Dresses for Boys during the Late-19th Century

Figure 1--I estimate that this American family scene of a father reading to his children was taken during the 1890s. The child on the right is a boy. He looks to be wearing 'a dress, but it could be a smock. I do not know about the younger child. Note small bows in the child's hair.

The late 19th century was a period of shifting styles and fashion. Many boys especially in the 1870s-80s continued to wear dresses, in some case relatively old boys. Some little boys wore all-white dresses, lavish with ruffles, sashes, extraordinary delicate eyelets and fine embroideries. On the other hand,some quite little boys were allowed to wear knee pants. Dress fashions varied considerably. Some quite plain dresses were made for boys and marketed as boy dresses, especially by the 1890s. Many dresses were marketed as chidren's dresses meaning that they could be worn by either boy or girls. There were also girls' dresses. Of course the final decission was the mothers in such matters and some mothers simply ignored such labels if a particular style appealed to her. Some quite elaborate styles trimed in lace and ruffles were also sold as boys dresses. The development of photography and the growing popularity of women's magazines meant that many more images and information is available on 19th century boys. 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 very pronounced shift occurred in the 1890s.


Europeans for centuries dressed little children, both boys and girls in the same styles of ankle-length dresses, often referred to as petticoats. For most of this time, no special clothing existed for childrn, boys or girls. Boys when they were "breeched", were simplly dressed in smaller versions of the knee breeches and other clothes worn by their fathers. Special clothes for children appeared in the late 18th centuty with distinctive styles for boys and girls. Even so, many mothers continued to dress small boys in dresses for more than a century. This fashion also became common in America and persisted well into the 20th century. Information on the 16th-mid 19th century is limited to paintings and a few written records. Much more information is available beginning about 1860 because of the rapid improvements in photography and the declining cost of having photographs taken. Amatuer photogrraphy had not yey been made possible by George Eastman and his Kodak cameras so the available images are all formal shots taken in a photograpic studio or for the affluent, the family drawing room. Little boys by the late 19th century were still often atired in dresses. Some of the dresses for young children were worn by both genders. Some little boys wore all-white dresses, lavish with ruffles, sashes, extraordinary delicate eyelets and fine embroideries. Some dresses by the 1870s, however, were designed and marketed specifically for boys rather than generic styles for all children. Some childrens' garments do appear to be generic, especially overcoats and bathing suits. Increasingly, however, children's dresses were available in both boys' or girls' styles, although many dresses were marked as children's dresses which both girls and boys could swear. The existence of boys' dresses did not mean, however, that all boy dresses were obviously different from those worn by a boy's sister. There were a wide variety of styles available to appeal to what ever mode a mother might choose. Mothers could buy styles quite similar to those worn by girls. Some of these designs were quite frilly looking,much like those worn by her daughter (figure 5). A thrifty mother might also use hand me downs from an older sister. Other styles were more clearly Such styles were less likely to be worn by girls.

Figure 2.--I believe these are the Proust brothers. The French were not as taken with the kilt as the British and Americans, but the dresses worn by these boys in a photograph dating about the 1870s has been clearly influenced by the kilt. Note that the younger boys wears a white kilt and seems to have had his hair done.


The convention of younger boys wearing dresses continued in the late 19th century, but we note major changes by the turn-of-the century. We note that younger boys still commonly wore dresses in the 1870s and 80s. We are not sure at this time if there was any substantial shift during these decades on this convention. We think that the Fauntleroy suit introduced with Mrs. Burnett's book in 1885 may have incouraged some mothers to breech their sins so they could wear the popular outfit. We have not decected any other important shift, but this does not mean that such shifts were not under way. We have archived many American boys wearing dresses during the late 19th century. A good example is Martin Allister Wambold in 1886. We do notice changes in the 1890s, especially after 1895. We still see boys 3-4 years age wearing dresses, but we do not see as manny nor are there many older boys still wearing dresses. . A good example is Lloyd Whitney in 1895. Boys older than that begin to become much less common. A HBC reader believes that a major shift occurred during the 1890s and that by the turn of the 20th century that it was much less common for younger boys to wear dressess. We are not sure precisely when this shift occurred or why. We hope to eventually document some of this change in the catalog section.

Style and Colors

It should be emphasized that in this section we are talking about actual dresses and not skirted garmets like kilts and kilt suits. Kilt suits were very popular in the late 19th century. The fashion of kilts for boys was given great empetus when Queen Victoria dressed the young princes in kilts. Kilt suits were, however, often rather boyish looking garmets with jackets that could have been just as easily worn with kneepants. Kilts differed from dresses in that the materials used were more limited. There is often a clearly separated skirt (although little boy kilts usually were bodice kilts. Dresses on the other hand are one-piece garmets.


Many facts about dresses for boys are unclear to the author. One of the principal ones is whether little boys wore dresses all the time until they were breeched or if they wore other clothes for play and around the house and their dresses were primarily dress outfits for church and parties. Wearing dresses all the time seems plausible in urban homes, but would seen unlikely on the farms--even farm familys that had boys wearing dresses for their Sunday best. Hopefully some of our readers can offer some historical insights on this. I would also like to add additional insights on the differences between the boys frocks and the girls. Additionalinformation on how long boys were kept in frocks and wether the girls and boy shared accessories like stocking and hats, gloves is needed. Also what colors were they made in and fabrics? Please let me know if you have any information or details on these or other related topics.

