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.