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Childrens wear
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Image Number: 2001475


Children's wear is divided into three main period groupings between the early days of the Industrial Revolution and World War II which marked the real decline of the cotton industry:
" 1750 - 1820
" 1820 - 1890
" 1890 - 1940




Babies 1750 - 1820
Babies were swaddled until c1820 which means that there aren't many examples of baby clothes except christening gowns. Christening gowns from the 1750s tended to be of linen or silk; but slip gowns of cotton twill were in use by the 1780s. Swaddling garments were usually linen. A young baby would wear a linen napkin and be dressed in a simple linen shirt and linen head cap. A strip of linen (stayband) was placed underneath the baby's cap and fastened to the shirt at the shoulders to keep the baby's head straight. Over this outfit a large rectangle of linen (the 'bed') was wrapped around the baby's body and arms, and then fastened at the feet with swaddling bands. Sometimes decorative bibs and collars were added.

Older babies and young toddlers wore short sleeved dresses of white cotton muslin which either had a tight bodice and pointed waist or which were like a larger version of a slip gown with a square bodice and loose skirt.

Boys 1750 - 1820
Slip gowns for little boys were slit from waist to hem for more freedom of movement. Boys were breeched between two and four years of age and wore transitional cotton calico jump suits or tunics and trousers. Breeches could also be of wool, leather or linen. During the 1780s the 'skeleton', an all-in-one suit with a large collar, was popular. Breeches, not trousers, were worn by all older boys and adult males until the late 1790s. Younger boys were the first to wear trousers, but for reasons of practicality rather than fashion. By 1800 boys' trousers were made of cotton or linen. Boys' fashions often followed those of their fathers so that by 1820 boys were wearing long 'hussar' pantaloons with a loose fitting jacket and waistcoat.

Girls 1750 - 1820
In the early 1800s girls wore 'chemise' dresses in cotton, often in white, gathered at the neck and bust with drawstrings and cotton drawers, closed with a back flap, attached to a tape around the waist or to a bodice with shoulder straps. Fashions for little girls often reflected those of their mothers but were simpler. Working girls wore a dress of coloured linen or cotton and a woollen petticoat. Outer wear included capes, tippets (a shoulder covering with long front ends) or short 'spencer' jackets (named after the 2nd Earl Spencer in the 1790s).


Babies 1820 - 1890
At the beginning of the period some babies were still swaddled but the fashion was growing for dressing babies in square neck short sleeve cotton dresses with a shallow bodice, and with shawls, bonnets, capes and tie-on sleeves for extra warmth. Ayrshire embroidery was popular as decoration. New born babies wore long sleeved nightgowns.
By the 1840s wool and cashmere were back in favour for babies' cloaks; but dresses, especially for toddlers, were of cotton pique with a plain bodice, long sleeves and a full pleated skirt. Underwear was a flannel chemise or vest and cotton drawers. In the 1860s cotton corded stays were worn by older babies and toddlers. These were left off when boys were breeched but graduated to fully boned corsets for girls.

Boys 1820 - 1890
During this period boys were not breeched until they were aged five to six years and wore 'A-line' dresses with a front opening and long drawers in cambric or calico. By the 1820s the 'skeleton' suits had gone out of fashion. Trousers were now cut to lie flat over the stomach with a wide flap opening and no waistband instead of being fastened to the jacket. 'Spencer' jackets and tailless jackets were favoured. Trousers were often white, jackets of a dark colour. Young boys wore open neck shirts. Older boys wore linen shirts with muslin ruffles. 'Hussar tunics' became popular in the 1830s. These consisted of trousers with a matching knee length jacket which had a 'skirt front' open from waist to hem and 'hussar décor' (lines of braid and buttons).

In the 1840s flat cloth caps came into fashion and remained so for boys. During the 1860s boy's clothes were similar to men's clothing but shorter and wider. Long woollen stockings were worn by both boys and girls. Knickerbocker suits with 'plus four' trousers (full and fastened below the knee), waistcoats and cut-away jackets became popular. This fashion lasted for about twenty years until the end of the 1870s. The 1870s saw the introduction of 'sailor suits' which remained in vogue until about 1920. Sailor suits had a naval 'blouse' with a square collar and wide trousers. In the 1880s boys also had to wear combinations and woollen vests.

