Museum life: Identifying gender

A while ago a volunteer asked how to identify the difference between little girls and little boys dresses from the 19th Century. She had an example from her museum collection and wanted me to confirm whether a girl or a boy wore it. It is confronting when you get asked something like this, there are so many nuances in fashion that it is not always easy to identify dress as something in particular. Brenna wrote a post about the use of colour in gender stereotyping for children in the United States during the post World War 2 period. In this post, I want to look at some of the complexities of identifying boys and girls dresses from the 19th Century.

Before the early 20th Century small boys and girls both wore dresses up until boys were breeched. Breeching is the occasion when young boys, between the ages of six and eight were first dressed in breeches or trousers. Popular in Western Europe, it was common up until the early 20th Century.  It was the outward demonstration of his passage from the care and guidance of a woman, his mother or nurse, to preparation for his future as a man in the world. When in their mothers care they wore dresses, and once in the care of men, whether father or tutor, they wore breeches. For girls, on the other hand, there was no break with childhood clothes; they moved slowly into adult dress. Breeching clearly expressed the separation between the educations of young girls and boys.

It can be difficult to determine the difference between dresses worn by little girls and boys during the 19th Century. There are, however some subtle differences that can help differentiate. These include the use of slightly simpler embellishment and fabrics in boys dress. This little boys dress from the early 20th Century illustrates this. It is made of cotton velvet; it has a round neckline and square sailor collar at front and back with 6 mother of pearl buttons down the front

Dress, boy's, cotton velvet / silk / mother-of-pearl, maker unknown, made in Australia, 1900-1901, Collection: Powerhouse Museum, Sydney

Girl's dress, shot striped silk, frills & fringed. c. 1880 Collection: Powerhouse Museum, Sydney

This little girls dress, although of a slightly earlier period (c. 1880) demonstrates the use of embellishments in little girls dress. It is made of silk, has a full flounced skirt with lace edging around the neckline and cuffs. This dress is similar in style to fashionable women’s dress of the same period. Some of the differences between these two dresses include the use of lace and silk on the little girl’s dress as opposed to the plainer use of brown velvet and no frills on the boy’s. The boy’s dress also uses a sturdier fabric and is simpler in style.

Dress, boy's wool, late 19th century, early 20th century, Collection: Powerhouse Museum, Sydney

On the other hand, this little boys dress from the late 19th Century uses lace decoration at the neckline and around the sleeves. These embellishments are similar to the little girls dress above.

Dress, boy's, burgundy silk velvet, embroidered trim, 1875-1899, Collection: Powerhouse Museum, Sydney

Similarly, this boy’s dress, dating from between 1875 and 1899 is made of burgundy silk velvet with a gold coloured embroidered trim. It is also an example of an embellished boy’s dress.

Boy's dress, wool flannel, trimmed with cerise velvet tabs and small pearl buttons, England, c. 1860 Collection: Powerhouse Museum, Sydney

Lastly, this boy’s dress dates from the 1860s, made of wool flannel; it is trimmed with velvet tabs and small pearl buttons.  It has a full skirt similar to the 1880s girls dress.

Looking at these examples of boy’s dresses it is easy to see how it can be difficult to determine the differences between boys and girls dresses from the 19th and early 20th Century. Although, as a general rule, boys wore plainer dresses to girls before breeching, there are some examples of embellished boys dresses.  This is a reminder that it can be difficult to identify dress. Without provenance you cannot be sure if something is one thing or the other, especially with something as tricky as boys and girls dress in the 19th Century.

For more information on 19th Century children’s clothing, I recommend the following publications:

-Buck, Anne, ‘Clothes and the Child: A handbook of Children’s Dress in England 1500-1900’, Ruth Bean Publishing, Carlton, 1996

-Rose, Clare, ‘Children’s Clothes’, B.T Batsford Limited, London, 1989

-Ewing, Elizabeth, ‘History of Children’s Costume’, B.T Batsford Ltd, London, 1977

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1 Comment

  • Style, She Wrote December 27, 2011 08.36 pm

    Great post. I just saw a similar velvet and ribbon boy’s outfit at the Staten Island Historical Society. It’s so nice when research topics overlap!


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