Today’s post is by Elizabeth Sharrett, PhD student at the Shakespeare Institute.
“My little son [William] and three or four more of their growth we’ll dress like urchins, ouphes and fairies, green and white, with rounds of waxen tapers on their heads, and rattles in their hands” Mistress Page, The Merry Wives of Windsor 4.4
This portrait dating from the 1630s of a mother and child, now at Hall’s Croft, probably depicts the custom of boys wearing dresses until about the age of seven. Before a certain age, children were often dressed alike. It was only when boys were breeched, or put into trousers, a rite of passage that took place around the age of six or seven, that they assumed their adult gender identity. Girls simply continued to wear the same as they always had. Therefore, it was not that boys were dressed as girls, but that children were dressed as children, with no distinction between the sexes. We see these attitudes towards infants reflected in contemporary writings such as in the diary of Lady Anne Clifford (b.1590, d.1676), in which she refers to her daughter as ‘the child’ until about the age of five, and then refers to her as ‘my daughter’. While looking at his son Mamillius, in The Winter’s Tale, Leontes is reminded of the time when he too was “unbreeched, in my green velvet coat” (1.2.154-55). His observation might provide clues about the play’s early performance history, perhaps suggesting that the actor may have been wearing a dress and that he may have been young enough to do so convincingly.
But in The Merry Wives of Windsor William’s knowledge of Latin, demonstrated earlier in the play, indicates that he has been breeched and attends the local grammar school. He no longer wears the “green velvet coat” of the petty school. The instructions by the doting Mistress Page to dress her “little son and three or four more of their growth like urchins, ouphes and fairies, green and white, with rounds of waxen tapers on their heads, and rattles in their hands”, perhaps reveal that she is all too eager to have her son reassume his childish habit.
In addition to the light shed on concepts of early modern childhood, the portrait is also very telling of the subjects’ wealth, as indicated by the elaborate lace, the mother’s dark dress, and the child’s posh rattle (an item explored in my previous post). Additionally, the mother offers the child what appears to be bits of sugar, which he in turn happily grasps in his left hand.
Interestingly the practice of boys wearing dresses continued into the early twentieth-century and can even be seen today in the traditional christening gown. Let’s be glad, however, that teething customs have changed (as you can see from our previous post about a baby's rattle)!