English Children's Costume 1775-1920

English Children's Costume 1775-1920

by Iris Brooke

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Late in the 18th century, English children's apparel began to look different from that worn by their elders. The reason, says writer James Laver in his introduction, is that someone finally realized children were different! This engaging book records those changes, with illustrations depicting styles at five- or ten-year intervals, from 1775 to 1920. 32


Late in the 18th century, English children's apparel began to look different from that worn by their elders. The reason, says writer James Laver in his introduction, is that someone finally realized children were different! This engaging book records those changes, with illustrations depicting styles at five- or ten-year intervals, from 1775 to 1920. 32 black-and-white illustrations.

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Dover Publications
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Dover Fashion and Costumes
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English Children's Costume, 1775-1920

By Iris Brooke

Dover Publications, Inc.

Copyright © 2003 Dover Publications, Inc.
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-486-14731-4



OF the three costumes on the opposite page the girl's dress is, perhaps, the quaintest. It is exceedingly difficult to find the exact dates of costumes earlier than about 1790—the time of the first fashion paper in England, and often even in the dated portraits the sitter wears a "picture frock" designed by the artist for the occasion. This particular costume, however, is to be found in two or three paintings of the period, among them Reynolds' famous "Collina." It was a style of dress probably adopted by. the working people at a time when flowing satins and velvets reigned supreme in the houses of the nobility.

The little suit on the right is also taken from a painting by Reynolds, one which may probably claim to be the earliest record of children's costume. The painting is of Viscount Althorp, and was done at some time between 1770 and 1775. When we consider the extravagances of costume affected by the men of the period, the macaronis and exquisites, it is almost incredible to imagine how their children came to be dressed with such charming simplicity.


DURING the next twenty years the traditional long-skirted dress makes its last stand against the new short "Empire" frock of childish simplicity. There is a gradual decline of the former mode as the new style comes more and more into public favour, until at long last, in 1795, the time-honoured traditions are broken and the shorter skirt rules the day. But the revolution is not a drastic one. There are still many examples of ankle length dresses, although the majority were several inches shorter.

Now that shoes are visible, the square-toed and buckled shoes of the later eighteenth century give place to a much lighter type of slipper, similar to the heel-less dancing pumps of to-day.

Boys' suits change little during the next quarter-century, save for a slight variation in the arrangement of sashes and collars.


TO the French Revolution goes the honour of changing the extreme fashions of the century. For many years the manufacture of silks had been one of France's staple industries, but this was entirely ruined by the ravages of the Revolution. Paris, quick to realise her power as a leader of fashion, had therefore decreed that printed calicoes and loosely woven cottons should take the place of the silks and velvets of a few years before. These materials were still to be procured by the wealthy, but the prices asked and paid were exorbitant.

In consequence, we see the dresses changing to suit the fabrics. Slowly skirts become shorter and less full, and dainty lawns, gauzes, organdies, percales, and other cotton materials are woven with charming sprig designs and spot patterns to relieve the simplicity of the material. These transparent tissues are frequently worn over a coloured calico slip.

This is the period which Kate Greenaway so charmingly illustrated. Colours are less crude than they have been in recent years, and children are usually seen in either white or pastel shades.

Sashes, fichus, and mob-caps play a leading part in the child's wardrobe and appear on every occasion.


WITH the beginning of a new century, a slight change is noticeable in small boys' suits. The little coat is now often worn open down the front, showing a white frilled shirt underneath. The long trousers are still buttoned on to the shirt, well up above the waist.

Older boys wear tail-coats of the same cut as their fathers', with flowered waistcoats and cravats, and we see them in both knee-breeches and long trousers.

Little girls are still wearing the slightly loose dress, with frilled collar and a frill at the bottom of the sleeve, but the year 1800 marks the birth of the "Empire" dress, cut with a yoke and the skirt gathered on just below the arm-pits.

Hats and bonnets are usually made in chip-straw. The bonnet shape is actually derived from tying the hat under the chin ; as this fashion increased in popularity the back of the brim was cut away to give the wearer more freedom of movement, and the crown was gradually pushed farther to the back of the head until the front brim encircled the face.


SIMPLE and dainty little muslin, gauze, and percale frocks are the fashion now for several years. White and pale shades are most often seen, though coats and cloaks are usually made in darker colours.

