Despite the fuss some people make about boys wearing ‘boys clothes’ and girls wearing ‘girls clothes’, back in the day it was all one and the same. Up until the early 20th century little boys work dresses and gowns well into their first few years of life.
Back in the day, all boys wore dresses
In Western European countries, boys would be dressed like this until anything from two to eight years old, with some boys documented wearing dresses into the late teens.
“Boys’ dresses were often made in brighter or darker colours and in plainer or stronger fabrics and might have had chunky belts and trimmings and large metallic buttons, none of which were typical of girls’ dresses,” the V&A Museum of Childhood explains.
“Boys’ dresses were more tailored in appearance, and often had features associated only with clothing for boys, such as the opening down the front of the skirt, fashionable in the 1810s and 1820s.
Why did boys wear frocks?
It’s thought that all young children – boys and girls – wore dresses to make nappy changing and toilet training easier. Some toddler gowns also had practical features, with fabric or ribbon ties sewn to them, as a kind of ‘lead’ to keep them close and support them as they learnt to walk. Dresses were economical and practical and had plenty of room for growing children (which pants did not!).
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Eventually, more practical child-friendly clothing started to be adopted (for example, garments like rompers that kids could climb and lark about it in).
Then, once boys were old enough to do up the fastenings on pants – or old enough to be sent to work – they were allowed to wear pants instead.
The official wearing of the pants
A little boy’s move from these dresses to pants was called ‘breeching’ and it marked a transition out of babyhood and his mother’s exclusive care, and more involvement from his dad.
When a boy was breeched, he often got his first Big Boy haircut, and was sometimes given a toy sword, to mark this big shift in his life.
Boys were popped into dresses just like girls up until the late 18th century. Then, some little boys began to be dressed in pants or tight ‘skeleton suits’ (above).
However, in the early 19th century boys were back to frocks again, this time as well as the long frocks of earlier years, they also wore shorter ones with matching bloomers. A nod to gentler days, practicality and play, perhaps?!
Return of the gown
It seems that pants on little boys were also a real barometer of how children were viewed and treated at the time. While children were originally seen as fragile mini-adults and rushed from babyhood straight to adulthood (pants for boys!), with kindness often left wanting, in the early 19th century children began to be seen as evolving little beings.
Childrearing methods were being reformed slowly but surely, and kids were parented a little kindlier. The dresses now became a symbol of innocence and childhood, with young boys and girls dressed similarly to denote that they were all precious little people.
The years rolled on and from the mid-19th to the early 20th century, little boys again began to be uniformly dressed in shorts – which allowed for play and growth and were cheaper than full-length pants – or knickerbockers.
The boys in frocks things began to be phased out, perhaps as new ideas about boys and masculinity began to be phased in.
By around the 1940s boys were generally only seen in frocks when they were being christened.
So why did men wear trousers in the first place?
One theory is that pants were seen as menswear, primarily because they were thought to be more practical when horse riding. And originally riding was a wartime pursuit, primarily practised by males. Thus, men wore the pants.
And then little boys wore the pants. Well, eventually. After they wore the frocks and the bloomers. #BringItBack
This post originally appeared on Babyology.
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