A 2007 Starburst commercial introduced the world to the Little Lad, a caricature of an old-timey foppish boy. The Little Lad dances about, tapping his toes and proclaiming his love for berries and cream. His childlike naivete and poshly mature manner of speaking clash hilariously. The ad campaign was a smash hit, appealing to the “random humor” tastes of late-aughts early social media users. AdAge lauded the commercial as a “YouTube favorite” and “Post-Modern Advertising at Its Best”. Despite being a 15-year-old candy commercial, this piece of media has become a source for contemporary fashion inspiration. From social media to the runway, apparel playing with ideas of age and gender evoke comparisons to, and perhaps even draw inspiration from, the Little Lad. Far from the first time fashion has grappled with such topics, today’s reemergence of youthful androgyny in women’s apparel reveals wider cultural trends.
It is difficult to tell if the Little Lad belongs to any specific era of history based on his attire. He wears a tunic-length black jacket, knee-length gray pants, knee-high white socks, black boots, and a wide lace collar with matching lace cuffs. Not to mention a sleek chin-length bob with thick blunt bangs. The drab color palette and flat collar resemble paintings of the Old Masters, as to imply a Dutch heritage, but the period of the costume remains hard to place. This suit and lace ruff combo could be spotted on the fanciest of boys throughout centuries of European history.
For such a specific and funny-looking get-up, this outfit remained popular for an astonishing length of time. Maybe this outfit remained popular for centuries because it so perfectly communicated what wealthy families wished their little boys to showcase. The knee length of the pants was commonplace through the 17th and 18th centuries—even grown men wore knee breeches. But even as men’s bottoms morphed into ankle-length breeches and trousers in the 19th century, fancy little boys continued to wear knee-length pants, perhaps to impart an old-world sensibility. At the same time, the short length and knee-high socks afforded the wearer a modicum of extra mobility for boyish clamoring about. The delicate white lace around the face and hands proved that these boys weren’t sloppy—never eating like pigs or playing around in mud.
Of all the eras of fancy boy dressing, however, the Little Lad does most resemble the turn of the last century. Little Lord Fauntleroy suits were a fad in the late Victorian and early Edwardian eras that hit all the Little Lad high notes. The suits were inspired by a Frances Hodgson Burnett novel of the same name published as a magazine serial from November 1885 to October 1886. The story centered around a young American boy, Cedric, thrust into wealth after inheriting a vast fortune and British title. Burnett took great care in describing the clothing Cedric wears while his grandfather attempts to teach the boy how to be an aristocrat, framing the character’s clothing as a major indicator of his shift in status.
Burnett modeled the description after velvet and lace outfits she herself made for her own sons. Illustrations by Reginald Bathurst Birch helped popularize the suit, and a major fashion trend was born almost immediately. The fad was popular in Europe, but nowhere was it as widespread as it was in the states. The growing middle class in America might have seen the Little Lord Fauntleroy suit as a way to align themselves with the pedigree of European old money.
The Little Lad found renewed popularity on TikTok as a viral sound in the fall of 2021. Performance artist Jack Ferver reprised the role on their TikTok account @therealLittleLad, registered in September. They had over 2 million followers within a month. The Berries and Cream dance, although choreographed in 2007, catered to a 2021 TikTok audience with a catchy refrain and easy to replicate dance steps. By October, Ferver was featured in a fashion spread for PAPER Magazine. The feature, entitled “I’m The Little Lad Who Loves Fashion,” saw them donning modern designer takes on the foppish boy theme. The timing of the coverage was perfect, spurring a wave of Little Lad Halloween costumes.
Almost immediately, fans of the Berries and Cream craze began to describe fashion styles as “Little Lad-like.” Throughout the winter and spring of 2022, young people shared videos referencing the Little Lad as an aesthetic touchstone. Teens would film themselves shaking their bobbed haircuts with captions like “it’s giving Little Lad.” TikToks recorded to show off knee-high socks or lace collars bore captions like “serving Little Lad.” As these articles of clothing surge in popularity, more and more posts to social media make the obvious connection between current trends and the Little Lad’s iconic costume.
