I was reading the (albeit not very historical) Chatelaine article "Can You Actually Raise A Baby Free From Gender?" and came across the statement:

The notion that a boy should have short hair doesn’t hold in many Indigenous communities, where boys and men follow their tradition of wearing long braids. Boys in Victorian England were clothed in dresses and hair ribbons; middle- and upper-class parents of the era deliberately kept their children sexless throughout toddlerhood to extend what they viewed as a period of innocence.

Taking this statement literally, this would mean Victorian parents treated infant boys and girls exactly the same under the impression they would remain innocent longer.

Attempting to research this, I came across many articles [links below] about boys fashions in the Victorian era, specifically about how young boys wore dresses to facilitate easy diaper-changing. I also found out about the process of "breeching", where a young boy would graduate to wearing breeches for the first time at a certain age, as a rite of passage. The closest thing to "sexless" child-raising I found was a Wikipedia quote, saying after breeching, " the father became more involved with the raising of a boy".

I couldn't find anything saying that male and female children were truly raised the same, though, or anything about innocence relating to this process, or even anything about how lower class families enforced gender differences whereas other socioeconomic levels wouldn't. Is the statement bolded above historically accurate or merely a hyperbolic comment regarding how both boys and girls wore dresses?

Links: http://www.victoriana.com/Fashion/boysclothing1860s.htm




Direct search for quote

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    I suspect this might be a topic of some academic debate and interpretation. At any rate, the cited passage seems a little one-sided and, while dresses were certainly in evidence, hair ribbons do not seem to have been common. If you want a picture of childhood innocence, the logical step would be to minimise adult features (which would mean prolonging the period before breeching). Jan 14, 2021 at 2:13
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    For what it is worth, I think this is an example of a good question. Part of the study of history is to discern fringe theories from plausible theories. I think that OP is quoting an author who is advancing a theory that is ... not mainstream... I think that H:SE is exactly the right place to ask these questions. Thank you.
    – MCW
    Jan 14, 2021 at 10:15
  • I am not sure that genderless and sexless is the same in the given context
    – Greg
    Jan 17, 2021 at 4:33
  • Not Victorian, but 18th century description of children's clothing: H F 16B E - The Garment: Civilian Dress at Louisbourg: 1713-1758 - Children's Dress. When I visited the historic site years ago, the townspeople (actors) explained that the young were raised communally in identical clothing, with the fathers not paying any attention to them at all until they had survived the first few perilous years. Dec 19, 2021 at 1:54

3 Answers 3


So I think there are two questions at play here:

  1. Did boys wear dresses when they were young?
  2. Did they do this to make children sexless?

The way the article is written, it seems to conflate the two. I feel like the best way to answer your question is to address both points separately. So that's what I'll do.

So the answer to the first is yes. As you mention, Breeching was in fact a thing. The Wikipedia article you cite discusses this aspect better than I can, and you have already read it so I won't rehash this here. But suffice it to say, there does seem to be historical examples of this happening in Europe (not just Victoria England), such as this painting of Louis XIV.

As to the second question, this doesn't seem to be in order to raise children as sexless. As a counter point to that, I will quote Wikipedia:

Girls' bodices usually reflected adult styles, in their best clothes at least, and low bodices and necklaces are common.[9] Boys often, though not always, had dresses that were closed up to the neck-line, and often buttoned at the front—rare for girls. They frequently wear belts, and in periods when female dresses had a V at the waist, this is often seen on little girls, but not on boys.

So, in other words, there were ways to differentiate between boys and girls. There are several other examples there. I don't think I need to quote all of them (you can go and read more if you're really that interested).

The point is, because there were several ways to differentiate boys and girls, I would find it hard to say that this particular practice was to keep children sexless. I certainly can't speak to other child-rearing practices at that time (I haven't studied enough), but this one doesn't seem to be the case.

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    I would also ask whether the child's garment was actually called a dress, rather than something neutral like a smock. Google gives lots of hits on "Victorian child's smock".
    – jamesqf
    Jan 14, 2021 at 4:26
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    @jamesqf That's a good point too. Unfortunately, I don't really know the answer to that. Will probably have to research more.
    – Chipster
    Jan 14, 2021 at 4:31
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    This idea is new to me, and, given Victorian attitudes on the differences between the sexes, and the firmly-held belief in the "inferiority" of women, I do find it unlikely, tbh.
    – TheHonRose
    Jan 20, 2021 at 10:26

A basic search could not produce the reference and my books are still packed but I remember an author pointing out that we (in our highly gendered modern world) normally frame this as "young boys are dressed like girls" but an alternate view would be "grown women are dressed like children".

The Victorians may have loaded additional baggage onto the concept but most cultures until the early 20th century dressed boys and girls the same until sometime between successful potty training and puberty.

From https://www.colonialsociety.org/node/1399

Children of all ages became indentured servants, from month-old babies to twenty-year-old young men, but the average age at binding was between six and eight years. At about this age, children usually made the passage into sex-segregated skills training; at six or seven, boys cast off childhood gowns, put on trousers, left their mothers’ oversight, and joined their male relatives for day work in the fields or the workshop.

Websites for Colonial Williamsburg and Plymouth Plantation also mention boys and girls dressed the same while young.

I could not find websites detailing childhood dress for non European or precolonial cultures but what reading I remember about children from other cultures seems to indicate a similar pattern. [Thirty-one Brothers and Sisters, etc]

  • Thanks, justCal. What did I do wrong so the block quote didn't appear?
    – Bookwyrm
    Dec 21, 2021 at 2:16
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    @Bookyrm You used '<' instead of '>'. Dec 21, 2021 at 10:53
  • @Bookwyrm You can drop an '@' in front of a username to 'ping' a specific user, which gives us a notification. As pointed out above, just a wrong symbol on the quote block. Getting the markup language to cooperate is sometimes tricky. Don't forget to take the site tour, and Welcome to the History stack, by the way.
    – justCal
    Dec 21, 2021 at 13:18

No, only 50% of children lived past five. So, it was much cheaper and simpler to dress them all as girls until they reached an age in which they were no longer very vulnerable to dying. During the Victorian age, they had started using bottle feeding, which included corks that accelerated bacterial breeding. So, besides cholera, infant mortality, arsenic in paint, etc., kids were dropping like flys from bacterial infections.

HOWEVER, things never have a single answer. Being the Victorian era and the dawn of the concept of childhood (which is an extremely modern concept), there are likely additional factors. The idea of sezlwss innocence could be another factor. It would probably make it easier for group child care since they would not need to separate by sex.

  • 4
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    – Community Bot
    Dec 19, 2021 at 1:33
  • what is "sezlwss" - did you mean sex-less? Dec 21, 2021 at 10:10

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