TODAY’S BOYS AND girls would be appalled if they had to wear what Manville and Rosa-Maye wore: white lace dresses and lace-up boots for the girls; sailor suits with short pants for boys. Even so, they would have worn them without complaint because that’s what most children wore. As Emily Post so aptly noted, "Children should be allowed to dress like their friends. Nothing makes a child, especially a boy, more self-conscious than to look ‘strange’ to the children he plays with."
BOYS VS. GIRLS
For the past two hundred years or so, female fashions have changed more rapidly than male fashions. By 1913, if parents kept their boys in the right kind of trousers, they were pretty much good to go. As The New York Times noted:
Nowadays the problem of dressing boys is made easy by the custom of putting them into tailor-made clothing at an age when they used to be dressed in kilts and petticoats. They have but a year or two of linens, and then the manly knickerbocker suits relieve the mother of further responsibility.
Boys seemed to prefer a more uniform look than girls. Again, from The New York Times:
While I believe that vanity is not monopolized by girls, I do know that they are more sensitive to attire than boys. It has been said that the male instinct revolts against anything which is conspicuous, while the feminine instinct rejoices over whatever suggests a superiority to commonplace attire; that a little girl will strut in garments of unique cut or color, while a little boy forced to wear a flamboyant necktie or a new-fangled jacket slinks out of sight.
For hundreds of years - right on up to the early 20th Century, in fact - little girls from wealthy families were dressed to look just like miniature women, complete with corsets, off-the-shoulder bodices, and high heeled shoes. Because it was not expected that these girls would be physically active, it didn't matter that they couldn't move freely, or that the clothing was hard to clean. Dresses for working class girls were made of rough, serviceable fabrics such as homespun wool and cheap linen.
Until pantaloons became popular in the 1840s, no respectable female - regardless of age or socio-economic class - wore pants, not even in the form of underwear. People were afraid that such clothing would "diminish maternal instincts" in girls and endanger the very future of the American family.
By the end of World War One, practicality had taken root in the realm of fashion. Needlecraft Magazine, a publication aimed toward lower-middle-class American homemakers with aspirations toward the solid middle-class, told its readers:
The designers of children’s clothes today study the types of the little wearers to good advantage, and practical, simple clothes which are suited to the child are the result. It is no longer considered good taste to dress a child up in yards of ruffles and large satin sashes. The “doll” dress with the long French waist and short skirt, literally covered with lace and worn over a colored silk slip is a thing of the past.
THE UBIQUITOUS SAILOR SUIT
The popularity of sailor suits for children – particularly those in the upper and middle classes – can be traced back to 1846, when Queen Victoria of England had a sailor suit made for her son, Prince Albert Edward (later King Edward VII). The Queen commissioned Franz Xaver Winterhalter to create a painting of Bertie wearing the suit. Once the public saw it, a new children’s fashion was born. The style was popular for both boys and girls from the mid-1800s to the 1930s, and is still popular for girls today.
As evidenced by the many early photographs of female sports teams and girls’ gym classes, nautical-style middies were the unofficial uniform for schoolgirls. Rosa-Maye Kendrick donned one while at school in Connecticut, her future sister-in-law, Diana Cumming, wore one at her private school in Virginia, and the entire Sheridan High School girls’ basketball team wore sailor-suit inspired uniforms during its inaugural season in 1905.
State Historic Site
Rosa-Maye & Manville Kendrick (AHC Kendrick Collection, TESHS)
Manville & Rosa-Maye Kendrick (AHC Kendrick Collection, TESHS)
A Whole-House Exhibit at the Trail End State Historic Site
March 2008 - December 2008