Dresses and Frock Suits

Europeans in the 17th and 18th Centuries dressed little tots, both boys and girls in the same styles of ankle-length dresses, often referred to as petticoats. Some boys might wear dresses or dress-like smocks to five or seven years until they were "breeched." It is amazing to find when studying the contemporary portraits of children that one cannot tell boy from girl except by name. Over the elaborate frock as protection was worn a "pinafore," an apron pinned to the front, often of sheer linen, embroidered and lace-trimmed.

Very young boys throughout the 19th and into the 20th Century wore dresses much like those worn by their sisters. These dresses in the mid-1800s could be quite elaborate. Some criticized the elaborate styles in vogue for both boys and girls. One fashion spokes woman, Sara Hale, waged a very ladylike war on the overabundance of decorations for infant and toddler clothing. According to Mrs. Hale, "A large pattern of embroidery, is not suited for an infant's slip, neither are wide ruffles, nor a coarse pattern of lace... Rich embroidery and Valenciennes lace cannot make the little creatures a lot more comfortable or heighten beauties which are visible only to the eye of nurse and mamma..." To aid her in the campaign, she sometimes enlisted other acknowledged experts such as Mrs. Tuthill (author of the Nursery Book for Young Mothers) who scolds,

"It is bad enough, in all conscience to pervert the mind and character of girls, and render them dressed up bundles of vanity, but boys --boys who are to become men--it is shocking! Of all weaknesses in a man, what is more despicable than an inordinate love of dress, added to an exorbitant desire for admiration of self...?" Should mothers not heed the warning, Mrs. Tuthill predicts dire consequences: "If you make him a peacock now, there is much reason to apprehend that he will never become an eagle.

As boys grew older some differentiation might be made such as less lace and frilly aplique. Boys outfitted in frocks during the early part of 19th Century often wore knee-length or below the knee pantaletts, often trimed in frilly lace. Other frocks might have embroidered, somewhat less femine pantaloons. Other outfits for somewhat older boys were frock-like tunics. Scholars looking at drawings and paintings from the era frequently have trouble differentiating girls from boys. One scholar suggests when ytying to interpret a drawing in a woman's magazine from the 1850s, ... the child, though barefoot, is dressed in mid-century clothing. It appears to be a girl, based on the length and fulness of the skirt, the low neckline of the dress, the length and dressing of the hair, and the slimness of her ankle (boys generally being depicted with a stockier build).

Victorian parents at mid-Century had various options when their son reached about 2 or 3 years. Some simply left them in dreses as was common in the early period of the Century. Franklin Roosevelt's mother, 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. Franklin's mother kept him in kilts for several years after the dresses were finally put away. One popular alternative for doting mothers who were unwilling to let their sons graduate to trousers was a varity of frock-like garmets ranging from girlish-looking dresses to to suits with boyish jackets, but skirts or kilts instead of knee pants. Also a Russian tunic might be purchased with a frock-like jacket worn over long trousers or knee-length bloomers. These garments were purchased for boys of from 2 to 5 years of age which would mean that boys of 6 or even 7 might be found still wearing them.

Boys kept in dresses and smocks would rarely have their hair cut and often wore curls or bangs. While in petticoats, it was not unusual for boys to wear hanging curls and perhaps bangs but the curls were cut when the boy was breeched (allowed to wear pants), an occasion which usually brought tears to the eyes of many a doting mother.

A varierty of hats would be worn on outings. The most commom were broad-brimmed sailor hats with a ribbon dangling down the back. Tam-on-shanters were also chosen, although this was more common with kilt outfits.

Some mothers also purchased smocks as play clothes or to protect their children's good clothes. Smocks might be used over dresses and frocks or more boyish clothes.

Most Victorian mothers were very atuned to the finer points of fashion. Often brothers might be dressed 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. In the early Victorian period, the younger boy might wear below the knees pantaletts under his frock or shirt. As pantalettes passed from the fashion scean, 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 devices employed by the attentive mother of the time included large bows, long hair and curls, white stockings, broad-brimmed hat with long-flowing streamer, and patent leather shoes or slippers.

The custom of dressing little boys in dresses declined in the second decade of the 20th Century. Little boys by the 1920s were instead outfitted in rompers and short pants. A few boys were outfitted in smocks during the 1920s, but this was little seen by the 1930s. extent smocks.

Christopher Wagner


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