Are You a Boy or a Girl?

Clockwise from top:

Cecilia Beaux, Les Derniers Jours d’Enfance (The Last Days of Infancy). Oil on canvas, 1883-85. Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts, Gift of Cecilia Drinker Saltonstall, 1989.21.

Unidentified photographer, portrait of a boy. Nd.

John Brewster, Jr., Mother with Son (Lucy Knapp Mygatt and Son, George). Oil on canvas, 1799. Palmer Museum of Art of the Pennsylvania State University, Gift of Mrs. Nancy Adams McCord, 87.1.


Looking at portrait paintings and photographs prior to the First World War, you might wonder where all the little boys are.

Girl babies and toddlers appear in abundance, held closely to their mothers or clutching favorite toys or pets. Each girl’s frilly dress and wispy curls define her as a feminine being, destined for marriage and motherhood. Or at least, so it seems until you turn over a photo of one of these beribboned darlings and find scrawled on the back:

“Portrait of George, aged 3 yrs.”
“Alfred, 21 months.”
“Wendell Davies and dog.”

Before you stand up and shout “WOW! Look at these amazing nineteenth-century genderqueer little kids!!” to whomever is in the room, I should mention that nearly everyone in the United States and Western Europe used to wear dresses throughout early childhood. Long hair was not unusual either, and hair length had little to do with gender. Though tiny giveaways occasionally appear, it is very difficult to tell girls from boys in portraits made before the twentieth century. This dainty Ammi Phillips portrait of Andrew Jackson Ten Broeck could just as easily depict one of his sisters.

Ammi Phillips, Andrew Jackson Ten Broeck. Oil on canvas, 1834. Private collection.
Ammi Phillips, Andrew Jackson Ten Broeck. Oil on canvas, 1834. Private collection.

(Note: If you are wondering whether or not his name was an accident, it wasn’t. Young Andrew had a brother named William Henry Ten Broeck and a cousin named Martin Van Buren Ten Broeck.)

Today, we are obsessed with children’s biological sex and gender expression. “Is it a boy or a girl?” is the first question asked about a new baby, before we even learn his or her name. A mother puts a lacy pink headband on her bald little girl, lest we accidentally think we are looking at a boy. An expectant grandfather is miffed at his daughter for not revealing her child’s sex prior to birth—because how else will he know whether to buy his grandbaby a sparkly skirt or sailor pants? And if he buys both, what if that makes the baby grow up to be a drag queen? Et cetera.

But to parents in 1800, or even 1900, a baby wearing pants would have been akin to a fish riding a bicycle: there was just no practical reason for it. There were, however, reasons for children to wear dresses. Their practicality began with the ease of diaper changing. Without snaps or elastic, simply getting a pair of trousers on and off a fussy baby would have been next to impossible. More often than not, nineteenth-century fashion magazines and pattern books didn’t even differentiate between garments for boys and those for girls. A September 1868 issue of Godey’s Lady’s Book featured a pattern for a “dress for a child of four years old, of pink cambric, braided with white” and a “sash of the same.” Even after children were potty-trained, they continued to wear dresses, which were easier to let out as needed. Pants couldn’t so easily accommodate the needs of thrifty parents with growing kids.

Micah Williams, Girl in White with Cherries. Oil on canvas, 1831. Zimmerli Art Museum at Rutgers, Gift of Anna I. Morgan, 59.012.001.
Micah Williams, Girl in White with Cherries. Oil on canvas, 1831. Zimmerli Art Museum at Rutgers, Gift of Anna I. Morgan, 59.012.001.

It may seem crazy to mothers and fathers today, but white was continually a popular color for children’s dresses. Anyone familiar with the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries knows that life in those times had the potential to be a bit gross and dirty (as did/do children, for that matter). The girl above lived in New York City in the early 1830s, where the muddy streets were covered in piles of horse dung and there was no such thing as garbage collection or proper sewers; it was perfectly acceptable to just dump the contents of your chamber pot out the window. But white cloth could be harshly scrubbed and bleached without fading, so that’s what her mother dressed her in, all the way down to her lacy pantalettes. Under their dresses, both she and little Andrew wear frilly pantalettes, a variation on long underwear that had an open crotch and visible hem, and were common children’s wear from the 1820s through the 1860s.