Figure 3.--This 1887 photograph is of Frank Frank Schoonover at age 10. Frank was a fameous illustrater in the Golden Age of Illustration. In a short autobiography, he talks about his youth and how much he lovedthe outdoors, spending much of his time in the woods, walking along streamsand fishing. In spite of this his mother refused to cut his hair and and least on some occasions wore dresses.


The ages at which boys wore dresses varied over time, but appears to be primarily at the whim of the mother. During the early Victorian period boys were generally "breeched" and his curls cut at about 5 years of age. In the latter Victorian period the age was much less uniform. Little boys might be bought knee pants as young as 3 years of age. On the other hand boys much older than 5 years might be kept in dresses. The Vicorian father generally deferred to his wife on such matters. Although if she delayed breeching her son to long, the father might intervene. Wealthy families in particular were likely to keep their boys in dresses and long curls. As they were schooled at home and moved only in narrow social circles, the wealthy Victorian mother could really dress her children however she wanted. Thus older boys might be kept in dresses. Through the 1880s, adoring mothers might still outfit boys as old as 10 years old in dresses, usually to the chagrin of the boy involved. Mass marketing of children's clothes beginning in the late 19th century provides much more information on the age of boys wearing dresses than in previous years because the ages the patterns were available for wa s often mentioned. Patterns for dresses advertized in mail order catalogs and fashion magazines like the Delineator and women's magazines in the late 19th century are generally up to about 5-6, somtimes 7 years of age while the kilt suits may have been up to about 8 years. Of course a dress bought when a boy was 7 means that he might wear it until 8 or 9 if the mother was particularly doting or thrifty--or perhaps longer if the boy was of small stature. Some photographs from the late 1800s appear to show boys of about 10 still in dresses. As mentioned above, it is unclear if an boy of such an age might have knee pants for school or play and was only dressed up in his dress for church and other formal occassions or if he wore dresses or other skirted garmets like smocks all the time. It became less common, however, to outfit older boys in dresses in the 1890s and as the turn of the century approached. The age at which a boy was bought his first pair of knee pants was a major decision for mother. That decision for many families passed unrecorded and the boys involved have now mostly passed away. Thus this momentous time in many boys' lives is esentially lost to history. One mother, however, appears to have frozen the moment in time when she decided to buy knee pants for her twins that beforehand had worn a Fauntleroy kilt skirt outfit. For a view just click over to Fauntleroy dresses.


The fashion of dressing little boys in dresses was not just a phenomenon of a few fashion crazed rich people. The custom was widely ahered to throughout the United States, Canada, and Europe--although I have little information on specific countries. The boys in figure 3 for example were photographed in the American heartland--the midwestern state of Missouri, probably during the 1870s. Missouri at the time was a farming state. The three brothers in figure 3 were dressed in their best clothes and photographed in a studio. Some photographs from the period were taken by itenerate photographers. Farm families were photographed on their farms with their homes as a background. Notably such photographs even taken out on the farm often show little boys dressed up in dresses, often white dresses, for formal photographs. Some photographs show families living in very primitive sod homes. Actually dresses for little boys had some practicality in that they were easier to make than pants. The people involved were not just the genteel weaththy families of the northeastern establishment. The custom of dressing young boys in dresses cut across social and economic class boundaries. Even boys of hard working dirt farmers from the heartland wore dresses--a testament to how wide spread the fashion of dresses for boys was at the time.

Figure 4.--This 1870s photograph shows three siblings in emaculate white dresses. The older boy looks to be 9 or 10 and wears quite a girlish-looking dress. Surprisingly his younger brother wears a much plainer looking smock-like garment, but with lace trim at the hem. This picture was taken in the mid-western farming community of Marshall, Missouri. The toddler is probably another brother, but I'm not sure about that.

Other Styles

Parents had various options when their son reached about 2 or 3 years. Some simply left them in dreses as wascommon in the early period of the Century. Franklin Roosevelt'smother, for example, in the 1880s kept the future President in dresses and long curls until he was five. Other parents might turn to kilts or Fauntleroy suits as a transition to more boyish kneepants suits. Franklin's mother kept him in kilts for several years after the dresses were finally put away. One popular alternative for doting mothers who wereunwilling to let their sons graduate to trousers was a variety of frock-like garmets ranging fromgirlish-looking dresses to to suits with boyish jackets, but skirts or kilts instead of knee pants. Also a Russian tunic might be purchasedwith a loose frock-like jacket worn over long trousers or knee-length bloomers.These garments were generally p u rchased for boys of from 3 to 8 years of age which would mean that boys of 9 or even 10 would still be wearing them. One fashionable style was to dress siblings alike. During the late 19th century some mothers would put all of their children in identical smocks. Some times boys would be kept in identical dresses. In other instances brothers and siters, almost always older sisters and younger brothers were outfitted in identical dresses.

