Boys' Dresses: Ages

Figure 1.--This boys looks to be about 10 years old. He was photograped by Jacob Haldt in Philadelphia, probably in the 1880s. While the image is unidentified, the short hair and child's face strongly suggest a boy.

Boys of widely different ages wore dresses in the 19th century. Much depended on the preferences of the mother. Social class was another important factor. The were also variations among countries. After the turn of the 20th century fewer and younger boys wore dresses. As so much depended on the preferences of the mother, realtively little is written on this topic. Some basic information, however, can be deferred by examining available images. For many years boys were breeched at about 4-6 years of age, but some mothers delayed in even later. Here there were substantial differences from family to family. Late in the 19th century mothers began breeching their sons earlier and this process continued into the early 20th century when the custom disappeared.

Age Range

Boys wore dresses from infancy until they were "breeched" anywhere from 3 to about 7 or 8 years. A good example is an American boy who looks to be about 3 years old in 1865. Probably 4-6 years was the most common range for many years, but this shifted to younger boys beginning in the kate-19th century. Most commonly middle-class boys were breeched by 5-6 years of age or about the time they began school. This time line became much more fixed in the late 19th century when it became increasingly common for boys to attend public schools. Many boys were breeched eralier at 3 or 4 years of age, especially working class children. Less common was for boys to be breeched later at 7 or 8 years old, even later in some exceptional casses. These boys were generally boys from wealthy or affluent families schooling their sons at home.

Mother's Fashion Sence

The primary factor as to when a boy was breeches and also had his hair cut was the mother's fashion sence. This was naturala because it was the mother who as primarily responsible for the care of younger children and selecting their clothes. The mother's attitude on this issue varied very widely from family to family. Often mother's continued the practice of their mothers. There were, however, other factors involved. Mothers were influenced by their mother-in-laws and the practice common in their husband's family. This was especially true when the mother married into a more affluent family of higher social standing. Other mother's were also influenced by the advise in child care books and ladies magazines. There was also tremendous upward social mobility in the 19th century which affected fashion conventions. Many mothers moved from the working to the middle class and were anxious to showtheir new status by the way they and their children dressed.

Father's Role

Sometimes the father might intervene if he felt his wife was delaying breaching too lomg. Normally father's allowed their wives to make decission concerning the home and younger children. Some fathers intrervened here, but generally mother was allowed to have her way at home. Often it was father insisted that his son have his curls cut or be breached because he decided that is wife was hanging on to the boy and preseving his petticoat status too long. Here family dynamics was often more important than fashion conventions. The father was of course influenced by his own experiences and the fashion conventions in his family.


The age at which boys wore dresses varied chronologically. HBC has been able to find few contemporary written sources on the subject, but preliminary indications are possible from examining available images.

18th century

Young boys wore dresses just like their sisters throughout the 18th century. HBC has few details, however, on the ages of the boys involved.

Early 19th century (1800-40)

Most boys appear to have been breached anywhere from 4-6 years of age. This was highly variable, however, from family to family. A good example here is au Alfred Fuller, an English boy who was 4 years old when his portrait was painted in 1836. Here social class appears to have been a factor. Many boys after breeching wore a skirted garment--the tunic.

Mid-19th century (1840-70)

Most boys appear to have been breeched at anywhere from 3 to 6 years of age. Available images, however, suggest that some boys were breched later. Images from the mid-19th century show some boys of even 10 and 11 still wearing dresses. The relative rarity of photography during this period significantly limit the number of available images.

Late 19th century (1870-1900)

Most boys appear to have continued to be breeched at anywhere from 3 to 6 years of age. A substantial number of images show that a considerable number of boys wore dresses beyond the average breeching period. The wealth being created by the industrial Revolution mean that large numbers of families had the economic capability of educating their children at home and spending much more money on clothes than ever before possiblw, especially because the real cost of making clothes was declining due to sewing machines and other technical inovations. One new development during this period was the development of destinctivedly styled boy dresses.

Early 20th century

After the turn of the 20th century fewer and younger boys wore dresses. It would have been unsual for a boy to wear a dress much beyound 5 or 6 years of age. HBC is not entirely sure why the age of boys wering dresses declined at the turn of the century. One factor may have been a reaction to the Fauntleroy Craze of the 1880s and 90s. The style was so popular that some mboys may have been breeched eralier so they could wear a Fauntleroy suit. Some social historians believe that some of the Fauntleroy outfits and ringlet curls were so distasteful to fathers that they interbened in the raising of their sons more than previous generations.

Social Class

Social class was an important factor. Boys from working class families had to enter the work force at a much earlier age than boys from affluent families. Although much was up to a mother's peronal preferences in deciding on when a boy was to be breeched, there were some constraints. Almost certainly he would be breeched before beginning to work outside the home. School was another factor. Public schools began appearing in the 18th centurry, but compulsory education was not common througout Europe until the late 19th century. Boys would generally be breeched before beginning school. Thus by the late 19th century only boys from affluent families educating their children at home were being kept in dresses beyond school age. The rapidly expanding industrial economy, however, meant that there were much larger numbers iod affluent families. While wealthy people in the 18th century were mostly aristocrats or a few wealthy merchants, by the late 19th century there were large numbers of wealthy families who could afford to hire nannies and governesses and educate their children at home. In many cases these parents grew up in families of much lower economic circumstances and would not have had these advantages as children themselves.

National Differences

HBC is not yet able to draw any conclusions concerning differences between countries as to when a boy was breeched.

Hair Styles

Many of the images available are unidentified impages. Often the hair style can identify the gender of the child. This is not, however, a foot proof system as some girls wore short hair and some boys wore long hair, even ringlets curls and in some cases hair bows.


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Created: February 13, 2000
Last updated: 6:13 AM 2/18/2007