with the boy. What kind of boyish clothes should be purchased for him. Should he continue to wear dresses for special occasions. Should all his clothes be changed at once, or piecemeal as he outgrew his dresses. A great deal of correspondence on breeching and related topics much exist in private correspondence. I have so far collected very little information on such correspondence, but hope to eventually collect many representative letters and notes on such correspondence. A biography of the artist, Mary Cassat, included a reference to letters from Mary's sister. She had written to Mary while she was in Paris. Mary's sister mentioned that her youngest son wanted to have his curls cut like his older brother. Mary wrote back that she thought he was to young and that he should be kept pretty for another year. I presume that meant dresses as well as long hair. The discussion of breaching is a topic that has also appeared in literature. We believe that while fictional works to not have the same validity as actual family accounts, contemporary literary works are also of some interest. We do not yet know of many such discussions in literature. One particularly interesting one is the discussion between the mother and father in Tristram Shanfy, an early novel published in the 1760s. The author suggests that the father may have played a more important role than we at first suspected.
The boys' role in this process is also interesting to consider. Certainly boys in past years had much less to say about their clothes than boys today. Some mothers no doubt made their decisions as they saw fit with little consideration of what their sons preferred. Some boys no doubt in the era before mass media simply accepted the clothes chosen by mother and assumed that she was the arbiter in such matters. We know that some boys looking back report that they simply did not think of questioning their parents. One Frenchman, Paul V., looking back on his 1890s boyhood reports that he never thought of asking his mother to have his curls cut. This was probably true of many boys still wearing dresses, especially as most were quite young. This was particularly true in the era before public education and for boys schooled at home. Some things, however, do not change even over time. It does not take a boy long to decide that he wants to dress more like father than mother. Surely some boys must have lobbied their parents, nannies, or governesses for certain kinds of clothes Unfortunately HBC has few actual citations on such matters.
Many questions come to mind concerning the actual process when it came time to breech your son. One wonders how the decision was actually presented to the boy. Was it the result of extensive discussions? Perhaps boys' clothes were presented to him as a surprise, perhaps on his birthday. One of the poorly understood aspects of breeching was precisely what was done. Did the mother suddenly put away all a boy's dresses and buy boys' clothes. Or did she purchase a boy's party suit or boy's play clothes first and only gradually put away the dresses. Some boys may have for a while wore a mixture of clothes before a complete set of new clothes were acquired. Boys wearing such mixed outfits may or may not have had their curls cut. Different mothers had varying attitudes on this. Thrift probably also affected the breeching process because some mothers may have wanted to get the good out of a boy's dresses before putting them away. The availability of dresses from older sisters was another factor affecting the age of breeching. At whatever age a boy's breeching took place, it was considered a joyous event and a sign of the child's growing manhood. Given 18th and 19th Century values, this meant a significant increase in the child's status in the home. Sometimes elaborate family celebrations sometimes occurred at a boy's breeching. Breeching parties are not infrequently mentioned in women's dairies and correspondence. "You cannot believe the great concern that was in the whole family here last Wednesday, it being the day that the Taylor was to helpe to dress little Frank in his breeches in order to the making an everyday suit by it," wrote Anne, Lady North in a letter dated 1678.
We do not yet have detailed information on country trends, but we have begun to collect some information. It was very common for boys to wear dresses in the 19th century. This was a well-established convention throughout Europe and North America. We know very little at this time, however, as to how the conventions for breeching varied from country to country. We have begun to develop some some country pages. Boys in America were mostly breech before school at about age 6, but we see older boys still wearing skirted garments. The conventions of boys wearing dresses seems to have been particularly pronouncd in England and France. The initial information collected on Germany, for example, suggests that in the late 19th century, boys were breeched earlier than in many other countries. This is just an initial assessment as this time.
Mamy mothers had photographs taken of their boys who were being breeched. Some mothers had the portaits taken before with the boy still in skirted garments. Other mothers had the portraits taken after the breeching with their new suit and trousers. Other mothers had before and after photographs taken. These are the only images that we can be certain illustrate breeching. We suspect that social class may have affected the choice of photography. Of course more affluent families could best afford the before and after portraits. We are unsure as to the connotations associated with taking the portrait before with the old skirted garment or after with the new trouser outfit. Here a factor was the nother's attitide. The father may also have gotten involved. The only way we can identify these portraits when they are not before and after sets is incriptions on the back. Here wechave found very few portraits with inscriptions. One example is an American boy in 1891.
While we have several before and after portraits og boys being breached. We have very few actual contemprary depictions of boys actually being breached. Such illustrations are very important because they provide fascinating glimses of how the breaching process actually occurred. We have found a 1904 illustration by Clare E. Atwood that appeated in The Youth's Companion, a popular weekly periodical. Atwood depicts an American boy being breached. It Atwood's illustration the whole family except father is present.
One very confusing aspect of the breeching process is the long hair and curls that boys used to wear. Interestingly the breeching process was usually separate from the decision for cutting a boys curls. Some boys would have their hair cut before breeching while other boys might wear curls several years after breeching. This also varied as the fashion of the day for boys hair. In particular long ringlet curls for boys became very popular in the mid-1880s after the publication of Little Lord Fauntleroy. It is unclear to me just why the decision on hair style was so often separate from that on breeching. Apparently some mothers felt that long hair and curls were quite acceptable for a breeched boy. While other mothers felt it was important to cut a boys hair, but there was no need to immediately purchase trousers for him. This subject must have been addressed in family correspondence, but I have no details.
Writers in the 19th Century sometimes mention breeching girls. Of course 19th Century girls did not wear trousers. It was a shock when bloomers were first introduced. The closest girls got to trousers were the pantalettes or drawers described above. The occasional references to breeching girls referred only to their underwear, in days when drawers were sometimes still thought crude for girls. In a letter dated 1824, Sara Hutchison wrote: "I am sorry to hear that little dear Good-Good has been breeched-for some of the faculty opine that it is much better that females should not-and Mary H. gave up the practice of putting her Girls into Trowsers from her own experience that it was injurious."
HBC has collected some information on inividual boys. Some of the information is written accounts about the breecing experience. At this time we have collected few such accounts, but we hope to collect more to better understand this process. We have had more success in collecting photographs of the breeching process. Many mothers lovingly recorded their son's breeching by taking him to a photographic studio. In some cases we have the boy's name and in other cases all we have is the photographic images without any additional information.
Navigate the Historic Boys' Clothing Web chronological pages:
[The 16th-17th centuries] [The 18th century] [The 1800s] [The 1840s]
[The 1870s] [The 1880s] [The 1890s] [The 1900s]
[The 1910s] [The 1920s]
Navigate the Historic Boys' Clothing Web dress pages:
[Return to the Main dress page]
[Pinafores] [Ringlet curls] [Smocks] [Bodice kilts]  [Kilts]
[Fauntleroy dresses] [Sailor dresses] [Fancy dresses]
[Dresses: 16th-18th centuries] [Dresses: Early-Mid-19th century]
[Dresses: Late-19th century] [Dresses: Early 20th century]
[Difficult images] [Movie dresses]
Navigate the Boys' Historical Clothing Web Site:
[Introduction] [Activities] [Biographies] [Chronology] [Clothing styles]
[Bibliographies] [Contributions] [Difficult images] [FAQs] [Glossaries] [Images] [Links] [Registration] [Tools]
[Boys' Clothing Home]