Hats and Caps

Hats and caps were much more extensively worn in the past. Boys in dresses wore a variety of hats would be worn on outings. The most common were broad-brimmed sailor hats with a jaunty ribbon dangling down the back. Tam-on-shanters were also chosen, although this was more common with kilt outfits. Berets also appeared by the end of the century.

Country Trends

We have begun to develop someinformation about dresses during the 1970s in various countries. We note a dress worn by an American boy James Cromwell in 1879.

Age Destinctions

Most Victorian mothers were very atuned to the finer points of fashion. Often brothers might bedressed in very similar clothes, but with notable touches to emphasize the younger boy's youth. The younger brother wearing sailor suits, for example, might wear a skirt rather than knee pants. If both boys were still in frocks, their adoring mother could make a number of modifications to emphasize the childishness of her younger son or the growing dignity of the older son. As late as the early 1870s, little boys were still wearing lace trimed pantaletts, but not as long as those worn at the beginning of the century. A younger boy might be dressed in a dress with extensive lace trim while hos older brother might have a plainer frock, although this was not only the case. As pantalettes passed from the fashionscene, other devices were available. The younger boy might be given a lace collar rather than a stiff Eton collar or a white skirt rather than a more boyish color. Other youthful looking devicesemployed by the attentive mother of the time included large bows, long hair and curls, whitestockings, broad-brimmed hat with long-flowing streamer, and patent leather shoes or slippers.

Figure 5.--Mail order catalog of 1899. Note the number of dress styles in addition to the kilted suit styles.

Patterns in the 1880s

Some dress patterns and styles were discussed in detail in contemorary women's magazines. Some magazines included a free pattern and many more for sale. Some of the patterns were discussed in detail and there were also siscussiions of garments and fashions. Only limnited information is avialable, but HBC hopes to expand this section.


Some period movies depict boys in long hair and dresses. 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 ercised considerable attention to detail.

Hair Styles

Boys kept in dresses and smocks would often not have their hair cut and often wore their hair long. Hair styles appeared to have varied from country to country.


American mothers liked to style their son's kong hair in long sausage curlsor to a lesser extent bangs. While in petticoats, it was not unusual for boys to wear hanging curls and perhaps bangs but the curls were often cut when the boy was breeched (allowed to wear pants). American mothers varied widely on which to do first, cut their boy's hair or buy his first pair of knee pants. As a reult, you have in the late 19th century some boys with short hair in dresses and some boys with long hair in knee pants--often velvet Fauntleroy suits. The actual occasion when a boy's curls were cut usually brought tears to the eyes of many a doting mother. Long hair and curls for boys was given new impetus by the Fauntleroy craze of the 1880s. Not all American boys, as mentioned above, kept in dresses had long hair. Some had quite boyish short hair. Long hair appear s to be primarily a custom in urban families. Rural boys were much less likely to have long hair. Presumably this was primarily because busy farm mothers just did not have time for the involved process of curling their boy's hair.


I have less information on Britain. I think hair styles were similar to American styles, but at this time cannot confirm it.


French mothers appear to have been especially prone to have extended the age at which boys continued to be dressed in dresses, especially in the 1870s and even the 1880s. (See for example details on the Delesseps family.) By the 1890s, however, boys were likely to be breeched at least by tge time they reached 5 years of age, although might wear smocks for sometimes after at home or to school. See for example details on the Zola family.) French mothersd do not appear to have taken to the American fashion of putting their boys' long hair in Fauntleroy ringlet curls, although it was not unknown. (See for example the experiences of Paul Vailland-Couturier. French mothers did seem to find long hair--even shoulder-length hair for boys fashionable. French mothers were more unlikely to cut the hair of boys still in dresses. The two seemed to be more associated with each other than was the case in America. This seems to have been particularly true in the late 19th century. French mothers even sometimes added hair bows so it is often difficult to tell the boys from girls in French paintings and photographs.


I believe long hair for boys was less common in Germany. I know that older school age boys would actually have their hair shaved. I have, however, few details about German hair styles for boys.

Attitudinal Shift

Boys for 300-400 years wore dresses when they were little. Something happened in the late 19th century, especially the 1890s which proundly changed the attitudes of parents. Suddently this convention became a lot less common. We home to eventually have a better idea as to precisely when this change occurred. At this time we are also not sure why this changed occurred. We notice a range of developments in the 1890s which may or may not have had an impact. At this time we are only able to list some of the developments in the 1890s which may have had some impact on the conventions for dressing little boys. We hope to eventually be able be able to assess their possible impact on children's clothing. The developments we think may have had an impact include: ruberized pants and laundry, public education, mass media, ready-made clothes, the women's movement, the Oscar Wilde trial, and the Fauntleroy craze. They may well have been other important developments which need to be added to this list. While we notice this shift in the United States, it appears to have occurred at about the same time in other countries, thus it seems likely that it was not a country specific development.

Personal Experiences

Some details are available on the actual experiences of several late 19th century boys who wore dresses. Most are the children of notable indivisuals of the day as they were the most likely to gave written about their childhood or have their childhood touch upon in books about their familiy experiences.


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Created: November 30, 1998
Last updated: 1:41 PM 8/29/2007