What Can You Learn from Old Clothes?

For many, the word “fashion” is synonymous with “superficial.”  If something goes “out of fashion,” it is gone quickly; if it is “just a fashion” it does not have much importance and will soon be forgotten. However, looking at past fashions — including clothing, accessories, and fashion magazines, can actually reveal quite a lot. What kinds of activities did our ancestors do day to day, and what social attitudes did they have? What did people in earlier eras think about their personal image, and what were their standards for beauty? How did they differentiate themselves from others, in terms of class or profession? Answers to all of these questions and others can be found through looking at historic clothing and accessories.

Child’s wool dress, ca. 1855-1865
Collection of Mary Means Huber

The Bartow-Pell Mansion Museum has a number of clothes in its collection that can tell these kinds of stories. For example, there is a child’s dress from the mid-19th century currently on display in the entrance hall of the Mansion. In the 21st century, we may see a dress like this and assume it was worn by a young girl. In fact, for many centuries, both boys and girls wore dresses as toddlers. Boys would stop wearing dresses when they were “breeched,” at the age of three or four, or sometimes even later. Only at that point would they begin to wear pants or breeches. Paintings dating as far back as the 16th century show young boys in dresses. Often, the boys in these paintings are distinguished from girls only by their hairstyles (girls’ hair was typically kept longer, and by the 19thcentury, parted in the middle), or by the objects they hold, such as toy swords.

Why did this custom exist, and why did it last for so long? Historians have a number of theories. It seems logical that before modern clothing fastenings, like snaps and Velcro, it was easier to change a child’s diaper if he or she wore a loose-fitting dress, rather than a more restricting or complicated complicated garment. This might explain why little boys usually stopped wearing dresses around the age they were toilet-trained.  (Although not always — on a whim, the mother of French author François Timoléon de Choisy dressed him as a girl until he was eighteen!)

Carte de visite of young boy
ca. 1860-1865

Before the introduction of factory-made fabric in the early 19thcentury, clothing for all classes of people was more expensive, and it would have been easier to enlarge a dress to accommodate a fast-growing child than other garments.

Another theory is that the youngest children in a family would have been cared for by their mothers or female nurses, and it would have been appropriate for them to wear skirts regardless of their gender. After his son was breeched and wore more masculine clothes, a father might become more involved in his son’s care, often beginning to prepare the boy for a future profession.

For the red wool dress at Bartow-Pell, we do not have any documentation about who originally made or owned it. Therefore, it is impossible to say whether it was worn by a girl or a boy. Looking at a garment like this, it is easy to wonder, “Did boys mind that they were dressed as girls?” But for earlier generations, wearing this kind of dress wasn’t thought of as “dressing like a girl.” It was simply the appropriate way for all small children to look. A little boy may have looked forward to being breeched, as it meant he had become more grown-up, but that doesn’t mean he was necessarily bothered by wearing the same clothing as his sister.

Carte de visite of young child,
ca. 1860-1865

Our red wool dress is just one example of how clothing can reveal the social trends and customs of earlier periods. Some ideas that we take for granted today — such as separate clothing for boys and girls — were not always hard and fast. We can read about the attitudes our ancestors had and the traditions they followed, but a dress like this shows how they put them into practice.

Sarah Pickman, Museum Intern


Ashelford, Jane. The Art of Dress: Clothes Through History, 1500­ – 1914. London: National Trust, 2011.

Baumgarten, Linda. What Clothes Reveal: The Language of Clothing in Colonial and Federal America. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2002.

Callahan, Colleen. “Children’s Clothing.” The Berg Fashion Library. 2005. http://www.bergfashionlibrary.com.library.metmuseum.org/view/bazf/bazf00124.xml (accessed Aug. 10, 2012)

Steele, Valerie ed. The Berg Companion to Fashion. New York: Berg, 2010.

Victoria & Albert Museum of Childhood. “Boy’s Dress.” http://www.museumofchildhood.org.uk/collections/clothing/boys-dress/ (accessed Aug. 10, 2012)

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1 Response to What Can You Learn from Old Clothes?

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