More recently, youthful androgyny has been celebrated on TikTok in the “Little Boy Summer” trend. These videos evangelize the benefits of scraping your knees, sweating, and flirting with someone’s older sister. Outfits worn while proclaiming “Little Boy Summer” often feature baggy shorts, oversized T-shirts, and ribbed white tank tops. The must-have accessory this summer became cargo pockets stuffed with some rocks you found. Fans of “Little Boy Summer” seemingly reject the “Hot Girl Summer” approach to warm weather enjoyment. Instead, this trend acknowledges that the most carefree people are usually little boys. While provocative clothing feels empowering to plenty, many women find that letting loose is much easier in jorts.
The popularity of youthful androgyny extends from social media to high fashion trends. Brands like Prada and Vivienne Westwood showcased knee socks in their Spring 2022 shows. By the fashion weeks for Fall 2022, knee socks were everywhere, often paired with preppy loafers. Statement collars, particularly white lacy ones, maintained their ongoing popularity across the 2022 fashion seasons. Simone Rocha truly mastered the art of the overstated neckwear. Sets of suit jackets with matching shorts or capris were also trending, with Chanel leading the charge. Historically preppy brands, like Chanel, have been thriving in this wave of popularity for an old-school academic aesthetic. More subversive brands, like Prune Goldschmidt and Saint Sinatra, have been interpreting the Little Lad look in a more literal and theatrical manner.
The theme of youthful androgyny has continued to be prevalent throughout Spring and Summer 2023 runways as well, in both men’s and women’s collections. Kenzo channeled youthful energy into a playfully nautical themed runway collection. AMI’s argyle drenched Menswear and Womenswear SS’23 Show included outfits barely varying on the theme of prep school uniforms. JW Anderson’s SS’23 Menswear runway showcased little boy mischievousness, featuring deconstructed skateboards and bike handlebars. Prada referenced 1960s youth fashion in their men’s show, which injected childlike femininity with gingham and riff-raff trim.
This is not the first time that “boyish” trends have found popularity in women’s fashion. Historically, these trends have coincided with evolving attitudes toward gender and a heightened value placed on youth in the zeitgeist. Boyish beauty in America can be traced back at least to Mary Pickford’s portrayal of Little Lord Fauntleroy in the 1921 silent film adaptation. Pickford, America’s sweetheart through the 1910s and 1920s, played both Cecil and his doting mother, Mrs. Errol. Her dual roles required the actress to bounce between performances of high-femininity and jubilant boyishness. Ironically, Pickford’s everyday wardrobe would have been closer to the costume she wore as Cecil. The boy’s low-slung waist sash and ringlet curls were styles she wore on- and off-set. However, Mrs. Errol’s Victorian gown, tight corset, and intricate updo were a far cry from the looks Pickford wore in the 1920s. While effortlessly inhabiting the role of the son, Pickford wore the costume of the mother like drag.
Pickford wasn’t the only woman in 1920s America who might have felt alienated by the narrow Victorian definition of womanhood. A substantial subculture was rebelling against the previous generation’s performance of femininity. Instead of dressing like their mothers, New Women embraced tomboyish fads. Youthful androgyny was celebrated by these New Women in the 1920s as a badge of liberation. Many of these progressive women cropped their hair into bobs, which became the defining cut of the Flapper decade. Hemlines raised and waistlines relaxed, allowing these New Women more comfort and freedom of movement than their mothers ever enjoyed. From sailor suits to hose rolled down below rouged knees, boyish details invaded women’s fashion.
Youthful androgyny reappeared in fashion in the Youthquake of the 1960s. Teenagers, a relatively new demographic categorization, were quickly becoming an important market segment. For the first time, the tastes of young people were dictating the direction of fashion trends. Perhaps as a response to the rigid gender roles of the 1950s, hyper-femininity in apparel became dated. Simplistic, genderless styles like denim jeans became hip, cutting edge. French New Wave films showcased gamine actresses with tomboyish wardrobes. In her 1960 breakout role in Jean-Luc Godard’s Breathless, Jean Seberg stunned in ankle-cropped trousers and a Breton striped tee. Her unfussy pixie cut inspired scores of women to shear their locks. At 16, Twiggy volunteered her head as a testing ground for celebrity hairdresser Leonard of Mayfair’s new crop style. After test shots of the complete cut reached a reporter at the Daily Express, the young teen was declared the “Face of ‘66,” becoming one of the first internationally recognized supermodels.
Fans of masculine dressing may be restless waiting for mention of fashion’s most prominent gender-non-conformist icon, Marlene Dietrich. (Rest assured, her exclusion thus far has been intentional.) Tapping into an androgynous niche, her stage and screen presence oozed a powerful sexuality. She sultrily slinked between drastically different presentations of overtly powerful masculine inclinations and covertly powerful feminine wiles. Dietrich is no influence on the Little Lad style because she never dressed like a boy, but a man.
