Mini Portraits: An Exploration of Childrenswear in the Nineteenth and Early Twentieth Centuries

Blog post by Jacklyn DeVito ’18.

The Cornell Costume and Textile Collection holds an array of childrenswear dating back to the eighteenth century. Garments of each time period share common elements, which serve to represent the values and standards of each respective era.  As societal expectations of children’s behavior evolved over the 19th and 20th centuries, childrenswear has adapted to reflect these changes in social thought. In this blog post I focus on American children’s dress during the Victorian and Edwardian periods (c. 1840 – 1910), and examine how clothing provides insight into notions of child rearing, gender roles, and children’s place in society.

Throughout the 1800s and early 1900s, women dressed their daughters in outfits that were almost identical to their own. Young girls appeared as mini versions of their mothers. Until the 1920s and 30s, baby boy’s clothing was nearly identical to that of baby girls.

Typical dress involved white or cream gowns in lightweight cotton, linen, or silk. Many of the extant examples of these gowns contain small drawstring ties at the neck and waist, with either an open back or small, unobtrusive buttons down the center back. The dresses often feature embroidered hemlines and yokes and small, intricate adornments of ruffles and lace. These airy fabrics were substituted with heavier flannels during the colder months (MacPhail, 2001, pp. 64-65).

Baby clothing was typically all white, making it easy to bleach and wash so that it always looked fresh; however, colorful, printed dresses were popular for older toddlers (Callahan, para. 8). While most newborn clothing was made by mothers and family seamstresses, ready-made layettes became available towards the end of the nineteenth century (Callahan, para. 8).

During the Directoire and Empire period between 1790 – 1815, women, girls, and little boys all dressed similarly with high, empire-waisted gowns of light silks and cottons. Infants’ long dresses were layered overtop undershirts and sometimes petticoats. By the time children started crawling and becoming more active, mothers began putting them in shorter knee-length dresses (Callahan, para 4.). Infant skirts lengthened to mid-calf by the age of ten, and by around the age of 16, girls were required to wear full-length skirts that extended to their ankles, which mimicked the styles worn by their mothers (Price, 2013, para. 5).

Young girls were required to wear stiff, corded undergarments quite comparable to adult corsets. As girls grew older, they were expected to adopt even tighter corsets of whalebone. Prior to 1885, children’s stays and corsets were just as restricting as adult’s (MacPhail, 2001, pp. 65).

At this time, the greatest distinction between women’s and children’s dresses was the length, as many children wore calf and knee-length garments, where women’s gowns always reached the floor (Callahan, para 12).

During the latter 1800s and into the early 1900s, however, women wore fitted bodices tapered at the waist with full skirts during the day. These showed a greater distinction from children’s attire. Yet, women’s nightgowns were still almost identical to traditional white children’s dresses, containing all the same trimmings, embroidery, and frills seen in baby gowns (Kane, 2012, para. 3).

By the early twentieth century, children’s dresses adopted this fit-and-flare silhouette, and designs displayed more creativity. Typical children’s dresses featured wide off-the-shoulder necklines, short puffed sleeves, inset waistbands, and full skirts in colorful, small prints. White cotton pantaloons gathered at the ankles were worn under these dresses (Callahan, para. 12).

By the 1920s, children wore shorter-length dresses from birth, and longer gowns were reserved for special occasions, such as christenings (Callahan, para. 15).

Dressing children as miniature adults originated in the 18th century, when childhood mortality was high and life expectancy averaged at merely 30 years. In order to hasten children’s maturation, children were dressed to appear older. Childhood was viewed as dangerous, so parents were eager for their children to develop. This way of dress particularly benefitted poorer families, as it allowed children to start work in factories by age five in order to contribute to the family income. For the wealthier class, children began education early and were expected to dress the part, in proper, mature-looking outfits. Parents employed harsh discipline on their children early on to ensure that they learned to conform to adult societal standards (Tescher, 2009, para. 8).

By the latter half of the 1800s, the rising industrial economy and growth of the middle class lent itself to a relaxing of children’s clothing styles. Queen Victoria had a great influence over the transition in children’s dress, as she dressed her own children in sailor suits and kilts, a more comfortable and natural option than traditional petticoats and gowns. As ready-to-wear, factory-made clothing became more prevalent, it became easier for the general population to attain the styles of the upper class. To maintain their elite and exclusive appearance and distinguish themselves from the middle class, the affluent then began to make their clothing more ornate, adding more lace, ruffles, and lavish fabrics (Tescher, 2009, para. 13).

Around this time, a transformation occurred in children’s societal roles. Formal education was delayed, and children were viewed as innocent, clean slates who needed to engage in play in order to properly develop mentally and physically. Children were not rushed into adulthood, but were instead encouraged to enjoy this pure, youthful phase.  In trying to keep children as innocent and “sexless” as long as possible, parents dressed boys and girls almost identically (Tescher, 2009, para. 17).

Dresses were the standard, unisex option for all small children; they weren’t viewed as garments strictly for girls. An article from an 1895 publication of Ladies’ Home Journal notes that, “A boy of two can wear dresses made from the same pattern as for a girl. There is little, if any, difference in the style at such an early age” (Paoletti, 1987,  pp. 139). However, boys traded their dresses and tunics for short trousers, vests, and jackets around the ages of six and seven: a process called breeching. The age at which boys were breeched was determined by a number of factors, including the preference of his parents and how mature and masculine he appeared. Breeching symbolized the child’s transition out of childhood and into adulthood, allowing him to fully take on adult male responsibilities. This was a very ceremonial and momentous occasion, as it was the point at which boys began adopting the dress of their fathers (Callahan, para. 4). However, outfits worn by boys at the breeching age weren’t fully reminiscent of adult male fashions. From the age a boy was breeched until he turned twelve, he adorned “costume styles”, such as military uniforms and sailor suits, as well as antique-looking velvet suits with lace-trimmed blouses. From age twelve on, boys were allowed to dress in the long trousers worn by adult men (Paoletti, 1987,  pp. 140).

