Breeching And Unbreeching: Boys Dressed As Girls

On February 6, 2016 by Tim Newman

Across the Western world, from the mid-1500s up until the early 20th century, the appropriate clothing for a little boy was significantly different to today’s mainstream choices.

Nowadays, a baby boy would never think of leaving the house wearing a dress, but, back then, he would have had no choice in the matter.

Until boys became toddlers, they were required to, essentially, dress like a girl. When he reached a certain age, he would finally be breeched – i.e. start wearing breeches. The transition from unbreeched to breeched was quite an event, a right of passage for the boy. Here’s an unbreeched boy from 1871:

Breeched Unbreeched - Boys as Girls - English boy, 1871

You wouldn’t have known it was a boy, would you?

The timing of this breeching varied from household to household, but was generally between the age of 2 and 8. Often, the breeching would signal an increase in paternal interest in the little boy, almost as if he had converted genders all of a sudden.

Dressing little boys in dresses actually makes a great deal of sense when you think about it. One of the major reasons for the choice of garb was the lack of toilet training. Taking off a pair of trousers is a difficult task on a squirming boy, and the mess can be amplified due to the pressure build up within the pantaloons.

Additionally, it’s much easier to expand a skirt than a pair of trousers as the little tyke grows, clothing was relatively more expensive back then, even for rich folk. Primark had not yet graced us with its presence.

And, let’s not forget, their fastening technology was slightly less snazzy back then. Zips weren’t around, and you can forget about velcro.

Part of the breeching celebration involved parading around the neighborhood, showing off your snazzy clothes, and perhaps picking up the odd penny here or there. After the advent of photography, a photo of the breeches also became a part of the deal.

I was first made aware of this unbreeching event when I happened across a photo of President Franklin D. Roosevelt unbreeched. This is him:

Breeched Unbreeched - Boys as Girls - President Franklin D. Roosevelt

Quite surprising isn’t it? It’s not just like a dress, it’s a full-on dress with girly shoes, girly hair and a girly hat. The choice of clothes seems more than just a convenience.

Here are some more pictures of unbreeched boys, firstly to amuse, but secondly, to change the way you feel about clothing a little bit, perhaps?

These are the children of King Charles I of England. Second from left is the future James II of England:

Breeched Unbreeched - Boys as Girls - King Charles I of England James II

FYI, when James II finally died, he was chopped up and distributed widely. His guts ended up in one place, and the skin from his arm somewhere totally different. Things were different back then.

This next little guy went on to become Ulrik III of Denmark. Apparently the haircut and the active dog tell the viewer that this is a boy rather than a girl:

Breeched Unbreeched - Boys as Girls - Prince Ulrik of Denmark

Here’s the eldest son of Philip IV of Spain, he was known as Balthasar Charles, Prince of Asturias:

Breeched Unbreeched - Boys as Girls - Balthasar Charles, Prince of Asturias

Here he is a little older as he grows into that Hapsburg chin:

Breeched Unbreeched - Boys as Girls - Balthasar Charles, Prince of Asturias teenager

Charles II of England, or the Merry Monarch, as he became:

Breeched Unbreeched - Boys as Girls - Charles II of England

Louis XV went on to be called Louis the Beloved, which is rather nice; he took to the throne at the tender age of five, about three years after this was painted in 1712:

Breeched Unbreeched - Boys as Girls - Louis XV in 1712

Philippe Egalité is next. He went on to become Louis Philipe II Duke of Orleans and was eventually executed:

Breeched Unbreeched - Boys as Girls - Philippe Egalité

Thomas Meighan, a silent movie star:

Breeched Unbreeched - Boys as Girls - Thomas Meighan, 1880s

If you’ve read this far I hope that, like me, the windows of your mind have been left slightly more open than they were a couple of minutes ago.

Failing that, I hope you laughed at the expense of some long-dead children… that’s a bit dark isn’t it?





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