Children’s and Manservant’s Dress, 1780-1787

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History of Costume II 1660 to 1800

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It is only towards the end of the 18th century that English youth can be said to look natural and happy, the most obvious explanation being their more comfortable clothes. This pleasant revolution came about in a variety of ways, chiefly through the doctrine of Jean-Jacques Rousseau which put into words the yearnings of the more thoughtful of his generation for a less material way of life and advocated a return to, and deeper understanding of Nature. Society was so busy with its rat-race that it took many years before it could realize any alternative existence and only then, perhaps, because life at the top had become so intolerably tedious and a stampede away from artificiality offered fresh interest. Rousseau’s passionate philosophy of freedom and untrammelled feeling had un­ fortunate results in promoting a revolution and stimulating a romantic sentiment in those – alas, many – with less lofty perception. But the nature-study line had less violent repercussions and his interest in children as the spring of human nature led him to concern himself with their conditions and education. He was not alone in his study, for the good Pestalozzi in Switzerland came to the hitherto unheard-of conclusion that children could learn through play instead of tears and beatings. The cultured country-loving and naturally child-loving British took kindly to this new attitude – for it was in England that Rousseau had brushed up his ideas on liberty – and a little more thought and understanding was given to the interests and feelings of the young with less emphasis on curbing their natural inclinations. There are so many beautiful paintings, at about this time, of distinguished mothers with radiant children that it is difficult to believe that the happiness was all in the artists’ imagination. In the enthusiasm of a new experiment some parents rather overdid the indulgence. The father of Charles James Fox refused to have his n’s spirit broken, adding that ‘the world would do that business fast enough’, with the result that his brilliant son lacked the self-discipline that would have made him of greater value to his country. The same indulgence to arrogant manners extended to the Public Schools, where it was now the custom for the sons of gentry to pass a few years and where, schoolmaster flogging having become less violent, the freedom of uncurbed animal spirits intensified the bullying of one another. Boys matured very quickly in an age where they were allowed the activities of an adult life. Participation in military campaigns was thought quite suitable for boys of high degree, and the experience of naval life must have quickly taken the bloom off a beardless cheek. The Grand Tour, accompanied by a tutor, was the acknowledged climax of a young man’s education and doubtless offered much in the way of excitement in the dangers of travel if, otherwise, the ancient culture of Europe proved rather a bore. The ‘poor’ child matured equally fast, as he was a wage-earner before he was ten. Even though he worked in his village home he had the open fields and moors to play on, in the blissful pause before the Industrial Revolution enticed and trapped him in the mills. There were plenty of playmates as families were large. In the most aristocratic, such as the Devonshires, laxity of morals made the relation­ ship of the various children in the nurseries rather confusing but, although they were left for the most part to the attentions of governesses and servants, filial affection was very strong. The most welcome result of the better understanding of children’s needs was in less physical restraint, and more movement necessitated more comfortable clothes. It was only one small son of a most enlightened parent who was lucky enough to wear loose trousers as early as 1760, for the fashion of putting a boy straight away into grown-up breeches as soon as he left off baby skirts continued until the late I770’s. This innovation gave the fashion a label, as the intermediate stage between boyhood and manhood, and no doubt it was as readily discarded as it had been eagerly welcomed. Boys’ trousers were based on the loose slack worn by sailors and countrymen and had slits at the ankle for even greater freedom. The waist could be high over a loose shirt, or a more grown-up waistcoat could be worn. The hiatus usual in the reluctant meeting of small boys’ garments was sometimes covered by a wide sash or cummerbund. Coats were slim, short and cut away, all now with collars and lapels, but the most typical of details was the wide open, turned-back shirt collar. The urge towards freedom of ideas has always tended to go to a man’s neck and in these boys’ collars we see how Rousseau’s doctrine was now bearing fruit – an early sign of the romantic upsurge that was to become personified in the dress of our later poets. The fashion felt to be so touching and soulful has been the burden of quite normal little boys ever since, through the time of ‘Bubbles’ up to the bridal pages of to-day. The manservant in our picture, carrying the schoolboy’s inevitable tuck-box, has obviously brought his young master home for the holidays. He wears the high-collared coat that came in with the late 1780’s, on which the cuffs have become mere buttoned bands. His waistcoat, too, has lapels and collar, and the neck-cloth shows the beginning of the high and loosely wound style that reached extremes ten years later. The English hat had lost the three-cornered cock that had been the fashion for so long and became the basis of a style that lasted almost throughout the next century. The new freedom released little girls from early tight lacing into corsets. It was in women’s dress that the back-to-nature and the new classical ideal could best be shown. Fussy frills, festoons and padding disappeared (except for those lacking natural curves) and girls’ dresses soon followed the simple flowing line, with a more comfortable bodice and an attached skirt. The soft muslin of which they were mostly made, in light colours or with dainty sprig patterns, was sufficiently full to dispense with innumerable petticoats, and although it was many a day before even a little girl’s legs could be shown, skirts were shorter and could be girded up for boisterous games. It was not only in dress that the small girl still reflected the costume of her mother. Large mob caps now crowned the wider and looser spread of woman’s hairdressing and for out-of-doors huge floppy hats, sometimes with a cavalier air or like large lampshades, now covered all, but could look equally charming on a girl’s natural undressed curls.

Additional information

Dimensions 38.1 × 25.5 cm