What can we learn from the codes of fashion? This was the key research question of “Boys in Dresses and Other Fashions of the Victorian Age,” a talk delivered by MLC Research Fellow Dr. Ingrid Mida at the Ryerson Image Arts Center on November 21, 2019. While the Victorian era saw a great binary between masculine and feminine during adult life, young children were not ascribed a sex until they grew older. Consequently, young boys wearing dresses represented a popular fashion choice during the era, as evidenced in the photographs from the Ryerson Image Collection depicting a young boy named Geoff Benson of the prominent Canadian Benson family. This fashion choice suggests that Victorians posited young children as asexual beings to whom standard registers of gender did not yet apply. This practice of putting boys in dresses remained popular up until the early twentieth century, which saw an increase in mass marketing and consumerism. In order to encourage spending, the textile industry greatly increased ready-to-war fashion variety for children offering different styles and increasingly styles based on gender. For example, boys’ clothing became influenced by the fashion of sailors and the military. Perhaps most interestingly, however, girls could not adapt boys’ style (trousers for example), because it was considered “erotic and inappropriate for a young girl to have any material in between her legs,” as Dr. Mida explained, elaborating that this was such a wide belief that many young females often did not wear undergarments. Ultimately, the talk highlighted the nuances of Victorian fashion and the ways in which material culture can help us unearth historical knowledge about the construction of gender.
Submitted by Anna Sordjan
Faculty of Arts Public Scholar 2019-2020
Images: Photographs of Geoff Benson. Ryerson Image Center.