CHILDREN In the past years, I researched historical clothing a lot, and I plan to do even more so in the years to come. But in my research, the focus is almost always on women’s fashion. (And more specifically on the women’s wear of the upper classes) To a lesser extent, I’ve focused my attention on men’s clothing. I haven’t actually made a man’s costume yet, but at least on the subject of men’s wear, there is still sufficient information in the history books. But a subject that is almost never covered in historic costume books, at the most as a footnote at the end of a chapter, is children’s wear.
To some extent, it is understandable that children’s clothing is not well researched. Because for a long time, children were treated and therefore dressed as miniature adults. So when we are talking about the clothing of the middle ages or the baroque, the information that you read about adult’s clothing is also applicable to children’s wear
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But during the 18th century the philosophy about children in general changed from the idea that humans were born in sin, to the idea of natural innocence in children. The French philosopher Rousseau was a big influence in this point. His idea of the natural child was one that wears comfortable clothing, and is not encumbered in rigid stays. From about 1750 or 1760, we see a change in children’s wear. All children up to age 6 wore frocks. In fact, up until about the 1930’s or 1940s, all baby’s and toddlers were dressed alike, in dresses. Without differentiating between boys and girls. After that, boys wore long pants, and girls wore simple straight dresses, often made of muslin. Under these dresses pantalettes (long pants-like undergarments that covered the legs) were worn. After age 12, children were deemed ready to wear adult style clothes.
Around 1800, after the French revolution, we see that adults adopt this fashion, which has been children’s wear for about forty years, too. Men started to wear long pants instead of breaches, and women wore long slim often white dresses. So during this period, children basically looked like miniature adults again.
But when the romantic period came around, and women’s fashion started to change, with wider skirts and sleeves, so did children’s wear. Children basically looked like adults again, only with shorter dresses, shorter sleeves, and a pair of pantalettes sticking out from under their skirts. When the crinoline came around during the 1850s, children’s fashion changed with it to follow adult fashion on the outside, but they did not adorn the same undergarments. The skirts children wore grew wider, but they did not wear crinoline to support them. The same is true for the bustle era. Children’s dresses now came with more fullness at the back, but they didn’t wear bustle cages either. They relied on folds of fabric or bows to mimic the adult silhouette.
However, while children did not wear steel cages to give their skirts a fashionable shape, they still wore some form of the corset. While a lot of people may gasp in horror when they hear that, it is not as bad as it may seem. When we think of a corset, we mostly think of a tight, waist-defining, steel construction. But as you can see in the add above, children’s corsets took on a different shape. The corset (also called a waist sometimes) was lighter and more flexible than their adult counterparts. They are also much straighter and do not define the waist in any way on the younger children. The corsets for children up until age 7 are described in adds as being soft and having buttons down the back. So lacing the corset tight was not even possible. Only the corset on the far right shows some kind of waist definition, but that corset is only for children age 12 to 17. In other words, adolescents who are developing female forms. So the corset does not shape the body but follows it’s natural forms.
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The corsets for children were not worn for fashion reasons, but for health. The Victorians believed that a corset of some sort was necessary for the health of a person. It kept the body warm and kept the posture straight. Two very important pillars of health for the Victorians. The corsets were more an extra layer of clothing than a typical Victorian-style corset. So when you first hear Rousseau state that children should not wear stays with steal boning, and than hear about children’s corsets, this is not a contradiction. They simply modified their normal undergarment, which they considered essential for health, so it would fit better in a child’s active lifestyle.