*** boy dresses: historical eras

Boy Dresses: Historical Eras

Figure 1.--.

European boys wore dresses like their sisters for several centurues. This was the practice even before specialized children's clothes developed in the late 18th Century and continured for another Century and a half. There were not specialized clothing for children during the middle ages. Very young children were all dressed the same reguardless of gender. I guess you could describe them as dress like garments. Many Europeans wore similar clothing at this time. As far as the start of the tradition for younger boys to wear dresses, I can not pinpoint a date. As far as the changing of clothing. During the 10th and 11th century both men a women wore long dress like tunics as did their children. In art depicting children after this period, the extremely young children wore the "dresses" worn by women and girls until they were ready to take on the duties and responsibilities of a boy, probably sometime betweem the age of 3-5 years, beyond potty training, at an age were they are ready for instruction. I beleive that this began the "breeching" tradition. Children's clothing echoed the styles of their parents. Just as the middle classes followed the styles of the nobles though with lesser fabrics and trims, the clothing of (non-noble) children was a fairly simple version of the clothing worn by the adults. Children wore stays and pudding caps to help them grow correctly.

The 15th century

We do not know yet if younger boys wore dresses in the 15th century. We have noted suggestions that this convention began in the 16th century. We want to confirm that it was not common in the 15th century, but have not yet been able to do so.

The 16th Century

Several sources suggest that the fashion of dressing small boys in dresses appeared at about the mid-16th century. We are not positive this was the case and are also unsure as to the reason this convention developed. One observer, for example, writes, "The origin of the custom may be simply that before about 1550, both sexes and all ages wore tunics and gowns of some sort, and young children's fashions are often slow to change." [Children's Museum] It certainly is true that men and women in the medieval era wore long gowns of varying styles. We note, however, major changes in male clothing during the Renaissance. Fashionable clothing during the Italian Renaisance included short tunics and stockings for boys and young men. Older men for a wild continuing wearing long gowns. And fron that point, men's and women's clothing began tgo become quite destinctive. Of course these styles and the Renaisance itself reached different areas if Europe at different times. It was in the 16th century that trousers began to develop, but they did not yet look anything like trousers. We thus think that dresses for boys began before the 16th century and even before the development of pants and trousers, but this requires further work. There would have been no reason for women to dress boys any differently than girls, especially when during the middle ages when men and women wore long gowns. Even afterwards women may not have viewed the dresses they wore in the same way as men and thus saw no need to breech boys. As young men began wearing short tunics and long stockings this may have been seen as an impractical style for children who were not yet toilet trained. Dressess seem more practical. This may have well been an important factor, not for boys wearing dresses in the mid-16th century, but for not changeing to pants like their fathers and older brothers. The above source a;so writes, "All children of this age were considered more or less as babies and so wore the same type of garments. It would be easier to change nappies if the child wore skirts rather than trousers. In fact the age for breeching suggests that making it easier for young boys to urinate is perhaps the most likely explanation. This would be especially true when breeches or trousers had complicated fastenings which took a long time to undo, as they did in the 16th century, for example." [Children's Museum] The reason this whole process was notable in the mid-16th century seems that men's clothing was changing nd thus younger children and youths for the first time were being dressed differently. It was an era of profound social change in Europe with vicious religious wars and Europe bursting out on the world stage with the voyages of discovery. We have certainly noted boys wearing dresses in the 16th century, but our archive is still limited. One siurce suggests that at first the dress tops worn by the boys were more like their fathers, but we can not yet confirm this. HBC can not yet confirm this, but we have certainly noted boys wearing dresses in the 16th century.

The 17th Century

The dresses worn by young boys by the 17th century were indistinguishable from those worn by girls. There were no specialized children's clothing at the time. Girls simply wore small versions of mother's dresses. Thus the custom of dressing small boys and girls in the same styles of adult women was firmly established by the end of the decade. Little boys and girls might wear their older sisters' hand me downs. Clothes were very expensive in real terns in the 17th Century and mothers saw to it that outgrown but serviceable clothes were passes on to the younger generation. Leading strings were common on the dresses of smnall children.

Figure 2.--Little boys in the early 19th century wore dresses like their sisters. This brother and sisters wear dresses in the French Empire style.

The 18th Century

The fashion of dressing small boys in dresses continued throughout the 18th century. In fact, social reformers argued that less restrictive clothing like skirted garments were especially important for young children, both boys and girls. Leading strings began to be less common on the dresses of younger children, although they were sometimes still used as decorative elements on girls' dresses. Major changes ocurred in clothing for children after mid-century when specialized children's clothing first appeared. Adult styles for children was increasingly criticized in the late 18th Century. The specialized clothing was at first for boys, styles such as sailor suits and skelaton suits. Apparently people at the time saw no need for special styles for girls. While special styles appeared for older boys, younger boys were still outfitted in dresses virtually undestinguishable from those of their sisters.

Figure 3.--This younger boy wears a plaid dress. This was still a popular style for boys in the 1870s, but had past out of fashion for girls. Note the belt, but back buttoning style. Also note the hair style.

The 19th Century

Little boys wore dresses throughout the 19th century. At the beginning of the century boys wore dresses little different than their sisters. Most boys wore dresses until breeching at 4-6 years of age, but some boys wore dresses and other skirted dresses even longer. By the end of the decade boys were wearing dresses styled plainer than their sisters or even kilt suits instead of dresses. Boys were being breeched at an earlier age and it became much less common for older boys to wear them. A very substantial change occurred in the 1890s and by the turn-of-the 20th century it had become much less common for boys to wear dresses. Given that this was a common practice for 300-400 years, we are not sure why this shift occurred so abruptly in the 1890s.

The 20th Century

Some little boys still wore dresses in the first decade of the 20th century. The the ages of the boys involved were declining abnd the custom was much less prevalent in America and Europe. Social customs were changing and with the disruptions of World War I, the custom of dressing boys in dresses became increasingly rare by the 1920s. The end of this custom occurred along side many other fashion shifts. European and British boys in the 1920s began wearing short pants with knee socks while American boys wore knickers. Women stopped wearing corsets, bobbed their hair, and began wearing shorter dresses. The reason for the passing of this fashion is unclear. Some berlieve that the invention of rubber traing pants made the practicality of skirted garments for younger boys less important. This may have been of some importance, but it is likely that deeper seated social changes were more important factors.


Anonamous, "Boys' Dress" Museum of Childhoof, accessed October 10, 2006.


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Created: March 27, 1999
Last updated: 10:18 PM 2/19/2007