Digital North Carolina Blog

Digital North Carolina Blog

This blog is maintained by the staff of the North Carolina Digital Heritage Center and features highlights from the collections at DigitalNC, an online library of primary sources from institutions across North Carolina.

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Boy’s Dress — Yes, Dress — from Rockingham County

A photograph of James Bracken Watlington and his sister, Mary Jane Watlington has been digitized and is now available online along with several other artifacts from the collection of the Museum & Archives of Rockingham County. The photograph of the Watlington children is a particularly interesting because the dress worn by James has also been digitized and is likewise hosted on The photograph provides context for the garment, and the garment adds to the level of detail visible in the photograph, which is decidedly a win-win for all. The digitized garment shows the rich blue and gold colors and embroidery in the dress as well as many details that were not captured in the 1895 photograph of James and Mary Jane. James’ dress, which is contemporary with the portrait of the children, is approximately 125 years old and in impressive shape considering its age.

Mary Jane and James Bracken Watlington, were born in the 1880s to a prominent Caswell County family. The photograph of the siblings showcases the differences between boys’ and girls’ dresses; James’ dress is navy blue with masculine, nearly nautical details, and features a bow tie. Mary Jane’s costume, by contrast, is lacy with ruffles at the shoulders and sleeves, of a light color, and completed with a girlish hat. Historically, boy’s dresses were worn by toddlers and young boys for convenience’s sake; they were more practical than breeches, which often involved complicated latching mechanisms too difficult for little hands to maneuver. Dresses were practical for young children of all ages as it was easier to extend the hem as the child grew to increase the longevity of the garment – an important quality when garments were so much more expensive than they are today. James’ dress, like all boys’ dresses in general, has masculine features that differentiate it from girls’ dresses, such as the color or cut of the neckline and sleeves. Boys were presented their first pair of pants in a breeching ceremony, typically between the ages of around 4 and 7.

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