Boy and girl, both in dresses

What it is:

Cabinet card measuring 4.25 x 6.5 inches.

What I know about it:

Photographer is T. B. Clark of Indiana, Pennsylvania.  Otherwise undated and unidentified.


I was having an e-mail conversation with a friend that included the topic of the old custom of dressing boys in girls’ clothes, so I thought I’d post an example from my collection.  I’ve heard different explanations for this custom, but I think it was basically an expression of the supposedly inherent innocence of boys under a certain age.  (The photographing of children nude stemmed the same general mindset, the notion that children are too inherently innocent to be seen as sexual when naked, that they are simply precious angels at that age.  Nowadays a parent might snap a photo of a child romping naked in the bathtub or on the beach, but in Victorian times, formal nude portraits were sometimes done, famously including Charles [Lewis Carroll] Dodgson’s portraits of Alice Liddell.  And no, I don’t have samples of those.)   So it’s not that the boys were being disguised as girls (you can easily tell which is the boy here), or that this was a comment on what could be expected of them later in life (Google “Franklin Roosevelt in a dress” as an example), but that such clothing was considered gender-neutral at the time to reflect the sex-neutrality of the wearers.  How times have changed, eh?  By the way, looking at this picture, once you can move your attention past the boy’s dress, just what is the piece of furniture behind him?  It looks like the base of some sort of table or stand, but his right hand seems to be clutching a chair arm.  Is it one of the devices used at one time to hold people (particularly fidgety children) steady during a photograph’s long exposure time?  And why would there be a similar stand behind the girl when she has the chair for support?  Sometimes the longer I stare at a photo, the more questions I have.  UPDATE:  Duh, obviously the boy is holding his hat.  I don’t know what optical illusion made me only see the brim and made me think it was a chair arm.  (Thanks to the below comment for pointing that out.)  But I’m still curious as to the wooden apparatus behind him/them.

14 comments on “Boy and girl, both in dresses”

  1. This little boy’s hair is cut short. However, often boys’ hair was allowed to grow long until they were several years old, particularly if the boy had thick, curly hair. One of my male cousins had long, curly, blond tresses until he was about two or three. However, by that age he was not wearing “dresses”.

    • Yes, I have a few photos where I really can’t tell the gender of the child. This one just seemed so obvious that I picked it to illustrate the topic.

  2. I would have put “dressing boys in what we now think of as girls’ clothes”! ; )

    I think the boy’s right hand is clutching the brim of his cap–I can just make out a button on top of it. The girl’s right arm is perhaps supported by a “corner chair” like this one?

    The little boy’s high-button shoes look really uncomfortable!

    • LOL, good point about the terminology. And you’re completely right that it’s a hat he’s holding. Somehow I was only seeing the hat brim, and the rest was blending into the background for me, like an optical illusion that I can see clearly now that it’s pointed out. Regarding the girl’s chair, I assumed it was a corner chair, but if you look under it there still seems to be the feet of some other item behind it, similar to what is behind the boy, and I wondered what that was. It might be two sets of feet for one piece of furniture stretching behind them, but I can’t tell.

  3. That is weird–what’s under there??

  4. That’s probably the stand or base of a head clamp. It’s exactly what it sounds like: a metal clamp on a pole/stand, that is meant to grasp the back of a person’s head or neck to hold their head still while having their picture taken. The bottom of the stand (and sometimes the pole and part of the clamp itself) is often visible in old photos, especially of children, but it’s also seen in some photos behind adults. That’s also probably the reason why some people have awkward expressions on their faces, or are holding their heads in stiff, unnatural positions in some old photos!

    Thanks for making the point about little boys dressing in clothes “we now think of” as girls’ clothes; nobody was trying to make anyone think the boys were really girls (to “confuse the bad spirits” or otherwise)! It was simply “little children’s clothes”, and the boy would have been “breeched”, or put into knee pants, when he was old enough to go to school. We can understand the convenience of skirts or tunics instead of pants when we think about the trials of diapers and potty-training. This boy is lucky in that his mother didn’t make him wear a Little Lord Fauntleroy outfit! He has a variation on a sailor suit, fairly tailored and masculine.

    • Yes, I’ve heard of head clamps, and seen examples in other photos (including ones where the clamp isn’t really hidden, but is seen peeking around the head!). I thought that might be what these were, but I was thrown off by the fact that the boy seems to be standing loose and unclamped. For a moment I even thought it might be a stand for the backdrop, but the perspective is wrong. I agree it’s probably a pair of head clamps, though I’d venture a guess that only the girl’s is in use. I have another photo I’ll have to post soon with a baby so clamped down that it’s pretty funny.

  5. It may help identify some of your other pictures when you know that girls were always shown with hair parted in the middle and boys (when the hair was long enough – not in this picture) with their hair parted one side or the other. And yes, boys wore dresses until they were breeched at the time they no longer needed to be in diapers.

