Monday, August 14, 2023

Boys in Dresses: The Tradition

It’s difficult to read the gender of children in many old photos. That’s because coding American children via clothing didn’t begin until the 1920s.

My Note: Did this undermine the societal structure of that day?  Seems like the gender norm that we know survived, quite well.  So what is the big deal today with allowing youth to play along the gender spectrum?   

Franklin D Roosevelt in 1884, aged 2
/ image via Wikipedia 
Exploring the biographies of men as disparate as Tsar Nicholas II (b. 1868), Franklin Delano Roosevelt (b. 1882), and Ernest Hemingway (b. 1899), you’re apt to come across pictures of them as young boys looking indistinguishable from young girls. Their hair is long and they’re wearing dresses.

Scholar Jo B. Paoletti examines the changing fashions in children’s wear at the turn of the twentieth century, as a long tradition transitioned to more overtly gender-coded clothing. As she notes,

Until World War I, little boys were dressed in skirts and had long hair. Sexual “color coding” in the form of pink or blue clothing for infants was not common in this country [the US] until the 1920s; before that time male and female infants were dressed in identical white dresses.

Paoletti writes that young children’s clothing became more “sex-typed” as “adult women’s clothing was beginning to look more androgynous.” Before that transition, clothing styles for children followed a predictable progression.

“Infants of both sexes wore long white dresses until they began to walk,” while toddlers “wore short loose-fitting dresses until the age of two or three years.” After that, boys and girls wore dresses or suits with short skirts to the ages of five or six.

“Differences in color, material, and trim” were used to separate boys and girls at the latter stage, although such details may be hard to read in old photos today. Paoletti quotes from a 1895 issue of Ladies’ Home Journal to give one example of differences: “little boys’ dresses button up the front, those of their sisters fasten in back.”

Ernest Hemingway as a baby

The reasoning behind boys in dresses has been attributed to several motivations. There were the necessities of toilet training, lingering superstition (disguising boys from malevolent forces), and just plain practicality, since sewing and fitting smock-like dresses was easier than making miniature suits. Paoletti points to another: “it was not considered important to differentiate boys and girls at such an early age.” But “it seems to have been very important to distinguish between children and adults.” [author’s italics]

“A child’s maturation was noted by gradual adoption of adult dress,” Paoletti writes, “a process usually regarded as marking important milestones in her or his development. These stages became more distinct and more celebrated for boys than girls only after the age of five.”

The timing of “breeching,” putting on breeches/short pants/knickerbockers/shorts, was left to the mother’s discretion. “Advice columns very commonly included queries from mothers wondering if their sons were ready to put away dresses,” she notes. By 1900, however, little boys in dresses beyond the age of two or three became rarer. Mothers started being advised “not to keep their boys in skirts too long.”

Boys from five to twelve could be dressed in “costume style” outfits, including sailor suits and the “Little Lord Fauntleroy.” This later outfit, made of velvet and trimmed with lace, was inspired by the enormously popular 1886 Frances Hodgson Burnett novel. Stage and screen versions of Burnett’s work sometimes featured girls or, in the case of the 1921 silent film, the 29-year-old Mary Pickford, in the title role. By 1936, “Little Lord Fauntleroy” could be a taunt akin to “sissy,” and the popular movie version that year starred a boy without the suit (and the curls). The Buster Brown, named after a cartoon character created by Richard F. Outcault in 1902, was another elaborate style, with a big hat.

Thanks to Velma for alerting me to this a few months back.


  1. Maybe we should go back to this mode of dressing boys and girls. But would they then become better men or women? Don´t think so. It´s not the dressing of small kids - it is the education then.
    All the best

    1. Thanks for the comment . What a wonderful suggestion - Educating!