The President In A Dress

President Franklin D Roosevelt: love the hat!

Boys – even future US Presidents – wore dresses for centuries.
The Western world only started putting boys into trousers in the 20th century.

Victorian boys dress: Victoria & Albert Museum

The fashion had almost died out in America by about 1905, but in Europe it lingered until the 1920s. Grandmother took great pride in a hand-tinted studio portrait of my father in a dress, taken in 1929, when he was about 2 years old. My father was less keen.

“Thousands of photographs from the mid- and late-19th century show boys wearing dresses and this does not even count the images of boys with long hair who are commonly seen as girls in these old images… This was not an exclusively Victorian custom, rather, it was the norm in European cultures for centuries.”

Wisconsin couple and their two sons 1894

Why dresses?

  • Changing nappies is much easier with the child in a dress, rather than trousers, especially when zips have yet to be invented
  • Dresses and skirts are simpler and easy for mothers to make at home, and don’t need to be sized and tailored as precisely as pants
  • Dresses can be made more adjustable, so they don’t have to be replaced as often
  • Often, the dresses were white. Before modern detergents, white clothes were easier to clean and disinfect: just throw in some bleach

Even future Presidents wore dresses

We find the look unsettling today, yet social convention of 1884, when [US President to be Franklin D Roosevelt] was photographed at age 2 1/2, dictated that boys wore dresses until age 6 or 7, also the time of their first haircut. Franklin’s outfit [see main pic] was considered gender-neutral.

Unknown boy – and another nice hat!

The switch to pants

The switch to gendered clothing for children was in large part driven by the development of modern mass manufacture, and modern inventions.

  • Different clothing for boys and girls was promoted by clothing manufacturers, seeking to create a new product category, and new sources of profit.
  • New easy to clean fabrics were invented, making trousers as easy to wash as skirts, using newly-invented modern detergents.
  • The zip fastener – invented in 1913 and first patented in 1917 – made getting boys in and out of trousers much quicker and easier. As anyone who has owned a pair of Levi 501 jeans knows, button flies are hard, slow work.
  • And last but not least, for most of the first half of the twentieth century, we can’t discount the influence of war. Military values were promoted, and boys were conditioned to toughen up from an early age.

Later in the 20th century, at the height of the women’s liberation movement, many parents started dressing their girls in trousers, but for some reason didn’t go back to dressing boys in the more convenient dresses of an earlier era…

Aside: Pink versus Blue

Nowadays we say it’s pink for a girl and blue for a boy. But when the idea of color coding children’s gender first arose, it was the other way about. Pink was recommended for boys because it was considered a strong, manly colour; blue was seen as a girls colour, quieter and more passive. But it quickly switched.

Later, studies into colour psychology have revealed that most people prefer blue to pink. In fact, pink is most people’s least favourite colour.

About the author

Veteran gay writer and speaker, Doug was one of the founders of the UKs pioneering GLBTI newspaper Gay News (1972) , and of the second, Gay Week, and is a former Features Editor of Him International. He presented news and current affairs on JOY 94.9 FM Melbourne for more than ten years. "Doug is revered, feared and reviled in equal quantities, at times dividing people with his journalistic wrath. Yet there is no doubt this grandpa-esque bear keeps everyone abreast of anything and everything LGBT across the globe." (Daniel Witthaus, "Beyond Priscilla", Clouds of Magellan, Melbourne, 2014)