Do you wonder why this early eighteenth-century silk dress is labeled a “child’s dress” and not a “girl’s dress”? You may be surprised to learn that both young girls and boys wore dresses at this time, a practice that actually continued into the first decades of the twentieth century.

Before the sixteenth century, European men and women, boys and girls, wore gowns, robes, or tunics. But around 1550, men began to wear bifurcated garments, while women and children remained in skirted styles. In the early eighteenth century, small children of both sexes wore dresses with tailored bodices and ankle-length skirts, like the dress seen here, once they started crawling and later walking. Under these dresses, young girls and also many young boys wore foundation garments known as stays, which were said to support the back and encourage good posture.

Girls would continue to wear dresses of this style until they were about thirteen or fourteen, when they assumed the clothing of adult women. Boys, on the other hand, would adopt men’s clothing after a rite of passage known as breeching sometime between the ages of four and eight.

Laura L. Camerlengo is the Exhibition Assistant in the Philadelphia Museum of Art’s Costume and Textiles department. She is the author of the DesignFile e-book, The Miser’s Purse.

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