Carl-Ludwig Christinek, Portrait of Aleksey Bobrinsky (1762-1813) as a child

On Fridays, my youngest son has to wear “formal dress” to school. This involves a jacket and tie, khakis, and real shoes rather than sneakers. He hates formal school dress day. The kid has no idea how easy he has it. I mean, look at poor Aleksey Bobrinsky up there in his tight suit and breeches, and his powdered wig. Admittedly, people wore their nicest finery to have their portraits painted, but even so–this must be his equivalent of formal school dress. (I wonder if my son would complain less if he were allowed to come to school with a rapier in his belt, like Aleksey’s.) Be that as it may: on Wednesday, I discussed what babies used to be made to wear. If you missed that post, it might be worth a look, to put this one in context. Today’s subject is what kids were made to wear.

If you’ve ever walked through a portrait gallery at a museum, you might be forgiven for assuming that all the portraits from the 18th century that feature children show only girls, and never boys. Every child seems to have on a frilly, flouncy dress and sport long, bouncing ringlets. And a corset. But take a closer look. Many of these children are, in fact, boys. You can sometimes tell by the shoes—boys’ heels tend to be a tad lower than those of girls.

I could show you dozens upon dozens of examples, but here are a few. To re-state: THESE ARE ALL BOYS:

Joseph Badger, portrait of James Badger, 1760
Louis de Silvestre, Portrait of Prince Xavier de Saxe (1730-1806)
Pierre Gobert, Portrait of Louis XV as a child—in a corset. 1714
Pierre Gobert, Portrait of Louis XV as a child—in a corset. 1714
Joseph Badger, 1755ish

Really, I could keep going, but I think you get the picture.

Girls would begin to be dressed in clothing much like their mother’s, from an early age, often as young as two.  Most parents believed that a stiffened torso was essential to developing good posture, so both boys and girls were made to wear whaleboned bodices.

When a boy reached the age of six or seven he would at last discard his gown and be “breeched.”

The French writer Jean-Jacques Rousseau gets much of the credit for influencing the change in children’s dress during the latter part of the eighteenth century. He asserted that children’s physical and social needs should be considered as different from those of adults. Therefore, Rousseau argued, they should be allowed to wear plain, comfortable clothing. This was a radical concept for most people. “Skeleton suits” for boys appeared, so called because they fit loosely on the child’s frame. (As a side note: Rousseau, that Great Emancipator of children, fathered five kids with a woman he never married. He sent them all to the foundling hospital. Nice.)

A few examples of skeleton suits:

Ralph Earl, Mrs. William Moseley and her son Charles, late 1700s


Henri-Pierre Danloux, Portrait of two children, 1800

Ok, so it’s not exactly something a kid might wear to go outside and shoot hoops, but it’s certainly an improvement.

Still, boy-skirts didn’t entirely go away. Here’s a picture of Franklin Delano Roosevelt at age 3 (in 1885).



Alexei Haas says:


Louise says:

Great article! What wonderful information you researched for us! I suspect that some of the boy skirts had a little also to do with ‘potty training’ as these pictures are before zipper and elastic. I am not even sure of the undergarments that were available at the times of these pictures. That might be an interesting followup article! Great piece though!

Sarah says:

You’re absolutely right about the potty training issues, Louise. I’m saving the history of diapers for another blog!

Cameron says:

Fabulous blog. I have read you could tell young 19th-century boys from girls by whether they had a side or middle part in their hair for their photo op. At least in Maine in the 19th century. I love the portraits you found.

Sarah says:

Wow, thanks for that cool info, Cameron. I didn’t know about side and middle parts!!

Fascinating–as usual. 🙂 Thanks for a great read!

Charlie says:

Dear me—more shortage of historical knowledge. Men wore skirts of every description for 1,000s of years. This slowly diminished as the use of the horse for transportation and warfare spread westward from Mongolia. Pants were invented for sitting on a horse. These boys you show—their clothes were mere continuations of the skirt age that most men belonged to up until early medieval times. Even till late in the 17th century, aristocrats wore “petticoat breeches” (Rhinegraves) and male ballet dancers in Paris wore “tonnelets,” wired skirts, and not as female impersonation. Young males were the last males to stop wearing skirts. It’s incredible that society has almost totally stopped sex typing garments with the goal of preventing women having choices, while the agenda to sex type many styles as female rages on, with the goal of blocking men having choices. Some feminine women naturally prefer pants, some masculine men prefer skirts, except that “mental health professionals” attempt to squelch this human choice. In 1943 Chicago police arrested Evelyn Bross for wearing pants and judge Jacob Braude ordered her to see a psychiatrist for six months. Finally the FEDS intervened and pressured the Chicago city council to scrap their 1851 ordinance, because supporting the war effort by allowing women to wear pants in war plants was correctly deemed more important than maintaining asinine psychiatric dogma. This asinine psychiatric dogma is also costing the modern apparel industry upwards of $35 billion per annum worldwide, as in most places only women are recognized to be free to wear every possible style. Men are NOT “dressed like men” unless they sport some facial hair. Pants are named for the 16th century Italian clown, Pantalone, and Emperor Theodosius I in AD 393 ordered men in pants exiled from Rome as political subversives. Too bad I can’t post my 403,041 word research piece in this tiny space!

Sarah Albee says:

Thank you for your comment, Charlie, and you raise some valid points. What I thought notable about this fashion for young boys in western Europe and America is that first, in the culture where these boys lived, men had not been wearing skirts or robes for about 400 years (since “early medieval times,” as you pointed out). My interest is in fashion, and fashions change quickly. Second, I appreciate your point about “society. . .blocking men having choices,” but I do take issue with your assertion that “society has almost totally stopped…women having choices.” Millions of women around the world are not permitted to show their faces, let alone their fashion choices, outside the home.

Charlie says:

Of course I was referring only to USA culture. I have referenced the Sudan and other Arabic states as to veils, trousers. There is a North African nomadic sect where veils are thought masculine only. But in an outdoor setting, that is silly—it’s protective in sandstorms. “Fashions change quickly,” yes and no! It was the period of January 1942-summer 1945 that freed women to wear pants, due to the 18 million women in USA factory work. With men and trousers, however, this change literally required many centuries and only happened as the use of the horse spread Westward into Eastern and finally Western Europe. It would be useful if those concerned about women elsewhere, would show corresponding regard for men here. Men suffer terribly in the summer due to the coat, vest, suit and tie mania launched by the London drunk, Beau Brummel. School administrators are all over the public record banning boys wearing shorts in hot weather while girls are free to wear much cooler skirts. These administrators, in dozens of cases, relented their shorts ban only after boys protested by coming to school in skirts. It all shows these forms to be specific to weather and activity—not to gender. I’ve spent interminable hours studying the oppression of women with corsets and petticoats, including cases in which women drown because the excessive petticoats made them impossible to elevate to safety—and deaths by the garments catching fire. Have a look at what the editor of the New York Times, John Foord (correct spelling) said on page 6, May 27, 1876 editorial, “A Curious Disease” about women wearing pants. As with Samuel Cartwright and “drapetomania” in the 1850s, psychiatry does no more than to equate the social status quo with biological brain health. No strategy to oppose change could be more insidious.

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