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 assigned 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 performer? 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 be incomprehensible to parents today, but white was continually a popular color for children’s dresses. Anyone familiar with the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries knows that city life in those times had the potential to be…messy (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 son’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 mildly 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 (possibly 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.