by Linda Baumgarten
In the eighteenth century, children's clothing underwent a gradual evolution from constricting garments patterned after those worn by adults to apparel designed specifically for them. The practice of swaddling infants tightly was gradually discontinued early in the century. Very young children of both sexes wore dresses with close fitting bodices similar to those worn by women.
The bodices, which usually fastened at the back, often had leading strings or bands attached to the shoulders to help parents guide a young child who was learning to walk. Perhaps they also acted as a restraint on a lively youngster. Leading strings were occasionally retained on girls' dresses as a symbol of youthfulness long after their practical functions had been outgrown.
Wishing a Happy New Year to Grand Papa. Black and White mezzotint engraving. Printed for John Bowles, London, 1745-1755. The children wear the formal adult-style clothing and have the posture expected of children during the first half of the eighteenth century; their mother wears a lappet cap and black hooded cloak.1941-250.
Infant's Linens. Shirt, two neck bands, and cap, fine line, decorated with "Hollie Point" lace insertions, England, first half of the eighteenth century.`956-145, G1971-1570,G1971-1572, G1971-1573.
Toddlers sometimes wore padded pudding caps much like modern crash helmets to protect their heads if they fell. Most small girls and many young boys wore stays, especially with dress clothing, since it was believed that stays supported the back and encouraged proper posture. As late as 1771, Williamsburg milliner Catherine Rathell advertised "thin Bone and Packthread Stays for Children of three Months old and upwards." Not all children, particularly those of the laboring classes, were put in stays, however.
Child's Stays. Green worsted wool stain, boned and lined with linen, with eyelet's for lacing up the back, England or America (New York), 1740-1760. The waist measures 17 inches; the center front length measures 7 1/2 inches,1964-405.
Child's "Pudding" Cap. Quilted cotton velvet bound with silk ribbon, horsehair stuffing, leather lining , Probably England, 1770-1785, 1952-55.
"Portrait of Two Children" attributed to Joseph Badger. Oil on canvas. America, Mid-eighteenth century. The boy at the left is wearing a frock similar to that shown below. Abby Aldrich Rockefeller Folk Art Museum, 57.100.15.
Boy's Frock or Gown. Striped coral and green silk and linen, bodice and sleeves lined with linen, probably England, 1740-1750. The waist measures 20 inches and the overall length is 27 inches. 1952-335.
"Children in a Classroom." Sepia aquatint with stipple. Drawn by T. Stohard, engraved by C. Knight, England, ca.1790. The children wear the clothing of the late eighteenth century - frock dresses for the girls and trouser suits for the boys. The engraver suggests society's evolving attitude toward children by their lively postures and more comfortable clothing. Anonymous gift.G1971-3139.
A philosophical movement toward less restrictive dress for children occurred during the second half of the eighteenth century, and by 1760 the already well-established fashion was for little boys and girls to wear white dresses called frocks that had sashes at the waist. Late in the 1700s, boys began to wear suits with long trousers rather than knee breeches, a fashion that won favor about twenty years before it was accepted by adult men for dress wear. Throughout the century, the time when a little boy went from skirts to pants, which was called, "breeching," occurred anytime from age three to seven and was symbolic of his first step toward becoming a "little man."
Child's Shoes. Dark brown leather, 6 inches long, probably Europe, 1730-1750. 1985-235, 1-2.
Boys Suit. White cotton coat and trousers, lined with linen, England, 1785-1795, 1953-841. (reproduction shirt and sash).
Girls or Sample Shoes. Buff leather with striped linen lining, 6 3/4 inches long with a 2-inch heel possibly America, 1770-178, 1953-1043.
Young Boy in Green Suit attributed to the Beardsley Limner. Oil on canvas. Probably New England, ca. 1790. The boy wears the suit and shirt with large open collar fasionable at the time. Abby Aldrich Rockefeller Folk Art Museum, 64.100.4.
Article written by Linda Baumgarten, Curator of Textiles of the Colonial Williamsburg Foundation.
The article is an excerpt from Eighteenth-Century Clothing at Williamsburg, available from our online catalog.