The most recent iteration of western fashion’s hyperfixation on youth would be the 2010s babycore aesthetic. The fad was an American adaptation of a Harajuku-street style subgenre, Lolita. Inspired by a questionable read of Nobokov, Lolita outfits take dressing like a little girl to the extreme. Popular apparel items include colorful barrettes, frilly pinafore dresses, and Mary Janes worn with lace-trimmed bobby socks. Babycore style, often expressed exclusively online, blended toddler imagery with adult themes. Sparkly GIFs of Hello Kitty wielding a knife decorated teenagers’ fashion blogs. Exemplified by musical artist Melanie Martinez, the trend ran rampant on Tumblr for years. Long before explicit material was banned on the site, the #babycore tag on Tumblr displayed outfit inspo alongside BDSM ageplay material. It is not a stretch to assume many young girls were exposed to potentially damaging adult material as a direct result of following their otherwise innocuous interest in flouncy lace dresses. Babycore fashion of the 2010s was overtly feminine and sinisterly sexualized.
In stark contrast to both Dietrich and Babycore, the Little Lad look accentuates youth and androgyny in an innocent, sexless manner. Dressing like a Little Lad is not commonly done to commodify one’s body as a sex object, let alone an infantile object of unscrupulous desire. Neither does the style ever push the envelope too far by fully eschewing gendered expectations. Little Lad styles lend a hint of boyish impunity but never adopt the power and bravado of a grown man’s wardrobe. Instead, femininity subtly shines through in dainty details like the cherubic voice of a young castrato.
The Little Lad-ification of fashion reveals not just a heightened interest in genderless presentation, but also a longing to recapture the simple freedom of childhood. For women who find the constraints of feminine performance restrictive, these desires may spring from the same frustration.
While the Little Lad look may promise freedom, even this trend has been tainted by rigid expectations and exclusivity. For many years, the arbiters of taste have only spotlighted a very specific type of woman as the paragon of tomboy style. Definitions of David Kibbe’s Gamine type use terms like boyish and elfin almost interchangeably. Waifishness is implied to be a prerequisite for presentation of youthful androgyny. Fashion icons of the Gamine genre include Audrey Hepburn, Edie Sedgwick, and Mia Farrow—all thin white women who found fame in their youth.
Women who don’t fit this description, be they non-white or too curvy, can be excluded from enjoying or even “pulling off” the Little Lad look. Less praise and attention is granted to a non-white woman who esquews gender in her dress. The enigmatic and mischievous appeal of the Gamine depends on an assumption of wide-eyed innocence. But that coddling benefit of doubt is most often extended to white women and children. For white women, dressing as a boy can be an aesthetic attempt to grasp the carefree glee of white boyhood. After all, the inspiring trend of the Lord Fantelroy suit was worn at the turn of the last century to evoke an association to old world European aristocracy. But so many boys of color, especially black boys, are denied the indulgent leniency granted to their white peers. These boys are scrutinized for any misdeed and criminalized for minor offenses. For women of color, the solace supplied by adopting a youthful androgenous look is a lesser promise.
Similarly, the maturity and overt sexuality associated with voluptuousness can prevent curvy women from evoking boyishness in their dress. Today, the borrowed-from-the-(baby)-boys trend fits into a wider pendulum swing towards waifishness in women’s beauty standards. Miu Miu’s hip bone–hugging miniskirts were the talk of Fall 2022 runway coverage. Allegations fly of voluptuous celebrities like the Kardashians deflating their BBLs. Women are once again being made uncomfortably aware that their flesh is not spared from the shifting of tastes. But maybe, despite the white and waifish connotations, the Little Lad trend appeals to young women because it is still reprieve from that harsh reality. The rare comfort afforded by this style represents a socially acceptable way to defy body commodification—an adorable escape hatch.
ELLA GRAY is a writer and design assistant based in NYC. While studying marketing and fashion at Ohio State, Gray wrote and performed standup comedy in showcases and festivals across the midwest. She has published articles in Scarlette Magazine and Sundial Humor Mag. She has also published a nonfiction book on ornithology and local history. Her current position in an apparel design studio challenges her to identify and project market trends. ellagoinggray.com