Anyone who has any familiarity at all with the history of children’s clothes is aware that both boys and girls were dressed alike during the first few years of their lives for several centuries. Then, typically between four to seven years of age, boys were "breeched," that is, put into breeches, trousers or pantaloons, while girls continued to wear dresses. But this change of wardrobe was not done at a moment’s notice or on a whim. From at least the mid-seventeenth century, most mothers planned this very significant event in the life of their boy children with great care. Some even delayed this event for as long as they could, since to some of them it meant essentially the loss of that boy child.
The ceremony by which young boys took their first significant step into manhood …
The earliest records of breeching ceremonies for little boys are to be found in the letters and diaries from the mid-seventeenth century. But it is quite probable these ceremonies took place in many families even before that time, but they were either not recorded or those records have been lost. Few people, even among the upper classes, were literate in the sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries, and the fewest of those were women. But as more and more women acquired the skills of reading and writing, they used that knowledge to record important events in their lives and the lives of their children, including the ceremony by which their young sons would leave the domestic sphere of women and enter into the world of men.
Nearly all the records of breeching ceremonies consist of mothers’ letters to their close, usually female, family members and friends about their plans for the ceremony. Some women wrote to their mothers or other older female relatives on advice on what to do and when to do it. Others requested family or friends living or traveling to large cities to procure various special items which were needed for the event. Many women also wrote about their feelings upon this impending change in the life of their little boys. A number of women dreaded it, for it meant their small sons would thenceforth be primarily under the control of their fathers. These little boys would cease to be seen as genderless children, leaving the care of their mothers to be prepared for manhood by their fathers and other prominent males of the family.
Breeching marked a much more wrenching change for both mothers and their young sons in the centuries prior to the publication of Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s highly influential book, Émile: or, On Education in 1762. Before the philosophy of childhood presented in this important work, boys were not usually breeched until the age of six or seven. At that time they were immediately dressed in diminutive versions of men’s clothes and were expected to behave as small adults. Boys of the lower classes were put to work or apprenticed to a tradesman at this age, while the boys of the upper classes were typically sent off to boarding school not long after they were breeched. Thus, mothers of both classes essentially lost their boy children to premature adulthood. These young boys very often not only left the domestic sphere of women in the household, they left home altogether.
By the 1770s, as Rousseau’s philosophy became more widely known across Britain, the concept of childhood as a unique and separate phase of life was acknowledged and accepted. Boys began to be breeched at a much younger age, typically between the ages of three to five. But no longer were they immediately dressed as adult men and put to work or sent to school. These boys did leave off the gowns and petticoats they had worn alongside their sisters, but their new wardrobe consisted primarily of a skeleton suit. This was a transition garment they would wear for several years before, in their later teens, they would begin to wear simplified versions of the clothing of adult men. The skeleton suit clearly indicated these youngsters were male, but just as clearly marked them as juvenile, as yet unready to take their place in the adult world.
During the Regency, most boys were breeched at about four years of age. Some fathers might press for this rite of passage to take place sooner, particularly if the boy was their first-born son. Some mothers might try to delay the event, especially if there were no other infants or toddlers in the nursery. The size of the little boy also had some bearing on when he would be breeched. Boys that seemed small for their age, or very sickly, tended to be breeched at an older age. There are a couple of instances in the historical records when a breeching ceremony took place when the little boy was quite young, because one of his parents was very ill and might not survive until he reached the appropriate age. Once the child’s parents, sometimes with input and/or pressure from other family members, had decided when the boy should be breeched, planning would begin for the breeching ceremony. The scope of the breeching ceremony would be determined to a great extent by the class and social standing of the family to which the little boy belonged. In lower class or poor families, there might be no ceremony at all, the toddler might simply be dressed in hand-me-downs from an older brother when that boy had outgrown them. By contrast, the breeching ceremonies for boys of the gentry and aristocracy could be quite involved.
A Regency breeching ceremony seldom took place on the little boy’s birthday. That life milestone was not regularly celebrated in the early nineteenth century and seems to have been less important than the choice of a time when the boy was deemed to be ready and the majority of extended family members could be present. Among the upper classes, the breeching ceremony was more likely to take place at the family’s country home than in London, particularly if the boy to be breeched was also the heir. Planning for the ceremony could begin weeks, sometimes even months in advance. The little boy would have his measurements taken professionally, either by his mother’s dressmaker or a local tailor. At least one new, complete suit of clothes would be made for him. This would include new cotton or linen shirts as well as his skeleton suit, perhaps a sash or two for formal wear, plus an overcoat or other outer garments. Many letters record requests made by mothers to friends and family in the city to procure a selection of new wardrobe accessories for their sons, such as hats, gloves, stockings and shoes. Even as late as the last decade of the eighteenth century, aristocratic little boys were also often given a small sword as part of their new suit of clothes, but that practice had fallen out of fashion by the Regency.
While she was working to assemble her little boy’s new wardrobe, a Regency mother would also be completing still other arrangements for this rite of passage. A breeching ceremony was not expected to be public, it was an intimate, familial event at which a young boy’s change of status would be formally recognized by those closest to him. His mother would have written to important extended family members and perhaps a few close friends, usually including the child’s god-parents, inviting them to the breeching ceremony. If it was to take place at a country estate, these guests might be invited for a house party lasting a few days, rather than just for the afternoon of the actual ceremony. Though the little boy would "officially" don his new clothes as part of the breeching ceremony, he very often would have put them on before-hand, to be sure they fit properly. But after this fitting, he would have to go back to his gowns and petticoats until he was officially breeched. The majority of young boys were eager to get into trousers, so this wait for the actual ceremony was rather frustrating for most of them.