All the girls' dresses are cut on the same pattern-a short, tight bodice, with a long skirt slightly gathered on to it. The only way in which a dress could be made individual was by means of the collar and sleeves. We see both long and short sleeves, and both usually have a small puff at the shoulder. Collars are frilled and goffered, so that sometimes they resemble a tiny ruffle.

Bonnets are made with large soft brims and tiny crowns, and tie under the chin.

Little boys have their hair cut short, and still wear the long trousers buttoning just under the arms on to a blouse. Nearly all blouses have short sleeves, and frequently tiny jackets are worn over them; these too often have short sleeves. The throat is rarely covered, and there are all manner of necklines.

About 1803 arrives the first little girl to wear long pantaloons, or trousers. This fashion, however, is not taken up for some years to come, though from time to time a few children appear in them, before they eventually become a general feature of the dress itself.


AS a result of the excessive curling and crimping to which hair has been subjected at the end of the last century, fashion flies off at a tangent once more, and demands that the hair be cut short.

From 1805 to 1810 there are several variations from the straight little bodices and yokes. Cape collars, worn on dresses and often on coats, are exceedingly fashionable, and one or two dresses are cut straight from the shoulders without any yoke. A quaint example of this style is seen on the child at the left of the lower group. It is of magyar cut, with a bishop sleeve gathered on just above the elbow. The little dress next to it has the skirt attached straight to the yoke in the front, and gathered slightly at the back ; the plaid sash, crossed over the bodice and tied at the back, gives a fashionable touch to an otherwise simple dress.

Several new styles in hats and bonnets are coming into fashion.

Boys are wearing much the same styles of clothes as in the past decade, though now we often see a striped waistcoat. The smaller boy in the upper group is dressed in much the same manner as his sisters, except that in his case pantaloons are always worn and the dress is often above the knees.


A RATHER quaint little dress is seen here on the elder sister. It is made in white percale—a closely woven fabric much used in France at this time—and has a line of blue braid or ribbon round the edge of the jumper-like top. A pale blue scarf is worn with it and tied loosely round the neck in one or two loop knots.

The little boy's trousers are made of jonquille-coloured lawn, and are worn with a white organdie blouse that has tiny cuffs turned back with the jonquille lawn. Slippers of the same shade give a fashionable finish.

The baby on the right is wearing a dress which might have been worn by either a boy or a girl. It is made in a pinky mauve shade of percale, and has tiny frills of white gauze, and a white gauze sash.

Very small children rarely wear shoes or slippers of any kind, but the older ones usually have their shoes in the same shade as their dresses or suits, and they are frequently made of kid.

The costumes of this particular period are among the most charming in history; not only are they dainty in the extreme, but they allow a tremendous amount of freedom to their young wearers-a point which, apparently, was not considered in the least from about 1825 until the beginning of the present century.


FASHION strikes several new notes during the next five years. The first little boy's costume is very quaint, the collar giving the effect of the starched front of a modern dress-shirt! It is made in double organdie and has several rows of tucks on the shoulders. The top stands up round the throat in the same manner as the collars worn by the men of this period.

The next suit is similar to the engineers' overalls of to-day ; suits of this type are commonly worn, with both long and short sleeves. Older boys usually wear suits with a military air, frequently decorated with braid designs on both coat and trousers. The high-necked shirt is exceedingly fashionable, and starched and frilled collars give a smart finish to these suits.

The fashion for little girls has changed hardly at all, but we see one or two new notes in decoration. The small sleeve gathered up in the shoulder, for instance, and the new square-cut neck-line.

The dress at the left of the lower drawing is something quite new in style. The little frilled collar is tied in front with a plaited cord hanging down almost to the bottom of the dress. Here the hair is done up into a small knot on top, though probably it is an eccentric style and rarely seen.

Short hair is still the vogue.


ONE or two slight changes are now noticeable. Dresses are getting slightly fuller; though still drawn rather tightly across the front, they fall in deep folds at the back. The low square neck is still fashionable.

The military touch in boys' costume, a notable feature, is due, of course, to the influence of the recent wars. We still find the low-necked velvet suit with a lace collar, and sash, a style of dress that is so often seen in paintings of the period.

Hair is being worn perhaps a trifle longer ; now we frequently see curls reaching to the shoulders. Top hats and tiny straw ones are often worn by the small boy.

