Friday, October 10, 2014

Philosophy and children’s clothing pt 1

by Maria Grace

Today we take it for granted that childhood is a unique and special period of life during which the child should play and be educated in the ways of their culture, free from the responsibilities of an adult. Most Western societies mark childhood beginning at birth and extending into adolescence, with full adult responsibilities not required until close to an individual’s second decade.

The idea of a lengthy, and in many ways leisurely, childhood was proposed in John Locke’s 1673 treatise, Some Thought Concerning Education. However, it was not until the mid-eighteenth century at his recommendations about education and dress of the sons of the aristocracy were paid heed. Rousseau’s 1762 work, Emile: or On Education helped transform the fad for Locke’s ideas into lasting social change.

Rousseau believed that young men’s innate goodness could be preserved by raising them in a more natural environment which included plain, comfortable clothes which allowed freedom of movement. Such clothing included dresses for little boys and skeleton suits for slightly older boys.

Infant Clothes

During the Regency, the majority of garments for infants and babies, whether swaddling bands for the first few months of life or simple gowns worn thereafter, were typically linen or cotton, either white or unbleached natural color cloth, possibly trimmed with colored ribbons. These ribbons would be chosen to the mother’s tastes, not restricted to blue for boys and pink for girls as would be seen much later in the century. In wealthier families, babies had some "good" clothes to wear while being shown off to visiting family and friends. Typically these garments would be colored or trimmed in ways that would not stand up as well to the harsh laundry techniques of the day, so they would be worn sparingly.

During this era, parents felt little need to identify a small child’s gender by their clothing. Those who knew the family personally would already know the child’s gender, and for those who did not know the family that well, it was none of their business. Moreover, very young children rarely appeared in public. The age at which children began to be seen outside the house coincided with the age at which they would begin to wear gender differentiated clothing.

One unique feature of infant clothing still present in the early 1800’s was leading strings. Leading strings were the fashion decendents of the hanging sleeves of the middle ages. Attached to the back of children’s garments when the child began to move independently, leading strings might be sewn into individual garments when a family could afford multiple sets. For those of lesser means a single set could be pinned onto different garments. In some cases, children’s garments were made with buttonhole like slits through which leading strings could pass when fastened to the child’s corset.

Well into the nineteenth century infants, both male and female, were dressed in corsets. These garments were not boned and cinched like adult corsets might be, but rather made of multiple layers of sturdy fabric, most often corded or quilted cotton or linen. These garments did not shape the body so much as provide warmth and train the child to have good posture, which was considered essential for good health at that time. The sturdiness of the garment made it an ideal one for attaching leading strings.

Once attached, leading strings could be used as a reins to guide the child during the process of learning to walk. This approach was most prevalent in the upper classes. For middle and lower class women who enjoyed less help from servants, leading strings might be used more as a leash to limit a child’s movement. The strings could be fastened to a bed-post or heavy piece of furniture while indoors or something immobile like a fence or tree while outside. Though this might be an uncomfortable idea to modern parents, in a world where child safety measures were largely non-existent, these methods could help keep a child safe while their mother’s attention was diverted elsewhere.

Leading strings were usually removed when they learned to walk well, certainly by age three or four.

Boys in Dresses

Before learning to walk, babies wore long gowns that extended beyond their feet. Once out of infancy (walking age), both boys and girls were ‘shortcoated’, dressed in ankle length dresses. The early 19th century saw almost no difference between dresses for little boys and little girls. Little boys might wear their sisters’ hand-me-downs and vice-versa. Dresses might be made of chintz or printed cottons. They were worn with small white caps, sashes and petticoats or long ruffled pantaloons.

This is William Henry Meyrick
Though it is difficult for the modern observer to wrap their minds around dressing little boys like little girls, the fact was that dresses were considered children’s wear, not little girls’ clothes. Children’s dresses were very distinct from women’s garments, so to the eye of the person in context, it was not a matter of boys in women’s garments. On a more practical note, in the days before disposable diapers and washing machines, dresses were much more practical garments for children who were not toilet trained.

The transition of little boys from wearing dresses to masculine pants was called breeching and marked a major transition in a child’s life. Part two will detail this transition.



 Maria Grace is the author of Darcy's Decision,  The Future Mrs. Darcy, All the Appearance of Goodness, and Twelfth Night at Longbourn and Remember the PastClick here to find her books on Amazon. For more on her writing and other Random Bits of Fascination, visit her website. You can also like her on Facebook, follow on Twitter or email her.


  1. Thoroughly enjoyed the post, Maria! Fascinating. Tweeted as well.

  2. Thank you, Maria, for such an interesting peak into the little one's undergarments, so to speak - I had seen depictions of the "leading stings" in paintings, such as the lovely one you reproduce, but did not understand that they were mounted to a stiff little body corset, thus giving the ribbon-holder a bit more to grip onto when that tyke tried to gambol away! I look forward to part two and Trousers...


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