On the day of the actual ceremony there were a few final arrangements which had to be made. If the room in which the ceremony was to take place was quite large, then a folding screen was usually set up in a corner, behind which would be placed a chair and often a small table. The little boy’s new suit of clothes and its accessories would be laid out there, ready for him to change into. In some houses, the little boy’s new clothes would be laid out in a room adjoining the room in which all the guests would gather, especially if that room was not very large. In some wealthy and/or aristocratic households, the tailor who had made the clothes would be standing by to help the little boy don them. In other households, a male servant, sometimes even the boy’s father’s valet, might serve to help the young master dress in his new, male garments on this special day.
When all was in readiness, family and friends would gather in the room, along with the little boy, in his gown and petticoats. By the Regency, another guest would be present, the local barber. While they wore the gender-neutral gowns and petticoats of the nursery, little boys’ hair was allowed to grow, as was that of girls. In the eighteenth century, even after they were breeched, most boys kept their hair fairly long, in keeping with men’s hair styles. But by the Regency, when the fashion for men’s hair was much shorter, the usual first step in the breeching ceremony was the cutting of the little boy’s hair. Typically, these shorn locks were gathered up and given to those in attendance as mementos of the event. Once his hair was cut, the little boy would retire behind the screen, or into the next room, to change into his new clothes. While he was changing, refreshments would be served, typically tea and cakes or other light comestibles. However, the gentlemen present might have a sip or two of something stronger than tea.
When the freshly-minted young gentleman emerged wearing his new clothes, he would make the rounds of the room, going to each guest in turn. Not only would they all congratulate him on his new status, most would also quietly slip a bit of money into one of his pockets. There are a few remarks in letters and diaries about the clinking and crunching sounds some of these boys made as the coins and bank notes filled their pockets. There are no records which tell us what happened to this money, though it seems unlikely that such young boys were allowed to keep it. In most cases, their parents probably set it aside for them, perhaps even investing it in the funds for their future.
Though the young boy now wore masculine garments, he would not immediatly leave home, which was of some comfort to his mother. He typically continued to be educated by a governess, if the family employed one, for at least a couple of years. In a few cases, breeching was the point at which the more privileged of the sons of the aristocracy would have tutor. Those families who could not afford a tutor might send their sons to study a few days a week with the local vicar or resident scholar, commonly at the age of six. It would usually be another few years before the boy would be sent off to boarding school. However, their mothers would see less of them as most fathers began spending more time with their sons after they were breeched, beginning to initiate them into the world of men. They might teach them to ride, to hunt, or other gentlemanly sports and activities. If the boy was the first-born, his father might begin to prepare him to take up his future responsibilities. Though he did not leave home straightaway, a boy who had been breeched had effectively left the domestic sphere of women.
According to most scholars of children’s history, breeching ceremonies continued relatively unchanged through the nineteenth century, especially among the upper and middle classes, but fell out of fashion after 1900. Which is almost true. But there were still a few families who perpetuated this practice into the twentieth century. I know of one instance myself. Many years ago, I often went to the home of one of my school friends to play after school. There was a large, hand-colored photograph of a very pretty little girl in a white dress and long blond locks which had been framed and hung in the guest room of her house. We often played in that room, and one day I asked her who the little girl was. I did not believe her when she told me it was her father. He was certainly one of the most thoroughly butch, masculine men I had ever known. His hair was always cut very short and he had no patience with anything feminine. He regularly hunted with both rifle and bow and arrow and butchered his kills in their garage. He also did most the their car maintenance himself and had designed and built a large shed to store a vast array of tools. But when he came home from work that evening, he confirmed that the "little girl" in the picture was indeed him. He explained that his family had come over from Ireland about a year before he was born, and that his mother had followed the traditions of her family when he was growing up. He had worn skirts and long hair until he was five years old. It was only then that his mother dressed him in trousers and he said that she had a party with a few friends and family members who came on the day he got his hair cut and switched to wearing pants. He would have had to have been born in the mid to late 1920s, so his breeching ceremony would have taken place in the early to mid-1930s. There may well have been other little boys who were raised in the same way, well into the twentieth century, in both Britain and North America.
A breeching ceremony can serve the plot of a Regency novel in a variety of different ways. If conflict is needed between a married couple, or even an aristocrat and his governess, they can disagree on the age at which the young heir should be breeched. The conflict might come later, after the little boy has been breeched and his mother feels he is being pushed into manhood too fast. Perhaps a domineering grandfather is pressuring the young couple to breech their beloved son early, or an interfering grandmother tries to take over the arrangements for the ceremony from the boy’s mother. A breeching ceremony can also be a new and different excuse for a country house party, particularly if the aim is to bring together the majority of the members of an extended family. Feuding factions of the family who all come together for the breeching of the heir offer the potential for any number of interesting problems while they are all under the same roof. Or, mayhap a family in financial difficulties has a breeching ceremony for their little boy and after guests have departed they discover a large sum of money in the pockets of his new skeleton suit, more than enough to pay for his education. Dear Regency Authors, how might you work a breeching ceremony into one of your stories?