The trend of putting young boys in dresses began to dwindle as mass production of clothing offered more child-appropriate clothing options. By the 1920s, most boys – and even some girls – adopted a romper style that allowed for more ease of movement (Tescher, 2009, para 19).

By the early twentieth century, one-piece rompers and creeping aprons (or “creepers”) became a new standard outfit choice for both boys and girls. As this style allowed for easier play and crawling, this new pants outfit was not met with the same controversy as women’s trousers did at the time (Callahan, para. 14). Even so, the acceptance of little girls in rompers paralleled the simultaneous shift in women’s clothing to being more androgynous (Paoletti, 1987,  pp. 142).

Throughout the nineteenth century, colors of children’s clothing were not associated with gender. However, by the 1910s, blue and pink could help signify a baby’s gender, but in a surprising way: blue was generally reserved for girls, and pink for boys. A quote from a 1916 issue of the trade publication Infants’ and Children’s Wear Review stated, “The generally accepted rule is pink for the boy and blue for the girl” (Callahan, para. 17).

Deep pink was considered most appropriate for boys, as it emitted a more masculine aura and was associated with power, aggression, and energy. On the other hand, blue was allotted for girls due to its soft nature that conveyed placidity, gentleness, and serenity (Kane, 2012).

An article from a 1918 issue of the publication Earnshaw’s Infants’ Department claims, “The reason is that pink, being a more decided and stronger color, is more suitable for the boy, while blue, which is more delicate and dainty, is prettier for the girl.” As retailers became the main clothing source over homemade garments, they too set these color standards. By the late 1920s, top American stores Best & Co., Filene’s, Halle’s, and Marshall Field were all emphasizing that boys should be outfitted in pink (Maglaty, 2011, para. 7).

While this distinction was present, it was fairly common for both genders to wear each color until after World War II, when a mix of manufacturer influence and societal preference established pink as the standard girl color and blue as the standard boy shade. It is important to note, however, that although these color associations have carried through to today, it is has become commonplace for girls to wear blue, but not as much for boys to wear pink. And as boy clothing has gradually omitted “feminine” details, including lace, ruffles, and ornate trims, girl clothing has grown to become more “masculine.” This is a trend that has continued throughout the twentieth and twenty-first centuries (Callahan, para. 19).

Children’s dress of the 1800s and 1900s not only presented children as mirror images of their mothers, but it also served as a mirror image of the customs and norms within society. Although small in size, children’s clothing speaks large volumes, as their gradual design modifications signify cultural changes throughout history. Studying childrenswear is integral to achieving a full understanding of historical fashion and culture, and the CCTC’s extensive collection of children’s garments allows for, and enriches, this comprehensive learning.

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Jacklyn DeVito ’18 is a senior majoring in Fashion Design Management in the College of Human Ecology. She is president of the Cornell Fashion Industry Network and has worked in the Cornell Costume & Textile Collection since the fall of her freshman year.  After graduation this May she will work in merchandising for American Eagle Outfitters. She looks forward to supporting the development and sustainability of an industry that she is passionate about. Jackie explains, “The Cornell Costume & Textile Collection has given me wide exposure to fashions throughout history, as well as the myriad of traditional costumes and styles that exist across the globe. This has given me context for today’s fashions, an understanding of how styles vary around the world, and an appreciation for the cultural values embedded in fashion. This understanding of fashion’s purpose and influence has helped me view the fashion industry more thoughtfully and critically, and has provided me with foundational knowledge that will guide the actions I take when I begin working in the global fashion industry.”

 

Bibliography:

Callahan, C. R. History of children’s clothing. Retrieved from: http://fashion-history.lovetoknow.com/fashion-history-eras/history-childrens-clothing

Kane, K. (2012, June 8). Regency baby clothes: Blue for boys, ??? for girls. Retrieved from: https://regencyredingote.wordpress.com/2012/06/08/regency-baby-clothes-blue-for-boys-for-girls/

MacPhail, A. (2001, April). The Well Dressed Child: Children’s Clothing 1820-1940. Antiques & Collecting Magazine, vol.106. ProQuest.

Maglaty, J. (2011, April 7). When did girls start wearing pink? Smithsonian. Retrieved from http://www.smithsonianmag.com/arts-culture/when-did-girls-start-wearing-pink-1370097/?no-ist

Paoletti, J. (1987). Clothing and Gender in America: Children’s Fashions, 1890-1920.

Signs, 13(1), 136-143. Retrieved from http://www.jstor.org/stable/3174031

Price, P. (2013, June 8). Victorian dress and Victorian style clothing. Retrieved from: http://www.victorianchildren.org/victorian-dress-and-victorian-style-clothing/

Tescher, J. M. (2009, October 10). In history: Why little boys wore dresses. The

Herald Bulletin. Retrieved from http://www.heraldbulletin.com/community/in-history-why-little-boys-wore-dresses/article_8b2c6d1d-265d-5559-90f2-77db21696573.html

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