A student writes: “I heard about a concept from one of my friends called ‘petticoat discipline.’ Supposedly, it was used in the Victorian/Edwardian era. Apparently, the idea is that when a boy (or even a full grown man) is misbehaving himself, he would be dressed up as either a baby or a little girl (or made to appear more effeminate) as a form of discipline. I guess with the adult men it was supposed to be more of a choice than a discipline, and in some cases, families raised their young boys as girls until about age five. Do you know if any or all of this is true?”
“Petticoat Discipline” and Little Lord Fauntleroy (from my in box)
I have read that infant boys essentially wore gown-like clothes until they were very comfortable with going to the toilet — they didn’t have zippers or snaps in those days, so it’s much easier to access one’s nether areas if one doesn’t have to worry about laces and hooks-and-eyes and that sort of stuff. The Victorians don’t seem to have color-coded small children the way we did… but one reason for that was that lots of small children, even in the aristocratic households, didn’t make it out of infancy. So it might have been too psychologically taxing on parents to relate to their children as a son or daughter. Now that most couples have fewer children, and now that advertisers have gotten to be experts at wringing money out of doting parents, that seems to have changed. A quick Internet search for “petticoat discipline” turned up mostly fetish sites that all repeated essentially the same general claims my student asked me about. The whole thing sounds like nonsense to me, as an effort to create historical context for a pretty much harmless but still bizarre fetish. In terms of the fashion, I immediately thought of Little Lord Fauntleroy, an 1880s novel about an American lad who inherits a British fortune. If you consider how the men in Tartuffe were dressed, I don’t think that any aristocrat would agree that ruffles and lace are necessarily effeminate; in fact, dressing a very little kid in all that finery is the action of an extravagant, doting family (who could presumably afford it if the kid got such finery dirty). I’ve read interesting things on how the Victorians essentially invented the concept of childhood as we know it now (an age of innocence, when the imagination is to be stimulated and character is to be formed). The Victorian concept of childhood opened the way for shocking books like The Lord of the Flies (in which a bunch of shipwrecked British schoolboys create a society that mimics all the vices of the adult society they left behind).