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In portraits the colours of clothes often keep the rough gender distinctions we see in adults—girls wear white or pale colours, and boys darker ones, including red.
This may not entirely reflect reality, but the differences in hairstyles, and in the style of clothing at the chest, throat and neck, waist, and often the cuffs, presumably do. In the 19th century, perhaps as childhood became sentimentalised, it becomes harder to tell the clothing apart between the sexes; the hair remains the best guide, but some mothers were evidently unable to resist keeping this long too.
By this time the age of breeching was falling closer to two or three, where it would remain. Boys in most periods had shorter hair, often cut in a straight fringe, whilst girls' hair was longer, and in earlier periods sometimes worn "up" in adult styles, at least for special occasions like portraits.
In the 19th century, wearing hair up itself became a significant rite of passage for girls at puberty , as part of their "coming out" into society. Younger girls' hair was always long, or plaited. Sometimes a quiff or large curl emerges from under a boy's cap. Boys are most likely to have side partings, and girls centre partings. Girls' bodices usually reflected adult styles, in their best clothes at least, and low bodices and necklaces are common.
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. Linen and lace at the neck and cuffs tend to follow adult styles for each gender, although again the clothes worn in portraits no doubt do not reflect everyday wear, and may not reflect even best clothes accurately. Unbreeched boys of the nobility are sometimes seen wearing swords or daggers on a belt.
A speech by King Leontes from Shakespeare 's The Winter's Tale implies that, as common sense would suggest, these could not be drawn, and were purely for show:. Looking on the lines Of my boy's face, methought I did recoil Twenty-three years, and saw myself unbreech'd In my green velvet coat, my dagger muzzled, Lest it should bite its master, and so prove As ornament oft does too dangerous. Usually jewellery is not worn by boys, but when worn it is likely to be dark in colour, like the coral beads worn by the Flemish boy above.
Coral was considered by medical authorities the best material to use for teething aids, and a combined rattle and whistle in silver and teething stick in coral can be seen in many portraits.
In portraits even very young girls may wear necklaces , often of pearls. In the Van Dyck portrait of the children of Charles I , only the absence of a necklace and the colour of his dress distinguish the unbreeched James aged four from his next youngest sister Elizabeth , whilst their elder brother and sister , at seven and six, have moved on to adult styles.
In cases of possible doubt, painters tend to give boys masculine toys to hold like drums, whips for toy horses, or bows. In the late 18th century, new philosophies of child-rearing led to clothes that were thought especially suitable for children. Toddlers wore washable dresses called frocks of linen or cotton. The skeleton suit consisted of trousers and tight-fitting jacket, buttoned together at the waist or higher up; they were not unlike the romper suit introduced in the early 20th century.
As the next stage, from the midth century boys usually progressed into shorts at breeching—again these are more accommodating to growth, and cheaper. The knickerbocker suit was also popular. In England and some other countries, many school uniforms still mandate shorts for boys until about nine or ten.
The jackets of boys after breeching lacked adult tails, and this may have influenced the adult tail-less styles which developed, initially for casual wear of various sorts, like the smoking-jacket and sports jacket.
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