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Boy's Dress

Dress worn by John Kiser as a child near Oregon, Wisconsin, c. 1856.
(Museum object #1950.5744)

John Bonsack Kiser grew up on a farm near Oregon, just south of Madison in Dane County, Wisconsin. Born on May 2, 1855, he was the second child and first son of Elizabeth Bonsack and Joseph Cline Kiser, who had moved to Wisconsin from Ohio the year before. In 1856 and 1857 Mrs. Kiser dressed her toddler son in an appropriate garment for his age and sex: a pastel-colored wool dress with a wide neckline and short sleeves. Ninety-five years after his birth, John’s nephew Elliott Fox Kiser donated the dress to the Wisconsin Historical Society along with other clothes worn by John as a baby: two dresses, two undershirts, and a bib.

Today a boy wearing a dress may seem odd, but nineteenth century Americans and Europeans saw it as quite proper. Beginning in that century adults began to view young children as pure and angelic. In 1891, one author described infancy and toddlerhood as that age of “bliss…before consciousness begins.” Many believed that these young “innocents” should be viewed as non-sexual beings, and thus dressed them without any distinction between male and female. The decision seemed obvious that little boys should dress in female attire because, as a clothing historian has written, “boys spent their first years within the feminine sphere of home and hearth, culturally and legally subordinate to men.”

Toddler clothing of this period tends to appear in a variety of pastel shades, unlike infant clothing which was invariably white. By mid-century toddlers wore their dresses below the knee with white pantalets extending slightly beyond the hem. Until the 1870s these dresses usually had short sleeves with wide necklines, sometimes worn off the shoulder. As children outgrew their toddler phase, gender differences became harder to disguise. Consequently, boys’ clothes took on a more masculine quality.

After John Kiser grew out of the dress pictured here, his mother probably clothed him in a tunic and pantalets or short pants for another two to three years. These tunics looked like long jackets and often had a more masculine cut. By the age of five or six, John would have worn a typical outfit consisting of short pants, a jacket, and a shirt, clearly distinguishing him as a young boy. Sometime between twelve and fourteen John would have switched to long pants, further reflecting his inevitable transition to manhood.

Child-care experts often chided mothers for their reluctance to acknowledge the maturation of their young male infants . Robert Tomes in his Bazaar Book of the Household (1875) wrote that mothers with “their natural feminine tastes and tenderness” were inclined to deck their boys “with the gewgaws of finery.” Tomes believed young boys needed to speak up to prevent their mothers “from persisting in an effeminating process, which…, if continued [would] deprive him of his best characteristics.”

By the turn of the century, scientific advances subjected child-rearing practices to new levels of scrutiny. Many began to believe that boys were aware of their gender at an earlier age than previously thought and that having them wear feminine attire after the age of two adversely affected their mental development. During the 1910s mothers began dressing their toddlers in more comfortable clothing such as rompers, with dresses relegated only to babies.

Explore other children's clothing from the Wisconsin Historical Museum's collection online at

[Sources: Kidwell, Claudia B. & Steele, Valerie, editors. Men and Women: Dressing the Part (Washington, DC: Smithsonian Institution Press, 1989); Callahan, Colleen R. & Paoletti, Jo B. Is It a Girl or a Boy? Gender Identity and Children’s Clothing (Richmond, VA: Valentine Museum, 1999).]


Posted on January 04, 2007

This article appears in the following categories:

  • Clothing & Personal Items
  • Kids
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