Breeching: Leroy D. Gifford--the 1880s

Figure 1.--While most boys were breeched at about 4 -6 years old. Some boys wore dresses longer. The older brother in this Missouri photograph looks to be about 10 years old.

The Process

Very little is written about breeching. This is curious very few events were as important in a boy's life. Perhaps many boy do not recall as they were breeched at a very youngage. But not all boys were breeched early in their lives. Some boys may haver been 8 or 9 years old, occasionally even older before being breeched.

As so little is written, we know very little about breeching. One major decission was whether to cut a boys' curls before, during, or after breeching. Mothers had all kinds of ideas about this. Thus you see boys in dresses in short hair and boys in Fauntleroy suits and sailor suits with ringlet curls.

Some mothers decided that such a momentous event had to be photographed. These photographs fill in some of the missing information about breeching and what happened on the boy's big day.

We are tempted to think that dressing boys in dresses was a big city custom. Perhaps similar to wealthy Americans, in northeastern cities, dressing their boys in short pants and kneesocks. This was not the case many images exist of boys of all ages kept in dresses in farming communities as well as the big cities. The boys on this page, for example, are from Missouri and North Dakota.

Figure 2.--This photo show Leroy still wearing a dress on the day he was breeched. He was photographed in Fargo, North Dakota, probably during the 1880s.

Two images from Fargo, North Dakota taken by photographer Authur Bentley appear to preserve for properity the day that Leroy D. Gifford was breeched. We know nothing about Leroy, except that he appears to be about 10 or 11 years old. A close analysis of the photograph, however, does provide some interesting conclusions. Please let me know if you agree or if you have any thoughts on these images.

The Date

This scene looks to have occured in the late 1880s or perhaps the early 1890s. The Fauntleroy styled sailor suit would have had to had been after 1885 and the publication of Little Lord Fauntleroy. It looks to me like an older 1880s image, but the early 1890s are possible

Leroy's Mother

We know nothing about Mrs. Gifford other than the photograph was taken in Fargo. I think it is safe to say, however, that the family was an affluet Fargo family. Gifford is an English name so the family may have been established in America for several generations. Fargo in the 1880s and 1890s, however, was a new town, so like everyone else Leroy's family could not have lived there more than 2 or 3 decades. Leroy was not a farm boy brought to the town to have his photograph taken. The clothes are too fancy and a farm mother would not have had time to devote to Leroy's curls every day.

Figure 3.--This enlargement shows Leroy in his dress, however if you look closely at his collar you can see that he is wearing a middy blouse under his dress. So he may have been breeched before the photograph was taken. His curls have been carefully brushed back so his dress appears fully in the photograph. 188s.

It is clear that Mrs. Gifford did not think boys should be breeched at an early age. Leroy looks to be about 10 or 11 years old. Most boys had been breeched several years earlier. He certanly would have been teased if he had gone to school in a dress at that age. Presumably he was being schooled at home by his doting mother.

Mrs. Gifford also clearly felt that it was not necessary to cut Leroy's hair when he was breeched. Many but not all boys would have their hair cut before breeching. Leroy has long flowing curls which have been partially styled in ringlet curls. We do not know how long after being breeched that Leroy continued to wear his curls. It is quite clear that his curls were very important to Mrs. Gifford and many a tear was shed when they were finally cut.

Leroy's Father

We know nothing about Mr. Gifford, except that he was probably a prosperous citizen of Fargo. Leroy's nice clothes and the fact his mother probably schooled him at home, speak to some level of affluence.

We do not know whose idea it was to breech Leroy. Was it his mother's idea. Did she decide on his own that the time had come to dress her son in kneebreeches. Certainly Leroy must have been asking for knee breeches for several years. Pergaps he finally convincd his father and he put his foot down and instrcted his wife to breech Leroy. Mrs. Gifford, however, was not about to allow her son's curls to be cut yet.

Preparing Her Son

We have no idea to what extent Leroy's new clothes were discussed with the boy. It does appear, however, that he may have been outfitted in his kneebreeches earlier and that he put his dress back on for the photograph. Look carefully at his collar. You can see a bit of his middy blouse tht he is apparently wearing underneath. One wonders what Leroy felt about putting a dress back on to be photographed.

Actually that is one of the unanswered questins about breeching. Did Mrs. Gifford but a complete set of kneepants for Leroy. Children did not have as large a wardrobe as today, but Leroy would need some play clothes as well as the fancy suit pictured here. Or did she just buy him the suit pictured here and did he continue to wear dresses for a while and only put on his party suit for special occasions. What did he play in. As he was wearing dresses, did he wear smocks or pinafores at home. Unfortunately these questions will never be answered.

Figure 4.--This enlargement shows Leroy in his dress, however if you look closely at his collar you can see that he is wearing a middy blouse under his dress. So he may have been breeched before the photograph was taken. His curls have been carefully brushed back so his dress appears fully in the photograph. 1880s.

We do not know if Leroy wore his dress to the photographic studio, or just slipped it on once their to have his photograph taken. It apears that h had his suit on unfer the dress when the photograph was actually taken.



We have no idea what Leroy thought about his clothes. One would assume that at his age, he would have come to dislike wearing dresses. But children in the 1880s were much more respectful to their parents. Thus while he may have asked, he probably did not question his mother's perogative to choose the proper attire for him.

We do see a full view of Leroy's dress. It's unclear what the length of the hem was. French boys at the time were wearing knee-length dresses, but American boys tended to wear their dresses longer. It appears to be a smock-like, back-buttoning dress. It has a large collar of the same material as the dress and a smaller a large lace collar worn with a white bow. It has a stripped pattern, but I do not know about the color.

One of the most striking features of these two photographs is Leroy's long tresses. He has a boyish cut in front, but in back his hair in very long falling far below his shoulders. It is not curled, but has been very carefully combed. Keeping such long hair so nicely, must have involved considerable work.

Figure 5.--This enlargement shows Leroy in his Fauntleroy suit. Look carefully at how the hair is combed in front and parted. This photograph must have been taken at the same time as the photograph of him in the dress. Note how his curls have been carefully place on his shoulders so they will show.


Leroy after taking off his dress wears a Fauntleroy suit with a sailor-type collar. He wears a blouse with a large frilly lace collar which has matching wrist ruffles. The jacket is double breasted but made to be worn open so the fancy blouse can be worn for best effect. Note that the lace collar covers much of the sailor collar. This is a fairly unusual style. Many sailor suits for litte boys in the 1890s had lace and ruffle trim, but it was unsual to cover a sailor collar with a lace collar. I'm not sure what color the suit was, but as it is a sailor suitm, a light blue may be possible. Note the large buttons worn with the suit.

While Leroy may have put dresses behind him after the photograph was taken, he clearly continued to wear curls. I noticed that while still in a dress that his hair was not all curled--most of it simply flowed down his back. Once in his Fauntleroy suit, his mother has emphasized his curls. Does that mean that a change in hair style accompanied the breeching provess?


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Created: November 10, 1998
Last updated: 7:02 PM 8/5/2008