Girls 1820 - 1890
Girls wore cotton drawers with a shallow bodice, a cotton or flannel chemise (loose shift like a shirt), calico petticoats (sometimes of red flannel in winter after the 1870s) and woollen stockings. Younger girls wore corded cotton stays but teenage girls had to endure being laced into tight corsets made from jean (like denim) or buckram (stiffened cotton) with whalebone strips. Mothers were advised that '...to give their daughter a full bosom, the daughter should put her corset on and lie face down on the ground so that the mother can place her foot in the small of the girl's back and pull the corset laces very tight...' Girls wore restrictive cotton dresses like their mothers but girl's dresses had looser waists and from the 1860s skirts were knee length. Some girls' dresses were made in the more comfortable Princess style. Outer wear was a pelisse (coat dress) or a small cape for better off girls, and a shawl for poorer girls. In 1881 knitted jackets, dresses and undies in jersey fabrics were popularised by the well known Jersey actress, Lily Langtry.


Babies 1890 - 1940
The major revolution in babies wear in this period was the introduction of terry towelling for nappies and the first pairs of rubber pants. Babies were no longer swaddled ('long clothes' were worn for the first few months of life) but dressed in smock shaped 'shortening' dresses which reached only to the baby's ankle instead of trailing. These dresses, in white or cream cotton fabrics, had small yokes and long sleeves and were trimmed at the hem with embroidery or hand made lace. The 'New American Shape' had no bodice and the yoke ended at the armholes. Raglan sleeves were used for dresses and nightgowns. Babies wore flannel or cambric cloaks with hoods and decorative bibs with popular slogans or characters of the day. The invention of iron-on embroidery transfers in the 1890s enabled busy mothers to trim and decorate their babies' outfits cheaply. Romper suits first appeared around 1919 at the end of the Great War. During the 1920s the pram 'took over in status from the length of the carrying shawl'. Matching bonnets and matinee jackets became popular as only the top half of the baby could be seen in the pram. About this time the convention of pink for a girl and blue for a boy appeared.

Boys 1890 - 1940

Small boys wore romper combination overalls and then dresses before they were breeched. Sailor outfits were still in fashion in 1890 and very young boys wore a pleated skirt like a kilt with a sailor's blouse. The 'Norfolk suit' with its 'stitched down pleats and cloth belt came into vogue and so did other suits for better off boys which took their names from private schools like Rugby and Eton. Combinations (vest and long johns) were worn underneath. They were replaced by short sleeved vests and pants around 1926. About 1907 there was a short lived fashion for wide white collars for younger boys. The popularity of sailor suits persisted until about 1920 before being replaced with low waisted tunics and shorts. From 1916 to the 1940s the 'buster suit' was in fashion. It consisted of shorts and a contrasting 'blouse' that buttoned together at the waist or self fabric braces. Caps and jackets remained popular and knitted jerseys became so, especially after the Great War. There was a 'dress hierarchy' for boys: toddler dress to knickerbocker suit (or short trousers) to full suit (or long trousers). By the 1930s the change from short to long trousers was seen as a sign of manhood and was eagerly awaited by boys.

Girls 1890 - 1940

Girl's underwear was cumbersome: flannel vest, cotton chemise, buckram bodice with cotton drawers buttoned to it, flannel and cotton petticoats with bodices. Separates became fashionable in the 1890s and girls could wear skirts and blouses instead of dresses. Sailor suits were also popular for girls as school or holiday wear from around the 1890s until the 1920s. Yoked dresses, avoiding the tight waist with their smock shape, came into vogue and were worn until about 1910. In 1908 liberty bodices, in knitted cotton fabrics, began to replace the tortuous corsets. Pinafores were introduced in 1912, followed by the ubiquitous school gymslip in the 1920s. In 1919 waists dropped to hip level and in 1925 skirts rose to knee length. By 1926 liberty bodices and vests were sleeveless; knickers were knee length. Girls' fashions had been liberated; though by the 1930s the 'Shirley Temple look' of longer skirts, frills and flounces had become popular.


Further reading:

Rose, Claire. Children's Clothes.
Batsford, 1989. ISBN 0 7134 5471 4

Ewing, Elizabeth. History of Children's Costume.
Batsford, 1977. ISBN 0 7134 0813 8


Glynis Greenman and Anthea Jarvis

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Associated Images
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Related Narratives
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Image: Women's wear, 1932 Image: Man's cravat, 1810
Image: Advertisement for Goytland fabrics, household goods Image: illustration of a Cotton Flower & Boll, R.J. Peake, 1910
Image: Girl's summer hat, 1930s Image: Ladies' evening wear, 1930s
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