Monday, January 17, 2011

Children's Clothing

George Romney, Charlotte Bosanquet and Her Five Elder Children, 1795

Harriet's sons' gowns
opened in front
Readers have noted and questioned more than once on this blog about portraits of mothers and their baby sons who are dressed in gowns.  Why were baby boys put in dresses? That is a good question and the answer probably has something to do with changing babies (think of how many onesies newborns go through) and the lack of evolution in children's clothing throughout history.  Boys would remain in their child's gowns until their parents determined them to be at the proper age for breeching, or, wearing big boy clothes.  Not only did this event have a name, it sometimes, in true 18th century fashion, had a celebration that went along with it.  There was always an excuse for a party, whether it be for someone waking up in the morning or for your son wearing pants.  So how does one tell if those painted babies are boys or girls?  Little girls' gowns would fasten in the back like women's gowns and little boys' fastened in the front like a man's jacket. 

8 year-old Isabella of Parma
Both sexes were put in child's stays in order to keep their back straight an encourage good posture.  Once children began walking they would be put in softly boned stays.  Unlike women's stays which could be quite tight, children's would be loosely laced.

In the early part of the century children were dressed as little adults.  Portraits of children had them in fashion that rivaled painted adults in terms of fabulousness.  By the end of the century the idea of little adults wasn't as appealing.  Girls tended to be dressed in simple white gowns and boys would be given skeleton suits, an example of which can be seen on Charlotte Bosanquet's eldest son above. 

Baby-proofing to keep the little ones safe was just as much of an issue in the Age of Reason as it is today.  Not only did children have leading strings to keep them in safe parameters but also pudding hats.  These soft helmets were worn by those crawling and learning to walk so that they wouldn't have pudding heads, that is, bump into something and permanently dent their soft little heads.  Our "toddlers" were the 18th century's "puddling heads," named after the hats they sported.   Sadly, pudding hats weren't stylish enough to make it into formal portraits!


  1. I wonder if these stays helped children with malformed spines? Very interesting. Thank you.

  2. I am vividly reminded of a class I took in college, in which the professor chronicled in portraits of the Madonna and Child the change that took place in the romantic age in conceptions of childhood. Not only were children dressed as small adults, until Rousseau changed perceptions of childhood, but images of Jesus portrayed him as a shrunken adult, with a mature face (the farther you go back the more this is true). It is in the later part of the 18th century that he begins to appear like a real child. Fascinating development, corresponding to society adopting the notion of childhood as a special time in life, rather than just a precarious one.

  3. While I am not sure how I feel about children and stays, I do love and appreciate good posture; perhaps because I am so short(5 ft)and always felt that if I stood up straight I would be taller. I am amazed at how many children today slouch, cannot sit up straight, and walk hunched over(I teach middle school). For the boys it doesn't bode well as they transition to manhood - nothing like the stately looking men of years gone by!

  4. Thanks so much for this interesting and accurate post. I stumbled across your blog a few weeks ago and have been so so glad I did! One thing I wonder about: the rule you stated about where boys' vs. girls' gowns fastened. Is that something you can always go by, or just a general rule of thumb?

  5. I wouldn't always go by that rule because you're bound to run into some sort of exception. So I would use it as a rule of thumb!

    I'm glad you managed to stumble over here!

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