Activities in Dresses and Kilts

Figure 1.--Would a boy still in dresses or kilts ride sidesaddle? Would he have special riding clothes. This unidentified image was probably taken in the 1850s or 60s.

An interesting question about the boys outfitted in dresses is whether this affected the activities they pusued. Most of the boys in dresses were younger boys. Most boys were breeched by 5 years of age or earlier, although some observers suggest stature was more important than age. This was an age when the boys were still at home and closely supervised. As we have seen, however, some boys were not breeched at 5 years of age, but might wear dresses and kilts for another year or two or even longer. We have begun to collect some basic information on activities boys engaged in before breeching. This has, however, proven to be an extremely difficult subject to research for a variety of reasons.

Research Diffificulties

We have begun to collect some basic information on activities boys engaged in before breeching. This has, however, proven to be an extremely difficult subject to research for a variety of reasons. We have been unable to find any written records adressing this subject. Sofar we have had to rely on the photographic record. Boys most commonly wore dresses in the 19th century and the convention rapidly disappeared after the turn of the 20th century. The photographic record clearly shows this. The problem is that during the 19th century when boys most commonly wore dresses, photography was a largely static, formal event. Snap shots showing everyday activities were rather rare. After the turn of the century when snap shots become common, the convention of boys wearing dresses rapidly disappeared. One problem in researching this question is that until the turn of the century, most photographs were studio works. Family snap shots did not become commonplace until the 1900s by which time the custom of small boys wearing dresses had declined. Thus the photographic record of the late 19th century clearly shows boys in dresses, but provides little information about the kinds of activities they engaged in. Please let me know if you have any insights or information on the question posed here. I especially interested in any actual boyhood memories from memoirs or perhaps family correspondence.

Specific Activities

The question arises as to the activities these children might engage in while wearing dresses. The plethora of formal portaits suggests to us that children attended formal events while wearing dresses. Now some small children might be kept at home in the nursery by affluent families. But we know that small children were also brought to formal events like weddings or church services. WE wonder if boys in dresses may serve as flower girls. Presumably they attended church with the family in their dresses and kilts. What about other church activities? We are less sure about informal events during the 19th century as so few snap shots are available. Did boys in dresses attend comunity picnics and enter contests like the other boys? We assume they did, but do not yet have photographic images to confirm this. Did they attend 4th of July or other parades? Did they go hiking or fishing in dresses? Did they go horse back riding and if so did they ride side saddle? What kind of tricycles and bikes did they have? We note boys in dresses or kilts riding tricycles, but not bicycles. This of course is essentially a reflection of the age of boys who had not yet been breeches. Did they play ball and other games? Granted the boys kept in dresses might have been more closely supervised than other boys. They were presumably schooled at home. But surely they were not kept at home and closeted in the nursery as they got older. We do note snapshots of boys around home wearing dresses. Some seem very simple play shifts. Other seem like fancy dresses which may have been worn to church. A good example is an unidetified American boy with his older brother wearing a fancy blouse about 1905. The question as to their activities is an interesting one and still largely unanswered one.

Figure 2.--Presumably this Americam boy might attend a 4th of July paraderess or a community picnic dressed like this. I would estimate that this photograpgh was taken in the 1880s.

Conventions/New Clothes

The question of activities brings us to another subject that we are unsure about. We do not know if breeching was a one shot affair when all of a boys's dresses and other other skirted garments were put away and the boy began to only wear dresses. Or was it a more gradual process when pants were purchased, but the boy continued to wear dresses for various occassions until they wore out. If this was the case, were pants most likely to be first purchased for dress or play clothes. A further complication here is that there wee various kinds of skirted outfits. After a boy stopped wearing dresses did he wear kilts and tunics for a while. The answer to these questions probanly varied from family to family. We mention this here because the answer would tend to affect the activities a boy was involved in while dressed in these various garments.


Some period movies depict boys in long hair and dresses. This is not very common, in part because many movies are not very accurately costumed. Movies of course can vary greatly in historical accuracy. It is likely, however, that those who have gone to the trouble of depicting boys in dresses and long hair, probably exercised considerable attention to detail.

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Created: February 1, 1999
Last updated: 9:23 PM 6/3/2006