Thursday, November 3, 2011

WOW! BOY IN A DRESS - Part II by Pat Street

In an earlier post, I suggested ways to determine the gender of children in nineteenth-century photos by examining the hair style.  Another useful indicator of gender is clothing.* Almost all of the examples shown below are of boys, because it's very common for boys to be misidentified as girls, and quite rare for girls to be misidentified as boys.

1.  TROUSERS  Throughout the nineteenth century, no matter how fancy the outfit or how long the hair, if a child is wearing trousers of any kind, it's a boy. Girls were never seen in pants or trousers, whether long pants, below-knee pants, knee pants, or above-knee pants. The girliest-looking child, if wearing pants,  is a boy.

2.  BOW AT NECK  If the child has a bow at the neck of any size, it's likely to be a boy.

3.  COLLAR  If the child has a big fancy ruffled cloth collar, usually with cuffs and a bow at the neck as well, it's almost certain to be a boy. 

Girls wore fancy collars too, but girls' collars are generally in the "Bertha" style (large round lace or crocheted collars).  Boys occasionally wore this style of collar too, but it was mostly a girls' style. These are girls.

4.  SAILOR SUIT  In mid-century, when European royalty began dressing the royal children in little military uniforms of the realm, sailor suits (or dresses with rows of braid or other sailor styling) became very popular for both boys and girls. Girls wore the middy top with a skirt, and so did many little boys.  (Boy, boy; boy, girl)

5.  LORD FAUNTLEROY SUIT  In the mid-1880s, mothers began to dress their boys in the style of Little Lord Fauntleroy, a character in a children’s book. A Fauntleroy suit consisted of a jacket and skirt (or short pants) made of a luxurious fabric like velvet, worn with a full white blouse with enormous, elaborate, ruffled or lacy collar and cuffs. Girls did not wear this style.

6.  DRESS  All babies wore similar dresses, and it's really hard to determine gender if the child doesn't have enough hair to be styled. Sometimes it's best to go with body language. I think this child is a boy, but maybe it's a girl.

Dresses for children up to age five or so were pretty much unisex. This is a little boy from the 1860s named Eugene. Hair style is a better indicator for young children than dress style.

These are all boys.

And these are all boys, too. Some boys as old as ten or eleven wore dresses.

7.  SUIT WITH JACKET  If the child is wearing a suit, i.e., matching jacket and skirt or pants, it's probably going to be a boy. A girl would generally wear a dress rather than a suit.

8.  JEWELRY  The presence of jewelry won't usually help you decide whether a child is male or female. These children are all boys. The first boy is in playclothes, and his beads may be wooden beads he has strung on a shoelace, but the other boys are dressed in their best clothes. The boy on the right is wearing stud earrings, and the twin boys below are wearing small hoop earrings. (It was thought that pierced-ear earrings would improve a child's eyesight. This old wives' tale is also why pirates wore gold hoops in their ears.) 

If you have a photograph for which you still can't decide gender after considering hair style and clothing, you may need to factor in the props, if any, and the pose.  I'll address those elements next time.


* I've developed these guidelines (and I've seen exceptions to almost all of them) from studying thousands of early photographs of children. If you think I'm off base, please let me know!  

To see Wow! Boy in a Dress, Part I, click here. 
Click here for more on Pat Street and other guest bloggers.


  1. OK, let's hear some comments -- feels like I'm posting into a huge void! Useful? Not? :-)

  2. Well, Why do you think there was such a gender bender in the 19th century around children? What was it about 19th century fashion that we are missing? We have all the evidence laid out for us, but what exactly is the evidence telling us? These are my questions.

  3. Hi Maria, Generally, in the 19th century, children were seen as children, not so much as boys or girls. Not until the 20th century were distinguishing conventions really laid on them. Like pink for girls and blue for boys...previously boys were as apt to wear pink as blue, and vice versa. Distinctions were fairly subtle in the 19th c., like center part vs. side part. My goal in writing these posts was to help photography collectors and sellers tell the difference between boys and girls in antique photos, not to conclude anything major about 19th century fashion. But to answer your question, I think the evidence is telling us that most of what we think of as gender "rules" didn't come until the 20th century.

  4. What fantastic photos. And you really know your stuff.

  5. Thanks, Myra! I've made a long study of this topic. One of these days I'll do a book -- possibly an e-book.

  6. OH-Kay But what I think the question was...
    "What was it about 19th century fashion that we are missing?"

    In the 19th yes kids werent considered as persons or individuals. I'm afraid they were just a reflection of their Mothers Femininity. So those poor children were dressed this way to be BABY DOLLS!