    • Thanks, Lynn! Yes, I’ve been hearing the tips about the hair parts, which will be useful since I have a few more pictures where the children are otherwise hard to identify.

  6. Boys were NOT “dressed in girls clothes,” that’s entirely arbitrary concept. Where is it written in everlasting letters 15 miles high across the sky that dresses and skirts are reserved exclusively for the style monopolistic female? There is no rational determinant of the gender of any garment except anatomy so; unless a male has on a bra, a dress with bust forms, or possibly narrow underwear, he is NOT “dressed like a female.” “We do it this way because we do it this way” is hopelessly and irretrievably senseless. Pants are about riding horseback, how many males get about that way today? The modern Greek army has a unit of men in flippy pleated skirts and British Beefeater guards wear shoes frillier than those of any female, will that make the indoctrinated mass hypnosis influenced consciousness seize up like a kid with a peanut allergy? Women have largely renounced skirt attire, men are forbidden to wear it. Fine thing, a garment men wore since 5,000AD in Sumeria, that they abandoned due to equestrianism causing pants, and which women seldom wear, isn’t going to be often seen in society, because this faction arbitrarily authorized to wear them no longer cares to. Placing females on a voluntary basis as to style and males on a coercive basis is an affront to the Equal Protection clause of the 14th Amendment, and all “mental health professionals” raving about brain chemistry causing men to wear pants, should be howled out of the country and be made to drift out to sea on bottle caps. The behaviorist harps about cross dressing like a brat; but we’re on to his tricks, his deception is old hat; he leaves men with no freedom of dress, and we small a rat! If he can’t stand what we have to say, it’s tit for tat! Women in pants was also once a raging scandal; and the lies of psychiatrists can’t hold a candle; to what we’re saying—it’s way too hot to handle! It reveals the behaviorist as a civil rights vandal! Keeping men robots in dress is the shrink’s orgasm! His head is full of printed circuits, not protoplasm! Let him read THIS—he’ll have a weird spasm, hopefully he’s at the edge of a chasm!” See editorial calling for women in pants to be sent to “the best conducted hospitals for the insane,” New York Times, May 27, 1876, page 6. “The wearing of trousers by women would be an intolerable shock to the public nerves.”—October 31, 1881, page 6, NY Times. Evelyn Bross was arrested in June 1943 in Chicago for wearing PANTS and ordered by a judge to see a psychiatrist for six months! You CANNOT equate social conformity with the normal functioning of the kidneys!

    • Thank you for your comment. As a previous commenter pointed out, I misspoke when I referred to “boys in girls’ clothes”, when I should have said something like “boys in what we think of as girls’ clothes”. As you point out, these standards of dress have changed vastly over time and across cultures. But while societal norms can be restrictive and even absurd, they nevertheless exist. That’s why I find it interesting to look at old photos to see what, if anything, has changed. My point with this post is that the garment worn by the boy above would probably have been viewed differently in that time and place than it would be on a boy wearing it today. Additionally, my saying that standards of dress based on gender and other factors exist is not the same as saying they should.

  7. As recently as 1968 a psychiatrist, Eidelberg, was still calling women in pants transvestites. In 1958 Horace English, psychologist, said 19th century dress reform women in pants were transvestites (these were women presenting as women). I’ve seen recorded instances of women burning to death in petticoats, of women in heavy skirts/petticoats going down with ships because their clothes, once soaked, made them too heavy to lift, records of women having punctured lungs due to corsets, and a woman having 2 lower ribs removed so as to better wear a corset. Eidelberg and English would have us believe that any advocacy of social change in this nightmare of sex typing garments, is a “mental illness” needing “treatment.” Ministers condemned attempts to improve women’s clothes as”of the devil.” Fear of things people aren’t used to is a serious problem; intolerance of individuality is a serious problem. An African tribal leader, on return from the U.S., was beaten by his people because his view of nudity was that it was wrong. People very stoutly resist any idea new to their mentality, which is why it’s so often heard the parroted refrain “if a man wants to wear a skirt, it has to be a kilt” is seen. The particular style is to an extent, in the public mentality, while other skirt types on men are not. As always, people develop a fixed conception of how society should be and that’s that—there is no critical reasoning, associative reasoning prevails, and people are forbidden to change. Without the 63 million wartime deaths in World War 2, women in pants today would still be tagged transvestites by psychiatrists and psychologists. It does not occur to the conformist to treat everyone of both genders as individual humans with differences of taste; instead, the urge to regiment the sexes by fixed styles is overwhelming. Because of the factory work in the War, women at last got free from sex typing. Men have certainly not become free. If they had acknowledgement of choices, there would be far fewer confused men acting out as female impersonators.

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