Children’s Dress, 1705-1715


History of Costume II 1660 to 1800

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Battered by mass communication about education, and conscience-stricken on the question of equal opportunity for all, the modern individual might be excused for thinking that the argument had been a burning preoccupation of the British from way back in time. It is with surprise and perhaps a little envy that we learn that only two hundred and fifty years ago the great mass of the population was blissfully ignorant of the nightmare of 11-plus and 0-levels. Education had been undertaken by the Church until the Reformation and had embraced all the community likely to benefit. When the monks were relieved of their lands and responsibilities there was little to fill the gap, as the schools that had been endowed by private persons, guilds or societies were not numerous enough to cover the wide field that the monastic institutions had done. Despite a little more concern on the subject and a hurried building md opening of grammar schools in the time of Edward VI and Queen Elizabeth, the available education was still only open to the wealthy or the very clever poor boy thought to be of potential use to the community, who was thus raised out of his station. The 18th century has been called the Age of Enlightenment due to the enormous strides in learning, philosophy, and the humanities that developed later in the century, but at its dawn the candle had hardly begun to flicker. Kings were still despotic rulers, intent only on their own diversions; governments ruled for the benefit of their sovereigns and the prestige of their country, and the common man was tolerated only to minister to those of higher degree. Though d amped down, the fire of democracy had never really died in England after the Commonwealth. We had had our revolution, put the king in his place, and the people had had a good innings at running the country. Dismal business as it proved to be, the principles of commonwealth and righteous living had survived the jollification of the Restoration and remained in the hard core of Dissenters who formed a great part of the middle class and working population. These worthies, debarred from entrance to universities and most schools by the triumphant Church of England, had diligently set to work to create their own places of education and, to the concern of the establishment, made an excellent job of it. The Anglican Church, alerted to the danger of an educated opposition, hastened to establish places of learning of their own and by the end of the reign of Queen Anne the Charity Schools for the Poor were in operation all over the country. The curriculum was rather restricted – to reading, writing and strongly-emphasized religious teaching. Competition with the dissenters was not the only spur to the spreading of general education. Nor was pure philanthropy. The merits of an early indoctrination in accepted behaviour and in the habit of subordination in the lower classes, which is the strongest safeguard against rebellion and social upheaval, were discoveries made two centuries before the Nazi regime. The brighter side of the enterprise was the democratic way it was put into practice by enlisting the co-operation of local interest from the middle class and workers themselves, who were coerced into subscribing towards expenses and taking a hand in the control of the schools. Far removed as general education may seem from our subject, it had an enormous bearing on the appearance of the youth of this country. Dirty little ragamuffins would hardly have been a good advertisement for the worthy enterprise and one can imagine the concern that occupied school committees on the important matter of clothing. Was it good taste, fortuitous chance, or a cheap and easily come-by dye from the indigo vats of the East India Company, that made them choose the becoming–to-all blue? Some of the endowed schools had their distinctive uniform. Those formed in Tudor days wore the economically designed gown and doublet, all in one piece, that we know so well from the boys of Christ’s Hospital. There was nothing of fancy dress about the choice of costume for the Charity Schools; it was quite up-to-date and, at the time, would have been envied rather than disparaged by those less fortunate than the wearers. The modern theory of free-for-all had yet to come. One still had to be ‘deserving’. The shape chosen for the girls followed the line of normal wear, with a full skirt, laced bodice and short, cuffed sleeves. A hint of the religious nature of the organization crept into the wide white collar but the bonnet had frills gathered and lifted in front, to match fashionable headgear. The boys’ smart cloth coats were miniatures of those worn by most men in England at the time – slightly waisted, large-cuffed and trimmed with handsome buttons. Coat skirts were knee-length and shaped, and it can be noticed that the breeches now cover the knees, the waistcoat is shorter and the pockets higher, in the style that became the mode for many years. The cost of clothing a deserving girl in 1708 was ten shillings and threepence, while the authorities got off more lightly with the boys at nine shillings and twopence. Luckily for the school budget, attendance did not cover many years and, no doubt, these serviceable garments were handed down to smaller brothers and sisters. With 25,000 children attending Charity Schools and as many the educational institutions of the dissenters, the higher standard of social well-being and cleanliness in the young must have been quite noticeable. Uniform was only enforced in the endowed schools, as clothes had to be provided for the poor pupil by the authorities. Snobbery had not yet made it seem essential that a boy should spend his early years exclusively in the company of others of his own class, and a thrifty squire’s son could occupy the place originally intended for the deserving poor boy, side by side with the sons of local trades-people. Sober clothes were favoured, even at the great Public Schools where the fees, at £26 a year, were as modest as the standard of education offered. It was at the Gentlemen’s Academies, just opening, that one could really make a splash, wearing the latest cut in coats of fine cloth, the doggy neckwear of the grown-up and a hair-do that the modern young man might envy. No simpler clothing than that of a grown woman was thought necessary for the poor little rich girl whose educational outlook was indeed bleak. Her mother’s knee was deemed a more suitable place of instruction than a school desk, owing to a strongly held theory that there was a relation­ ship between virtue and learning – the more a woman had of one the less she had of the other. Governesses were only employed for the children of royalty and, in the early l700’s, Young Ladies’ Academies were not in being. For the Catholics there were convents and for a very few French girls there was Madame de Maintenon’ s unique and pioneering establishment at St. Cyr which had the astonishing distinction of having a play written for it by Racine to be performed by the pupils.

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Dimensions 38.1 × 25.5 cm