    Even though this might of seemed as a horrible existence, I would have to say it had to have been better than to be sent to factory to work at the age of 5 or 10! Where many kids were killed or dismembered in various forms of machinery of that age.

    So I believe the kids of the 19th were divided between Poor, Middle Income to Rich.

    Poor kids had to work on the farm or in factories.
    While kids in urban centers worked in factories.

    But the many kids with certain types of Moms had to wear silly clothes and get picked on while they wore their mothers favorite outfits for them! These kids Im sure rebelled and played in these clothes in dirty streets. All to the DELIGHT of detergent companies! Like Borax and Arm & Harmer products.

    KIDS WILL BE KIDS! And that's the way it should be. I'm afraid that this is just another part of our history that is being ignored in school. Kids today have NO-IDEAL how lucky they have it. Even teen's will rarely have FAST FOOD jobs these days.

    ACK! I've said enough! GOOD NIGHT!

  7. Yes, MurCuDoe, that was Maria's question ("What was it about 19th century fashion that we are missing?"), but I don't think we're missing anything important. All the evidence is there in old photographs. Do you think there is a grand and mysterious conclusion we are not drawing? What makes you think we're missing something?

  8. Great site. Thank you so much. I knew about the hair parting but the rest is news. Missing something? Yes, zippers, elastic and inventions like that were not around. It is much easier for mother and child with a dress when nature calls! Once little hands could manupulate those buttons and strings, then boys got to wear pants....that is my theory anyway. :D

    1. Your theory is nowhere close to correct. Skirts and trousers have nothing to do with gender! Females are raised as individuals with choices, men are raised as a collective with a trouser uniform. Horseback riding is 95% of the causation of pants, the Romans threw men in pants out of their civilization in AD393 as political subversives, because 15 years earlier they lost to trousered cavalrymen at Adrianople. Freedom of dress is a human right applicable to men not only to the style monopolistic female, who only gained the right to wear pants as a side effect of the violent deaths of 63 million people (factory work in World War 2). Skirts as sex differences? You are kidding, aren't you? Put the shoe on the other foot---what if men had free recognition of right to wear any style, but females were stuck with one style, and females daring to assert right to wear the other style were savagely denounced as "transvestites" by "clinically normative mental health professionals" pushing dangerous psychiatric drugs? Psychiatry used to call women in pants insane, see 1876 NY Times editorial "A Curious Disease." Go buy your husband a Greek soldier skirt and ask him to start wearing it.

  9. EXCELLENT, top level photo presentation, very instructive for historical perspective! May I submit though, that the reason boys were in dresses/skirts/petticoats, is that this was a continuation of the skirt age for men, which actually lasted for several THOUSAND years! It continued to encompass young males after older males transferred into the horseback riding trousers. Many European examples in paintings show boys in skirts/dresses WAY farther back this this USA referenced site! Wish I'd have been raised in NICER clothes, all I had in 1954 was a lacy "christening" dress. (Charles of dfwseekwoman)

  10. That's an interesting post about baby clothes.

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  12. Excellent photo presentation and I have to agree with the history as well. I can mainly relate to this because I have been a collector / seller of antiques since my teen years and the history I have found with old vintage photos has been consistent with the facts presented here in this presentation. I would however like to add one additional point to this conversation / presentation thread, many boys and girls wore dresses for ease of using the outhouse or for their mother's ease of changing their under-garments.

    Another point that could be brought up on history of dressing and female vs. male clothing is that most clothing was made with what many today know as the female buttoning pattern. In the early 20th century a male button pattern emerged. The female button pattern was originally the main pattern of the day because it was easier for servants and mothers to dress children and people of higher stature.

    A good follow-up to this report might be in the area of children's under-garments of the same time period. Children today have little idea what was expected to be worn in the late 1800s thru a good part of the first half of the 1900s or 20th century. For example many boys who wore shorts or knickers had to wear a vest (as they were once called) with garters hanging down to hold up their knee-high stockings. This allowed for a neater appearance and allowed boys more freedom of movement without worrying that their stockings would fall down to their ankles.

  13. I am an older man who wore dresses as a baby. I am glad I got the chance to do it. I wish all boys could wear dresses today even past the age that they did years ago. I feel that if boys were allowed to wear dresses they would be more manageable and less defiant. There is just something about a nice dress that calms the demeaner of a male and makes him feel so wonderful.
    Why don't we promote this practice more than we see it.

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