Jessamyn's Regency Costume Companion: Children's Clothes

~ Children's Clothes ~

In which we see what children wore during the Regency.

Miniature offered at a Christie's sale.
Small Children.
From birth to "breeching," small children were dressed without regard to sex. Simple, loose-fitting gowns were put on boys and girls alike, and hair was cropped into nonspecific bowl-like cuts. Then as now, downy curls were admired. This miniature probably dates to the 1790s, judging by the width of the waist sash and the general frothy softness of the muslin and the child's hair.

Detail of a miniature from a Christie's sale.
This slightly later miniature shows an extremely simple child's dress with no waist at all and a very wide, square neckline. The only decoration is the charming split sleeves.

A child's dress found on eBay.
This dress is constructed very much like the one above, but of a very different fabric. Although children of this period are almost always depicted in romantic white, it's probable that more practical fabrics such as this were commonly used for everyday wear. It's a very unrestrictive style, in that it's only drawn in at the waist in the back. Drawcords are used to fit the garment slightly to the body and to close the back of the dress.

Detail of Mrs. Baring and Two of Her Children, by Sir Thomas Lawrence, from a Christie's sale.
This picture was begun around 1816-17, but not exhibited until several years later. Although it's difficult to tell with such short hair, this is apparently a girl, since she's helping her mother with her hair comb. Allowing for a certain amount of swooshy dramatism on the artist's part, you can see again the wide square neckline, tiny sleeves, and waist-sash.

Detail from an 1809 Ackermann's plate.

Children were put in mourning clothes along with their elders. This detail from an 1809 fashion plate showing a mother and child reveals that children's mourning was simply ordinary garments rendered in black. The black is relieved by a little frill of white lace around the neckline, and there seem to be either pleats or rows of ribbon on the skirt, and a self-fabric turn-back frill or stitched-down band around the neckline. The cap appears to be a simple gathered round of muslin, and the shoes are either slip-on with a drawstring at top or a simple latcheted type (see the Shoe page for more general information on shoes of this period).

The mob cap is charming and very useful for both keeping a child's head warm and disguising a headful of knots or an anachronistic hairstyle!

Detail from an 1809 Ackermann's plate.
This 1809 plate shows a mother in morning dress with her child asleep in her lap. The dress is an interesting color, quite short, and features some sort of white trim at the neck.

Child's white bodice found on eBay.
This oh-so-charming little bodice probably dates to the 1820s or possibly 1830s. The square neckline and white muslin are still in evidence, but the puff sleeves echo the growing sleeves of mother's clothes, and the gathered, eyeletted bodice shows the increasing interest in bodice shape and detail. The looping trim at the neckline and sleeves is extremely similar to that on an older child's white dress shown below.

Children in a Classroom, drawn by T. Stothard, engraved by C. Knight.
Girls and Boys.
These circa-1790 children show the new attitude toward childhood that arose in the late 18th century, not just in their dress but in the way the are represented. Suddenly, children were allowed to be children instead of being expected to dress and behave like miniature adults. The girls wear essentially simple versions of ladies' at-home gowns of the time, and the boys have replaced fussy long-tailed coats with short buttoned ones and knee breeches with loose, cropped pants. The shirts are no longer tight at the neck but have flowing ruffled collars. Note that only the eldest girl's hairstyle is any different from the boys'.

Boy's suit from the collection at Colonial Williamsburg.
It was at somewhere around the age of five (it varied from family to family) that boys were "breeched" - literally, put into breeches. (Girls' skirts simply got longer and their dresses perhaps a little more elaborate.) This 1785-95 white cotton suit lined with linen (shown with a reproduction shirt and sash) demonstrates clearly the transition from miniature adult clothes to those designed purely for children. The casual materials and looser cut were to receive greater and greater emphasis as the nineteenth century came on.