Pantalettes were the closest thing to trousers that a boy would have worn until his “breeching” sometime between the ages of three and seven. A highly significant rite of passage for boys prior to the early twentieth century, breeching marked the day that a boy made the transition from skirts to trousers or short pants. In periods in which short hair was popular for men, breeching also included the cutting of long hair into a more adult style (here I’m imagining a mother weeping as she takes scissors to her little boy’s curls). A girl would simply continue to grow her hair out forever and wear versions of her mother’s clothing into adulthood.

I find it somewhat disturbing, and not at all surprising, that the continuation of childhood styles for girls and women would have reinforced then-common ideas of women as childlike and inherently dependent creatures. Boys became men, but women remained girls forever. In this way and others, clothing acted as a mirror for parents’—and the world’s—expectations and fears. We’ve never escaped this.

In her book Pink and Blue: Telling the Boys from the Girls in America, clothing historian Jo B. Paoletti suggests that one of the reasons boys wore dresses until they were school-age was that parents were uncomfortable at the thought of dressing young boys in “masculine” adult styles. For them, men’s clothes implied masculine adult sexuality, which children were supposed to be free of. However, a higher awareness of male homosexuality in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries (probably due in part to Aestheticism and public figures like Oscar Wilde) resulted in widespread homophobia. For parents, the fear that their little boys would turn out gay trumped the fear that they would exhibit heterosexuality at a too-early age. The age of breeching had already been falling, and at this point it plummeted. Whereas in the eighteenth century breeching usually occurred around the age of seven, by the 1900s it had slipped to around three, and eventually gender-neutral children’s clothing almost entirely disappeared. Suppliers of mass-market clothing, like Sears, weren’t free of blame either, as the prevalence of gendered outfits meant parents had to buy twice as much clothing for their children.

So…that Pepto-Bismol pink girls’ outfit I saw in Target yesterday with “My Favorite Color is Sparkle!” emblazoned on it in glitter (Really. I saw this.)? It may exist in part because somebody’s great-great grandfather was frightened by Oscar Wilde’s manly love.


For more on the development of American children’s styles, see Jo B. Paoletti’s Pink and Blue: Telling the Boys from the Girls in America (Indiana University Press, 2012) and the highly informative Clothing Through American History series published by Greenwood.

Please feel free to leave a comment

  1. Penny on October 15, 2013 | Reply

    The textile exhibit at the Metropolitan Museum of Art includes a detailed boy’s dress, but the exhibit also includes intricate “morning coats” for men from the late 1700’s. Based on that exhibit, no matter whether you were a man or woman (during that time period), you needed/wanted the flashy/fancy details in your clothing (and perhaps you children’s clothing, no matter the gender) to show how important you were. In a different time period, didn’t Secretary Seward wear an embroidered coat or shawl in the movie “Lincoln” when he was sitting at his desk? (although President Lincoln was seen wearing what appeared to be an old blanket . .. .)

  2. Kate on October 15, 2013 | Reply

    Right! That’s especially true in men’s clothing before the mid-nineteenth century. Men wore much flashier clothing in colonial and early Federal times–think pink satin coats, velvet breeches, and the kind of embroidered loungewear you saw at the Met. Look up John Singleton Copley’s portraits for good examples. But due to factors like the increasing separation of gendered “spheres” (work/home) and blurring class lines, elaborate clothing for men eventually was considered to be gaudy and feminine. So, mid- and late-nineteenth century American men’s fashion is really, really dull. I can’t remember Seward’s shawl, but it may have been his only interesting piece of clothing.

  3. Geralyn Colvil on October 15, 2013 | Reply

    please add me to the list to be notified of new posts!

  4. Maureen Chadwick on October 16, 2013 | Reply

    I loved learning a little more of the history of clothing. English boys always wore short pants into the 60’s and sometimes 70’s. Long pants were usually introduced around 11 or 12.
    I was one of the first in my hometown in England to wear pedal pushers circa 1959 and it caused a lot of gossip…Following in the footsteps of my grandmother who wore a split skirt to go cycling in the late 1870’s!

  5. Kate on October 16, 2013 | Reply

    Ooh I love nineteenth-century women on bikes…so independent. You might find a parallel to your own situation in the BBC show Call the Midwife, in which only the “daring” nurse-midwife character wants to wear pants to work, while all the women around her are still wearing skirts.

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