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It’s my pleasure to welcome Maria Grace back to Outtakes as she promotes her latest title, Twelfth Night at Longbourn, the fourth volume in the Given Good Principles series, a story about Kitty Bennet. Today, part one of two, Grace introduces us to young boys’ apparel, which included dresses. Tomorrow, Grace will tell us about what boys wore when they outgrew those dresses. – Kim

By Maria Grace

Maria GraceAlong with the political and social changes of the 1800s, dramatic changes in fashion ushered in the turn of the century as well. These changes not only encompassed adult styles, but the clothes worn by children saw large alterations, moving away from stiff and restrictive imitations of adult fashions to much freer, more comfortable clothing conducive to play. Two of the most distinct changes were dresses for little boys and skeleton suits for slightly older boys.

Infant Clothes

By Fritz von Dardel, 1843

By Fritz von Dardel, 1843

During the Regency, the majority of garments for infants and babies, whether swaddling bands for the first few months of life or simple gowns worn thereafter, were typically linen or cotton, either white or unbleached natural color cloth, possibly trimmed with colored ribbons. These ribbons would be chosen to the mother’s tastes, not restricted to blue for boys and pink for girls as would be seen much later in the century.

In wealthier families, babies had some “good” clothes to wear while being shown off to visiting family and friends. Typically these garments would be colored or trimmed in ways that would not stand up as well to the harsh laundry techniques of the day, so they would be worn sparingly.

During this era, parents felt little need to identify a small child’s gender by their clothing. Those personally acquainted with the family would already know the child’s gender, and for those who did not know the family that well, it was none of their business. Moreover, very young children rarely appeared in public. The age at which children began to be seen outside the house coincided with the age at which they would begin to wear gender differentiated clothing.

Family portrait Anna Ivanovna Tolstoy, by Angelica Kauffman, 1790s

Family portrait Anna Ivanovna Tolstoy, by Angelica Kauffman, 1790s

One distinctive feature of infant clothing still present in the early 1800s was leading strings.  Leading strings were the fashion decedents of the hanging sleeves of the Middle Ages. They were attached to the back of children’s garments when the child began to move independently.

Leading strings might be sewn into individual garments when a family could afford multiple sets.  For those of lesser means a single set could be pinned onto different garments. They could be used as a horse’s reins to guide the child during the process of learning to walk. This approach was most prevalent in the upper classes.

For middle and lower class women who enjoyed less help from servants, leading strings might be used more as a leash to limit a child’s movement. The strings could be fastened to a bed-post or heavy piece of furniture while indoors or something immobile like a fence or tree while outside.

Though this might be an uncomfortable idea to modern parents, in a world where child safety measures were largely nonexistent, these methods could help keep a child safe while their mother’s attention was diverted elsewhere. Leading strings were usually removed when children learned to walk well, certainly by age 3 or 4.

Boys in Dresses

Portrait of William Henry Meyrick, by John Hoppner, c. 1793

Portrait of William Henry Meyrick, by John Hoppner, c. 1793

Before learning to walk, babies wore long gowns that extended beyond their feet. Once out of infancy (walking age), both boys and girls were “shortcoated,” clothed in ankle length dresses. The early 19th century saw almost no difference between dresses for little boys and little girls.  Little boys might wear their sisters’ hand-me-downs and vice-versa. Dresses might be made of chintz or printed cottons. They were worn with small white caps, sashes and petticoats or long ruffled pantaloons.

Though it is difficult for the modern observer to wrap their minds around dressing little boys like little girls, the fact was that dresses were considered children’s wear, not little girls’ clothes.  Children’s dresses were distinct from women’s garments, so to the eye of the person in context, it was not a matter of boys in women’s garments. On a more practical note, in the days before disposable diapers and washing machines, dresses were much more practical garments for children who were not toilet trained.

Tomorrow: When boys outgrow their dresses and are old enough to be breeched.

Public domain images via Wikimedia Commons


“A Lady of Distinction,” Regency Etiquette, the Mirror of Graces (1811). R.L. Shep Publications (1997)

Barreto, Cristina and Lancaster, Martin. Napoleon and the Empire of Fashion. Skira (2010)

Brooke, Iris. English Children’s Costume 1775-1920. Dover Publications Inc. (2003)

Davidoff, Leonore and Hall, Catherine. Family Fortunes: Men and Women of the English Middle Class 1780-1850. Routledge (2002)

Dickens, Charles. Sketches by Boz (1838-39)

Historic Boy’s Clothing 

Kane, Kathryn. “Of Hanging Sleeves and Leading Strings,” Regency Redingote. January 20, 2012

Kane, Kathryn. “Regency Baby Clothes: Blue for Boys, ??? for Girls,” Regency Redingote. June 8 2012

Kane, Kathryn. “Boy to Man: The Breeching Ceremony,” Regency Redingote. August 31, 2012

Kane, Kathryn.  “Portent of Pantaloons: The Skeleton Suit,” Regency Redingote. April 27, 2012

Kelly, Ian. Beau Brummell, The Ultimate Man of Style. Free Press (2006)

Sanborn, Vic. “The well-dressed Regency boy wore a skeleton suit,” Jane Austen’s World. August 17, 2009

Selbie, Robert. The Anatomy of Costume. Crescent Books (1977)

Selwyn, David. Jane Austen and Children. Continuum Books (2010)

Shoemaker, Robert B. Gender in English Society 1650-1850.  Pearson Education Limited (1998)

GGP 4d copyThough Maria Grace has been writing fiction since she was 10 years old, those early efforts happily reside in a file drawer and are unlikely to see the light of day again, for which many are grateful. She has one husband, two graduate degrees and two black belts, three sons, four undergraduate majors, five nieces, six cats, seven Regency-era fiction projects, and notes for eight more writing projects in progress. To round out the list, she cooks for nine in order to accommodate the growing boys and usually makes 10 meals at a time so she only cooks twice a month.

Connect with her by e-mail at author [dot] MariaGrace [at] gmail [dot] com, Facebook at facebook.com/AuthorMariaGrace, Amazon at amazon.com/author/mariagrace, her website Random Bits of Fascination, and Twitter @WriteMariaGrace.