Another detail of Mrs. Baring and Two of Her Children.
The boy in this picture sport the 1810s version of the skeleton suit, with high-waisted velvet pants that end at mid-calf and a frilly-collared white jacket, probably of linen. It's interesting that it has short sleeves, which seem to end in a cuff or frill. He also wears white or off-white stockings.

A detail of an 1810 Ackermann plate.
I believe that this child is a boy, although the outfit is only faintly suit-like. His tunic's high collar, shoulder yoke, and front opening are reminiscent of the skeleton suit, while the pantalets seem too unfrilled for a girl's. The hat also seems rather like the straw toppers occasionally seen on gentlemen in summer, And he rides a stick like a hobby-horse. The puff sleeves and length of the tunic are ambiguous, however.

Detail from an 1809 fashion plate.
This 1809 fashion plate showed a lady in evening dress, oddly accompanied by this parasol-bearing child. It's not that children attended evening events; plates of this time often combined figures in day and evening dress, for example, and expected the reader to know that they didn't really belong against the same background. This plate shows a girls' fashion that was newly trendy at this time, but would become almost a uniform for Victorian girls: long, lacy pantalettes showing below a short dress. There appear to be a great many tucks decorating both dress and pantalettes, and the dress again shows split sleeves. The neckline is edged in blue, matching the shoes. She must merely be holding the parasol for her mother, since it's much too long for her.

Girls' pantalettes were trimmed with the best lace that could be afforded. Oddly enough, it quickly came about that most parents began using false pantalettes, which is to say that they just created lace-decorated tubes that buttoned on to some kind of garter arrangement underneath the dress. In other words, the pantalettes were serving zero useful purpose - they were just a medium to hold lace, to show off.

Detail of a drawing of Princess Victoria at Ramsgate, by Lady Elizabeth Heathcote.
This is Princess Victoria in 1822, well before she became queen! She is dressed in the latest style, showing the increasing 1820s interest in heavy padded and ruffled trim at the neckline, hemline, and especially the sleeves. She even wears a necklace of large round beads. On the other hand, like all children, her stockings are falling down. Her shoes appear to be of a laced or latcheted type.

It was the fashion throughout the Regency to tie colored silk bands around the waist, although they narrowed as the century turned. Blue was the most popular color, but up-to-date girls had several in different colors. In Jane Austen's Mansfield Park, ten-year-old Fanny meets the well-to-do Bertram girls, who, at ages twelve and thirteen, "...could not but hold her cheap on finding that she had but two sashes...." Ah, no one can be so cruel about a failure to conform to fashion as a twelve-year-old. At least, that's how I remember it from middle school!

Child's dress found on eBay.
Older Children.
This garment has a very interesting method of construction, incorporating some aspects of adults' underwear. The sleeves look cut in one with the body, rather like a medieval T-tunic, but in fact are inset with triangular gussets under the arm. The center front is tightly gathered and held in place by a small rectangle of self-fabric. Sash-ties are attached to both ends of the gathered section. The neckline is gathered by means of a ribbon through a casing, and the ribbon ties to close up a simple slit opening up the back. The body is also gathered just below the shoulder line in front and back, into a little rectangle of fabric that lies along the top of the shoulder.

The eBay seller who offered this gown brought the sash ends around the back and to the front again before tying a bow, but I think it's also quite possible that it might have been tied in the back and the sash ends allowed to hang down. The sleeves are decorated with triangular turn-back cuffs edged with a very simple lace, almost like cord loops but flatter, and the sash is edged with the same lace.

Detail of The Kaunitz Sisters, by Ingres.
This was painted in 1818, and is a very international picture: it was done by the French painter Ingres, and shows the daughters of Austria's ambassador to Rome! Although they look fairly grown up, these girls range in age from seventeen to just thirteen. It is interesting that although the youngest is certainly not old enough to be "out," she nonetheless dresses and wears her hair like an adult. Their fairly modest fashions are probably what was thought appropriate for relatively young women, but otherwise show the loose sleeves, very high waists, and neck frills that were au courant in Paris but barely known in London, cut off as it had been from the latest styles by its war with France.

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