In early America an important RITE OF PASSAGE in the lives of small boys was the moment they wore breeches or trousers for the first time. In infancy and early childhood, boys and girls were relegated to the feminine domestic circle and were dressed alike in petticoats, gowns, pinafores, and caps. Sometime between the ages of four and seven, however, boys were encouraged to acquire a masculine identity as they donned clothing that set them apart, gave them physical freedom, and indicated their dominant social position. Although the ritual of breeching died out in the nineteenth century, changes in clothing designed for boys continued to mark stages in their growth and development.
In the seventeenth century, little children wore linen shifts covered by petticoats and ankle-length robes, protected by a bib and apron or pinafore, and tight white caps. As boys grew, their long robes resembled those worn by adult men in the Middle Ages, for children were relegated to outfits resembling clothing that adults had abandoned. Ribbons, which hung down the back and symbolized childhood, recalled the adult robes of the sixteenth century with hanging sleeves. Such ornamental ribbons were different from leading strings, cords also attached to the shoulders which an adult held to help a child learn to walk. When boys reached the age of six or seven, they put on the breeches, frock coats, waistcoats, and hats worn by adult men. David Mason of Massachusetts, for example, was painted in 1670 at the age of eight, holding gloves and a silver-headed walking stick, and wearing a waistcoat with slashed sleeves, a shirt with a square collar, full breeches, long gray stockings, and black leather shoes.
As the eighteenth century progressed, children's dress was influenced by the child-rearing advice of JOHN LOCKE and other physicians, who recommended building the strong constitution with fresh air, physical exercise, and loose clothing. Locke approved the dress of sturdy children from farming and artisan families, who wore long frocks as toddlers and later changed to shirts with trousers or breeches for boys and petticoats and dresses for girls. But families of means continued to dress their children in ways that indicated gender and social dominance. The long robes worn by little boys resembled fashionable gowns with low-cut necks and full skirts over petticoats. When boys were breeched, they assumed the outfit of adult males: breeches, frock coat, waistcoat, soft ruffled shirt, long stockings, leather shoes, and even a tricorne hat. Yet their loose hair tied with a ribbon in a queue instead of a wig and a black ribbon around the neck in place of a cravat signaled their juvenility. Boys were delighted when they donned masculine outfits for the first time. Elizabeth Drinker remarked on the breeching of her grandson in 1799: "Sally has a Young woman at work… making a little man of Henry–he is very pleas'd… one of the happiest days of his life" (quoted in Reinier, p. 56).
By the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, the androgynous clothing of little children–muslin frocks, soft shoes, and short hair with bangs–minimized gender differences and symbolized the increasing value placed on childhood. Yet boys between the ages of three and nine still were distinguished from girls when they donned hussar or skeleton suits–long trousers buttoned to a short jacket over a shirt with a square collar. Rather than copying the dress of their fathers, this costume expressed their subordination to men, for trousers were the dress of laborers and sailors when their social betters still wore breeches. Not until the age of about ten would boys acquire a relaxed version of adult dress. In the 1830s middle-class girls acquired the freedom of trousers when pantaloons were introduced from Europe. Soon little children of both sexes were dressed alike in knee-length frocks over white pantaloons. When men adopted trousers at about the same time, eight-year-old boys gave up their frocks and pantaloons for knee-length knickers or short pants. Throughout the nineteenth century, little boys continued to wear dresses or tunics, graduating as they grew to sailor suits, military uniforms, short jackets, or frock coats. Not until the 1920s were creepers and rompers designed to distinguish toddler boys from girls. Age distinctions in older children's clothing have declined in the twentieth century as parents have selected parkas, sweatshirts, sneakers, and baseball caps for both sexes. Since the 1970s, gender distinctions have declined as well, as notions of nonsexist child rearing have encouraged parents to dress children of all ages androgynously in T-shirts and jeans.
Ariès, Philippe. 1962. Centuries of Childhood: A Social History of Family Life. Trans. Robert Baldick. New York, Vintage Books.
Brant, Sandra, and Elissa Cullman. 1980. Small Folk: A Celebration of Childhood in America. New York: Dutton, in association with the Museum of American Folk Art.
Calvert, Karin. 1992. Children in the House: The Material Culture of Early Childhood, 1600-1900. Boston: Northeastern University Press.
Paoletti, Jo B. 2001. "Clothing." In Boyhood in America: An Encyclopedia, vol. 1, ed. Priscilla Ferguson Clement and Jacqueline S. Reinier. Santa Barbara, CA: ABC-CLIO.
Reinier, Jacqueline S. 1996. From Virtue to Character: American Childhood, 1775-1850. New York: Twayne.
JACQUELINE S. REINIER