When looking at old photos and portraits of families with very young children, one almost immediately notices that the boys and girls are dressed alike–in dresses. This custom existed well before the Regency Era, and possibly for hundreds of years prior. Throughout history in Europe and America, all children of both sexes wore dresses and petticoats which were simply considered children’s clothing and not gender-specific attire. Dresses were easier than pantaloons or breeches when a caregiver needed to change the child’s diapers or nappies.
Another reason all children wore dresses is because a potty-training child didn’t have to worry about buttons or other fasteners which can be a difficult task for little fingers. Dresses were also easier to launder as there was less mess. And honestly, no one seemed to think anything about dressing boys and girls alike–that was simply how it was done. Some families put boys in plainer dresses as a way of announcing their gender, but many seemed to have dressed boys in the same frilly frocks as girls.
Once a child started walking, they were “short-coated.” This meant the child started wearing shorter dresses. Hemlines went from several inches below the feet which they wore as infants, to ankle or calf-length or even shorter, so the child could walk. At that time in England, all children still dressed pretty much alike. This practice of dressing boys and girls the same lasted until boys were “breeched.”
Getting breeched or “breeching” was the term for when a boy was dressed in breeches or pantaloons, or in later eras, in trousers. Boys were breeched anywhere from the time they were fully potty trained to the age of eight–or even older, in some cases. Between the ages of four and seven seemed to be most common.
Some boys were breeched all at once, with all their frocks replaced with breeches in one fell swoop, which must have created a flurry of sewing, unless the family were wealthy enough to purchase all new clothes for their son. Breeching was often a ceremonial event, including cutting a boy’s hair. However, some mothers then, as now, could not bear to cut off her son’s pretty curls. Some family traditions included a big celebration around the breeching ceremony, much like today’s birthday parties, which included visits and gifts from relatives.
The breeching rite of passage was a sign of a boy’s maturing, of his readiness to join more masculine pursuits. His mother and nursemaid seemed to have less influence on a boy after his breeching, and his father often got much more involved in overseeing his training and education. Many boys went away to school after the breeching ceremony, so it makes sense to me that some mothers might have been tempted to hold off breeching their sons as a way of keeping them close as long as possible.
Other boys seemed to have been breeched a little at a time, without ceremony, as breeches took the place of dresses gradually, perhaps as the mother could bear to admit her little darling was growing up, or perhaps as the family could afford to buy or make big boys’ clothes.
Occasionally, I find images of toddlers in breeches with leading strings. They were surely too young to have been potty trained because they seem to be relying upon the leading strings to keep them from falling, or at least from falling very hard. This particular image to the right is from a French publication, and since the French didn’t have all the same traditions as the English, it’s possible the difference is cultural by this time.