Sunday, May 19, 2013

Boys in Dresses

19th c. boy with whip
Don't let the pink dress and frilly collar distract you from the important detail here: this child is wielding a whip.
Take a look at the picture on the right. It's a lovely painting of a child in a dress. A pink dress. And it's a painting of a boy.

How do we know it's a boy? Well, first of all, pink wasn't always considered a "feminine" color. Until the twentieth century, it was considered appropriate for boy babies to wear pink and girls to wear blue, though the convention was far from a hard and fast rule. But more than that, we can tell the child in the painting is a boy because he's holding that most masculine and authoritative of props, a whip.

Buy why paint him in a dress at all?

Until the custom died out in the 1920s, it was common to clothe all young children, both male and female, in dresses--though in the case of boys, the frocks were euphemistically referred to as "shortcoats." They were called shortcoats because newborns started out wearing very long dresses that extended past their feet. (Even today, traditional christening gowns often retain the style.) Once a baby was old enough to begin crawling and learning to walk, the extra-long gowns were shortened to a more manageable length. Putting babies in dresses made it easier to change them, especially at a time before snaps and velcro were in use. Dresses were also easier to sew and easier to alter as a child grew.

19th c. boy with hobbyhorse and whip
Despite the impressive balloon sleeves and white pantalettes, this is a boy, as his hobbyhorse and whip reveal.
Both boys and girls were dressed alike until the boys were old enough to be "breeched"--that is, graduated from shortcoats into actual breeches. It was an important rite of passage, reflected in historical phrases like "since before I was breeched" and "since I was in shortcoats" to mean a very early point in the speaker's life. It was up to a boy's mother to decide when he was breeched, and most did it when their sons grew out of the toddler stage, at around 3 to 5 years of age. Some mothers found it difficult to let go of their boys' babyhood, however, and it wasn't unheard of for boys to remain in dresses until age 7 or 8. (I suspect those boys would have had a difficult time on the playground.)

But even though boy babies and girl babies wore similar dresses, portraits are usually careful to provide hints as to the sitter's gender.
19th c. girl with Doll
The doll this child is holding tells us she's a girl.
The whip in the portrait at top right is a good example. Perhaps because the boy in the painting above left is wearing a more elaborate dress with romantic sleeves, his painter has even given him a hobbyhorse to go with his whip. Other props considered masculine included ships, toy guns, and toy swords.

Sometimes young girls were painted with longer hair, but that's by no means a reliable clue, since boys often wore long curls, and very young girls might have their hair cropped short for easier maintenance. Once again, props came to the portrait painter's rescue. We know the child in the portrait above right is a girl because she's holding a toy meant to nurture her domesticity and maternal instincts, namely a doll. 

The Basket of Cherries by E. W. Gill
The Basket of Cherries by E. W. Gill (1828) Skeleton suits were an alternative to shortcoats for boys. Hats are also a good indicator of a child's gender--the boy on the left has what looks like a top hat behind him, while the girl with the cherries has a straw bonnet.
There was one exception to the boys-in-dresses custom, and that was the skeleton suit. During the regency period--or more accurately, from about 1790 to 1830--it was common to dress young boys in a tight-fitting suit that consisted of a jacket buttoned to high-waisted trousers. In the painting to the left, it's easy to tell which children are boys and which is the girl. The boys are not only wearing skeleton suits, but have matching action-oriented toys, a hoop and stick for trundling. The boy in back even has a very masculine-looking hat upturned behind him. The child with the cherries is a girl. We know that not just because she isn't wearing a matching skeleton suit--she could be in shortcoats, after all--but because she has a lovely bonnet lying beside her, one that matches her sash and necklace. No wonder she's smiling.

Alyssa EverettAlyssa Everett's newest regency romance, Lord of Secrets,was released March 25 and is available now. If you like angst and "tortured" heroes, you should give it a look. It joins her debut regency, Ruined by Rumor, while her third, A Tryst With Trouble, will be released in September. She hopes you'll visit her website and follow her on Twitter and Facebook, where she promises not to spam you relentlessly.


Anonymous said...

Very interesting Alyssa! Loved the pictures. I tweeted.

Alyssa Everett said...

Thanks, Ella!