Boys in Dresses: The Tradition
It’s difficult to read the gender of children in many old photos. That’s because coding children via clothing didn’t begin until the 1920s.
Exploring the biographies of men as disparate as Tsar Nicholas II (born 1868), Franklin Delano Roosevelt (born 1882), and Ernest Hemingway (born 1899), you’re apt to come across pictures of them as young boys looking indistinguishable from young girls. Their hair is long and they’re wearing dresses.
Scholar Jo B Paoletti examines the changing fashions in children’s wear at the turn of the twentieth century, as a long tradition transitioned to more overtly gender-coded clothing. As she notes, “Until World War I, little boys were dressed in skirts and had long hair. Sexual “colour coding” in the form of pink or blue clothing for infants was not common until the 1920s; before that time male and female infants were dressed in identical white dresses.”
Paoletti writes that young children’s clothing became more “sex-typed” as “adult women’s clothing was beginning to look more androgynous.” Before that transition, clothing styles for children followed a predictable progression.
“Infants of both sexes wore long white dresses until they began to walk,” while toddlers “wore short loose-fitting dresses until the age of two or three years.” After that, boys and girls wore dresses or suits with short skirts to the ages of five or six.
“Differences in colour, material, and trim” were used to separate boys and girls at the latter stage, although such details may be hard to read in old photos today. Paoletti quotes from an 1895 issue of Ladies’ Home Journal to give one example of differences: “little boys’ dresses button up the front, those of their sisters fasten in back.”
The reasoning behind boys in dresses has been attributed to several motivations. There were the necessities of toilet training but also just plain practicality, since sewing and fitting smock-like dresses was easier than making miniature suits. Paoletti points to another: “it was not considered important to differentiate boys and girls at such an early age.” But “it seems to have been very important to distinguish between children and adults.”
“A child’s maturation was noted by gradual adoption of adult dress,” Paoletti writes, “a process usually regarded as marking important milestones in her or his development. These stages became more distinct and more celebrated for boys than girls only after the age of five.”
The timing of “breeching” – putting on breeches, short pants, knickerbockers or shorts – was left to the mother’s discretion. “Advice columns very commonly included queries from mothers wondering if their sons were ready to put away dresses,” she notes. By 1900, however, little boys in dresses beyond the age of two or three became rarer. Mothers started being advised “not to keep their boys in skirts too long.”
Boys from five to twelve could be dressed in “costume style” outfits, including sailor suits and the “Little Lord Fauntleroy.” The enormously popular 1886 Frances Hodgson Burnett novel inspired this later outfit, made of velvet and trimmed with lace. Stage and screen versions of Burnett’s work sometimes featured girls in the title role.
By 1936, “Little Lord Fauntleroy” could be a taunt akin to “sissy,” and the popular movie version that year starred a boy without the suit (and the curls).
The Daily Mail published 115 articles on trans issues in January 2023
In 2018, then-Prime Minister Theresa May published an LGBT action plan that included the protection and expansion of transgender rights. “We can be proud that the UK is a world leader in advancing LGBT rights,” she said, as she promised to make the gender recognition process less intrusive, acknowledged the existence of non-binary people and condemned transphobic bullying in schools. “Everyone in this country should feel safe and happy to be who they are,” added Penny Mordaunt, the equalities minister at the time, “and to love who they love, without judgement or fear.”
Just four years later, their action plan reads like something from a parallel universe. Hate crime against trans people is up dramatically and public attitudes have hardened against trans rights. This rising tide of hate has not occurred in a vacuum. Increasingly, politicians have, at worst, used trans people as scapegoats and, at best, chosen to look the other way as the mainstream media has churned out stories opposing trans rights.
Anti-trans hate crime was already high when May’s plan was published, with 1,700 cases reported in 2018. But since then its skyrocketed, increasing by an eye watering 156% in four years to hit 4,300 in 2022.
Hate crime has been on the up across the board in the last decade, with the total number of reported cases rising from 44k in 2012 to 119k in 2022 (+271%). But trans people have fared by far the worst, with cases rising from 300 in 2012 to over 4,300 in 2022. That’s an increase of nearly 1300%.
Research by trans rights activist MimmyMum suggests that UK media has published an average of 154 articles on trans issues every single month over the past seven years. That’s a total of 13,500 articles focusing on a minority group that makes up just 0.1% of the population.
Britain’s most-read newspaper, the Daily Mail, has certainly dramatically increased its coverage over the past few years. Comparing the first month of each year shows a rise from six articles in January 2013 to a jaw-dropping 115 articles in January 2023 (+1817%).
It’s not just the volume of coverage that has affected the national mood towards trans rights, however – it’s the negative slant of the articles. While neutral and positive coverage has remained largely flat since 2013, the Mail and others have begun to publish a large number of critical pieces. Of the 115 Mail articles on trans issues in January 2023, 100 of them (87%) could reasonably be categorised as negative, in comparison to zero negative articles in January 2013.
Negative articles published by the Daily Mail last month include: “Now Aretha Franklin’s song Natural Woman is deemed OFFENSIVE to trans women”, “Labour again in hock to extreme ideology” and “Show sense on gender”. With a press this opposed to trans rights, it isn’t really surprising that the general public is turning against trans people.
So how do we reverse hardening attitudes and growing hate crime?
Something must give, that much is clear. In 2021 there was still some evidence that the public was inclusive towards trans people despite their poor political leaders – this is no longer the case. Public opinion has become far more sceptical of trans rights, hate crime is rising exponentially, and even notionally supportive politicians are now generally hesitant to stand up for trans people.
As a driving force behind the problem, the media must also be part of any solution. Making the mainstream media listen often feels impossible. In the past staff at the Guardian have coordinated demand that the paper improves its coverage of trans people. Perhaps now is the time to try again?
Vintage postage stamps of male wrestlers
Once upon a time, long before the age of texting and emailing, human beings would communicate by letter, which they sent through the mail using something called a postage stamp.
Commemorative stamps have long been used by countries to mark a historic date such as an anniversary, or to honour an event, place, person, or object. Unlike definitive stamps, commemorative stamps are usually made in limited quantities and sold for a temporary period of time before going out of print.
For whatever reason, male wrestlers have long been a popular subject for commemorative stamps in countries all across the globe. Interestingly, many of the countries that printed them don’t have particularly friendly histories when it comes to gay people such as Russia, Cuba, Turkey or Poland.
While the governments of these places might’ve had (and, in some cases, still have) serious issues with two men loving one another in the privacy of their own homes, when it came to licking the backs of stamps depicting images of half naked bodies, they were totally fine with it.
Here are some of the very best totally-not-gay vintage postage stamps of male wrestlers from over the years, with some dating as far back as the 1940s:
One thought on “Boys in Dresses … Daily Mail … Vintage postage Stamps of Male Wrestlers”
So much to read! But enjoyed the wrestling stamps.