This little boy, from a Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein (1994) still, is dressed in a minature version of what his upper middle class father would wear: three piece suit and cravat. A stiff and formal look to our modern eyes to say the least. Notions of childhood as a distinct period of human development with unique needs and requirements didn’t exist until John Locke published Some Thoughts Concering Education in 1693. Along with the nature of how to faciliate a child’s education, Locke argued for less restrictive dress which would in turn better enable the child’s mental and physical wellness. It was doubtless an enlightened idea, but garnered few influential supporters, namely high-born ladies who controlled their children’s dress, In reality, Locke’s theory took 69 years to take root and required the later success of Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s Emile in 1762 for changes in the everyday dress of children to be effected.
Aha! The Reason Why a Young Child’s Sex is Indistinguishable in Period Paintings
Until around age 4 to 7, boys and girls were dressed alike in back-laced frocks. After that, boys entered a period where they were “breeched.” This is where the three piece suit of knee breeches, a waistcoat, and a coat would have been assumed. It’s hard to believe, but the suit was actually less constrictive than what was worn in previous centuries due to the continuous streamlining taking place in fashion. No more cumbersome doublets or full-skirted frock coats of the 16th and 17th centuries. Hurrah!
The Children of the Duc de Bouillon, 1647 by Pierre Mignard
The 1770s further liberated boys’ dress by swapping tight breeches for loose sailor-like trousers. With an unstarched collared shirt in lieu of a lawnshirt and cravat, the waistcoat discarded in favor of a simple short jacket, the “skeleton suit” was thus born. This buttoned-up look became the standard dress for boys from 1780 to 1820.
Skeleton Suit, The Colonial Williamsburg Official History Site