In the nineteenth-century, children were idealized as "perfect beings who were not only without sin, but who offered adults a model of unworldly goodness."1 As children grew towards emotional and physical maturation, they inevitably lost their innocence. To designate and preserve this special status as long as possible, gender distinctions in nineteenth-century infant and toddler dress were minimal. Infants of both sexes wore long, white dresses. As mobile toddlers, boys and girls wore loose-fitting, calf or ankle length dresses that borrowed details (neckline, sleeve, etc.) from adult dress. Both boys and girls wore their hair long, as seen in this c. 1900 cabinet card of a young boy sporting long, curly locks.
By the age of 5 or 6, gender distinctions in dress became more obvious. Girls continued to wear skirts and dresses, but boys were "breeched," meaning they began wearing short, bifurcated garments. Breeching was a milestone event, indicating that a boy had demonstrated increased maturity. The exact age at which a boy was breeched varied, depending on family beliefs and individual behavior. In the 1870s, boys who had been breeched wore knickerbockers, short trousers which fastened at the knee. If a boy was lucky enough to attend school, his knickerbockers were probably worn with a jacket and vest similar to those pictured here. Unfortunately, we don't have the accompanying knickerbockers, but they were probably made of a sturdy brown fabric, possibly corduroy. The complete ensemble would have also included a white shirt, wool socks, laced leather boots and a cap or hat.
The jacket is a brown and cream wool tweed, with a faint blue and orange stripe. The vest, or waistcoat, is a wool/silk blend. The sole embellishment is the vertical brown braided trim on the jacket, created with appliqued soutache. According to the November 5, 1870 issue of Harper's Bazaar, the color and trim of this jacket and vest were perfectly in style. The author of the "New York Fashions" column wrote, "for small boys of 5 years and upward blue and brown clothes are the favorite materials and braiding is again in vogue for trimming."
Later nineteenth-century descriptions of boys' clothing usually includes ages for which specific outfits would be appropriate. In the early 1870s, skirts, including the popular kilt ensemble, were recommended for boys under age 5, and long trousers were recommended for ages 10 and over. Boys betwen 5 and 10 wore short knickerbockers. Accompanying information about price and retailer suggests that boys' clothing was often purchased readymade. Though boys' dress was modeled on that of adult men, dress for young boys was apparently more varied. The same "New York Fashions" column mentioned previously describes distinctly varied outfits for boys, detailing new and outdated styles. When turning to fashions for gentleman, the author prefaces her limited information with the comment, "there are but few novelties to record for gentlemen."
The First Suit, a poem published in the January 20, 1872 Harper's Bazaar, encapsulates the emotional significance of a boy's change from skirts to suits. Written from a mother's point of view, the poem details her mixed emotions and her son's delight at his change in stature; a daughter wouldn't evoke these same sentimental feelings until her wedding day. The mother has persuaded the father to let the child keep his long hair, but "None a little girl will see/In the sturdy form with trousers/At the dimpled knee." The poem continues, describing all aspects of the new suit, including "Belt and buttons, cuffs and collar/All as neat as neat can be." The First Suit concludes with the mother's sincere wish that the new suit, representing overall maturation and growth, will not be accompanied by a relaxation of morals and good sense.
1 Paoletti, Jo B. and Carol L. Krelogh. "The Children's Department" Men and Women: Dressing the Part. Ed. Claudia Brush Kidwell and Valerie Steele. Washington D.C.: Smithsonian Institution Press, 1989. 31.