Boy's dress

© Victoria and Albert Museum, London

The painting pictured dates from 1836 and features a child holding a hobby horse. Despite the elaborate full-skirted dress trimmed with ribbons, the child is not a girl, but a boy – Alfred Fuller, aged four.

In Western European countries, until about 1920, boys would wear dresses until they were ‘breeched’. i.e. given their first outfit which included breeches or trousers. Breeching happened from the age of about four to eight-years-old, and varied according to different eras and families. A formal ceremony might also have taken place, to mark the boy’s progress from babyhood to boyhood, and sometimes a first haircut was also included. Up to the end of the 18th century, parents who could afford to may also have given their son a child-sized sword, or at least a toy weapon of some kind, as a token of the real sword he would own as an adult.

One of the hardest of childhood customs to understand is why were little boys given dresses to wear. Wasn’t it difficult for them to wear clothes that made them look like girls?

The origin of the custom may be simply that before about 1550, both boys and girls and indeed people of all ages would have worn tunics and gowns of some sort. Other ideas have also been put forward. The youngest children were associated with their mothers, and were invariably cared for by women rather than men, and therefore it may have been appropriate for all young children to wear skirts, regardless of whether they were boys or girls. It would also have been easier to change nappies if the child wore skirts, and wearing trousers or breeches would have restricted urination, as they often had complicated fastenings.

Young boys would not have felt conspicuous, as at the time wearing a dress was considered normal, although they would have undoubtedly looked forward to getting their first trousers and being thought of as more grown-up. Adults and other children would also have been able to distinguish boys from girls quite easily. In 1836, if Alfred Fuller had been a girl, he would probably have had long hair dressed in ringlets and worn a white dress in a more modest style with less flamboyant sleeves. 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. 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. At the time, a whip and a hobby horse (pictured) would also have been considered highly unusual toys for a girl.

From the 1920s onward, it became more normal for young boys to wear trousers. The introduction of new fabrics and detergents meant that trousers were easier to wash and iron and could be laundered more effectively. In the aftermath of the Second World War many traditional ideas for both children and adults began to change and ‘modern’ became the keyword for the post-war way of life.