English Children’s Dress, 1740-1744

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History of Costume II 1660 to 1800

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The English do not appear to have become aware of children as individuals until the 1740’s. Previously children had been treated as less capable grown-ups, a nuisance and an encumbrance, and parents had little pleasure from the patter of small feet or the nonsense of childish behaviour. The main idea in child upbringing was to ignore the tiresome, dependent period by dressing him like an adult, imparting knowledge as quickly as possible and breaking his wilful spirit. Judging by the only English pictures we must go by or letters from conscientious parents, they succeeded remarkably well. Let us hope that it was for want of good painters that the English child looks so deprived. The liberal Dutch had earlier shown a sensitivity towards youth, as we gather from their 17th century genre pictures which were followed by the French in charming interiors by Chardin and Boucher. The new attitude to children may have come about because we were losing them so fast in the early 18th century. In the upper classes the habit, through laziness and custom, of feeding babies artificially (at a time of total ignorance of hygiene), and in the working classes the effects of gin, starvation and disease, made infant mortality distressingly high. Consequently the little survivors of the rich were guarded and spoilt more than was good for them and those of the poor were abandoned on the streets until conscience began to stir, in London at least, and the good Captain Coram gave them shelter in his Foundling Hospital. The solid middle class had already realized the dangers of town life to their families and had moved them away from the open sewers and smoke to the more salubrious air of the villages around London. Country children had a greater expectation of life, and as the custom developed of putting babies of the better-off families to nurse with strong respectable village women their chances of survival improved, but it is hardly surprising that filial affection suffered in consequence. Royal children experienced an even more extraordinary upbringing by being wrenched from their families at an early age and set up in separate establishments presided over by governesses, nurses and tutors. The waste of money and natural affection seems to have escaped these otherwise intelligent people. It is with the advent of the humanist Hogarth and the gentle narrative painter Highmore that we begin to see a little more cheer in the life of the English child. Brutal though the goings-on were on the streets of London the children appear to have joined in the fun and even the high-class child, though still sedate, has games and toys in plenty. It is too much to expect that attitudes would have changed in every aspect, suitable dress for children being a peculiarly blind spot until such a short time ago. The poor child, unless at the expense of the Charity Schools, wore cut-down grown-up clothes and the well-to-do child miniature replicas of fashionable adult dress. Babies were trussed up like cocoons in the earnest belief that bindings straightened limbs, and if they refused to die from germs they often did so, later, from lack of air or from restriction. Small boys, up to the age of four or so, were indistinguishable from their sisters in long skirts with sashes, only being put into breeches as they left off nappies. It was not until 1760 that a very small boy appears in the long loose trousers which, ironically, became acknowledged as the most comfortable wear for men in the 19th century. It is the toys that tell us so much about the life of children at this period. Rocking-horses had been made much earlier but of solid wood and safely low on the ground. The new models were much more excitingly like the real animal and adventurously high. Tin soldiers made their first appearance as is natural in an age of national military pride, and we see the games of cards and hazard that were proving so enthralling in the grown-up world. For out-of-doors, little go-carts to be pulled by older brothers and sisters were much in vogue, and windmills in paper amused the babies much as they do, in plastic, to-day. But it is the dolls that tell us so much of what we want to know of the dress of the time. The little garments were so faithfully made and with such skill that it is possible to see not only what a small girl wore but how, of course, her mother’s clothes were made. Underclothes consisted of chemises and petticoats; the latter, for warmth, were quite narrow and hung close to the figure under the wide panniers. The panniers themselves were not merely a straight piece of gathered material held out by wire but were cut in the correct wide shape and stiffened by graduated hoops of whale­ bone. Small pads were placed on top of the sides to lift the skirts into the fashionable square shape, and innumerable tapes pulled in the hoops. Girls’ dresses were made to look as nearly like a woman’s as possible and stays were worn very early to reduce the ribs and the unruly bulge at the waist. Skirts were full and gathered with a jaunty lift at the sides where the panniers tilted up. Bodices, fitted with stiffened seams, were usually fastened down the back but the effect of a stomacher was achieved by making the front section of the bodice of a contrasting material and allowing the stiffened point to lie over the apron and skirt. The strong patriarchal influence of the Dissenters may have been responsible for the continued covering of women’s heads and it is a wonder that English women were ever famed for their hair. Even small girls wore the ubiquitous cap – tiny affairs in muslin or lace with a little frivolity in a wreath of flowers or for grand occasions even a feather. The eldest son was, of course, the pampered darling of the family. With freedom at home, the power to rise above savage bullying at a Public School or the polish added by accomplishments taught at the private academies for the sons of gentlemen, an English boy very early developed that independence and arrogance that has been such a sore spot of envy and irritation to other nations ever since. By 1740 men’s coats were becoming much closer-fitting with a trace of the cutaway look that developed a decade later. Unbuttoned and with less stiffening the fronts fell away naturally at the sides. Decoration was reduced to military braiding and variations on the shape of the wide cuffs. Waistcoats were shorter and fastened at the waist and plain neck-cloths. for everyday wear were tucked into the open top and showed above the still collarless coat. While the older man was now to be seen more often in a suit made all from the same material, the younger bloods favoured lighter and brighter colours for their breeches. Three-cornered hats had a long life and, according to fashionable information of the period, were a good indication of a man’s character. The front point too high in the air gave away the wearer as a rustic ‘gawky’; tassels and buttons, too great an affectation; while hats edged round with gold binding belonged to the brothers of the turf!

Additional information

Dimensions 38.1 × 25.5 cm