Susan Walter is back with South Bay Yesterday’s favorite tale:
Cute little boys, aren’t they?
So here I am again, exploring the life of my favorite dead man, the world famous female impersonator, Julian Eltinge.
The first image, dated 1883, is of 2 year old Julian when he was known as William Julian Dalton. Billy, as he was called by his family, was the apple of his mother’s eye. He was such a beautiful child that his mom, Julia, entered him in beautiful baby contests. And he won!
Now you are undoubtedly noticing that little Billy is wearing a dress. In fact, “His first time in skirts!” is even noted on the back of this print. So, are you confused by the depictions of these young chaps, due to the garments they are wearing?
We’ll agree, won’t we, that babies are androgynous, right? But, what’s actually the story? Was Julia entering little Billy into those beauty contests as a girl?
Gender Neutral Vestments
Clear into the 1930s children were often dressed in gender neutral vestments. It was not at all uncommon for little girls and little boys to sport long, flowing locks of hair, frilly blouses covered with lace and ribbons, and skirts. (Oh, and pink was for boys, blue was for girls!)
Just in case you doubt me, please notice the following evidence I can offer:
Here are illustrations from the children’s clothing department from the 1891 Sears Roebuck catalog. Notice! See ‘em! Those children that are dressed in “kilts” or “outfits” are boys! And check out the ruffled, lace trimmed blouses for boys. And that the young men have long, chin length hair.
Even earlier than the Sears Roebuck are examples from the 1886 Bloomingdales catalog which depicts young gents with their hair cropped short. There are 2 cuts of boys in “one piece” or “two piece” suits, in which all of the garments feature a pleated kilt with the length just below the knees. You need to note these are suggested for boys of 2 to 5 years of age.
This gender neutral clothing style for young children is described in a segment called A Word About Children’s Clothing” in Merideth Wright’s reference book Everyday Dress of Rural America: “Children of both sexes wore dresses or petticoats until they were about five years old, when boys were put into trousers.” And “Little boys and girls wore dresses made in basically the same manner as the muslin ‘chemise’ gown was later made for women.”
The basic reason for this dress style is because it was much simpler to change the diaper of an infant or toddler. Accessibility is certainly important when dealing with the multiple episodes of clothing changes needed for little kids. Furthermore, the leakage of the cloth diapers of the time was less likely to show with an open bottomed skirt than tidily enclosed trousers.
Which One Is The Boy?
“Well,” you say, “How can you tell, in an old photograph, if a child is a boy or a girl?”
Good question. My advice is to examine the noggin.
One of the most distinguishing features of gender in children’s pictures of our photographic past is hairstyle. (But, not always.) In general, little girls’ hair was parted in the middle. (Usually.) And most often, boys’ hair was parted on the side. (Ordinarily.) Depending on the fashions of the time, girls usually did not have bangs, and children with very short hair are usually little boys. I hasten to hedge these comments, because there are always exceptions! (I.e. for young children of either gender, a common way for treating lice was to simply shave off the hair, which resulted in very short hair until it grew out.)
Here are further proofs of the ambiguous gender child garment pudding – just in case you’d like to explore the topic further: I refer you to some other books on the subject. Children’s Fashions of the Past, edited by Alison Mager; Children in the House, Karin Calvert; Pink and Blue: Telling the Boys from the Girls in America, Jo. B. Paoletti.
And bringing this to relevance today, did you happen to see the recent article about children and gender in Time Magazine? Boys are wearing dresses.
Oh, yes, I nearly forgot, perhaps you are wondering, “Who is that other little tyke depicted?” I have an answer: Susan Walter’s very own grandfather – Edward Hall Walter! Manly little chap, ain’t he? But, no, more’s the pity, he didn’t grow up to be a cross dresser, nor did he grow up to be a world famous female impersonator and stage, vaudeville, and movie star, like Julian Dalton Eltinge.
I invite you to contact me, with questions, critiques, or – so delightful to anticipate – your own perspectives of gender perception during the periods of 1900 through 1940, information you can share of any other female impersonators of that time period, and of course details you may have about the incomparable Julian Eltinge.
Susan Walter has lived in the South Bay for over 30 years. Her interests include ceramics, marine biology, books, and local history. She and her husband Steve are historic archaeologists. They have a daughter Rachael, and son Aaron.