At the right of the lower group is a quaint little suit, probably a court costume, taken from a portrait of Napoleon's son in 1817. It is made in white satin, an exceedingly expensive material at this time, and has a blue silk sash and blue embroidery. It is worn apparently over a kilt and long silk stockings, and is on the whole more reminiscent of the costume of a sixteenth-century page than anything worn during the nineteenth century.


A TIGHTLY fitting, double-breasted little coat made in green broadcloth, with a tiny velvet stand-up collar at the back, and two rows of buttons beginning at the shoulders, is seen here over a white lawn blouse with a ruffle collar, that resembles what is now known as the Toby frill. At this period more little boys are dressed in this sort of suit than in any other.

The girl is wearing a simple dress made in pink gauze, with embroidery at the hem, and a narrow ribbon edging the neck and sleeves. The skirt is quite loose, and perhaps a trifle fuller than the skirts seen on the last page.

The hair is cut in the fashionable manner, with one curl trained to stand up slightly from the parting, and the rest curling almost to the shoulders.

The little boy on the right is wearing a straight little garment tied under the arms with a narrow white ribbon, and reaching just below the knee. Tiny turn-back collar and cuffs, and plain white pantaloons, complete his simple suit.


BETWEEN the years 1820 and 1825 comes the dawn of a new epoch in the history of costume.

The filmy fabrics, so popular during the last quarter of a century, have been replaced by heavier materials, frequently patterned, and in deeper shades.

The clinging skirt is no longer possible in these new materials, and by 1824 all trace of the "Empire" costume has disappeared. Skirts become fuller and shorter, the normal waist-line is once more the vogue, usually emphasized by a tight belt or sash.

Pantaloons play an important part in the costume of all well-dressed girls. They are designed to match each small frock, and dangle around the ankles of their little owners for the next twenty or thirty years.

The dress of the small boy is changing. Tunics are now frequently to the knee, and quite full ; the tight belt at the waist gives an entirely new silhouette. The trousers underneath the tunic are often tucked and frilled as elaborately as those worn by their sisters.

Older boys adopt the costume worn by their fathers, except that their jackets are still short—without tails-and the cravat is not often worn.


AT the left of the upper group is a charming frock of 1826, fashioned in pale blue silk, and covered with white gauze. It retains something of the simplicity of the "Empire" dress, with the added charm of fullness ; it is a pity that such a delightful fashion could not have remained for a few more years, but it was purely transitional, and by 1828 simplicity has gone, irretrievably lost in an avalanche of extremes.

Hats become larger and larger, and are over-burdened with ribbon and flowers.

Skirts grow fuller and fuller, braided, tucked, and rouched. Bodices are tight, often with layers of pleats tightly sewn into the waistband. The leg-o'-mutton sleeve appears for the first time. The plaited collar, tied at the throat and standing up round the face, is greatly worn.

Among this medley of incongruous costumes we find perhaps two or three charming dresses, shadows of the future, or reflections of the past. A period of revolutionary ideas has been reached, and fashions, as they always have done and always will do, have flown to the opposite extreme.

Small boys are dressed in a more feminine manner ; long curls have replaced the short manly cut of a few years ago. We see an extraordinary cap or hat of the time, of the tam-o' -shanter style, unbelievably large. The chimney-pot hat is also very popular.


BY 1830 the apex of foolishness has been reached.

Hats have never been so large, and probably never so uncomfortable. Imagine the plight of a small wearer of one such cartwheel of straw, festooned with flowers and ribbon, afraid of a puff of wind which might unbalance it from its precarious hold ! Or worse still, the bonnet of this time—large and overwhelmingly bedecked, no wonder that strings had to be firmly fastened under the little chins of the wearers, and the weight must have been tremendous.

The walking dress on the right is made in red velvet, with the bodice pleated from the shoulders to the belt. The upper part of the sleeve resembles an inflated balloon, while the lower part is so tight that it has to be buttoned up.

The boy's dress is perhaps a trifle simpler, though the collar is surmounted by a starched and pleated frill of cambric, which must have been a continual source of annoyance to its possessor.

Here also we see the first appearance of the rather hackneyed form of headgear of the last century, the small boy's peaked cap with the tassel, dear to so many artists of the Victorian era.

Organdie and gingham played an important part in the making of dresses and suits of this time, partly on account of their stiffness.


THE first year or two of the 'thirties still hold to extremes. The children of a hundred years ago parade solemnly before us, their fashionably stiffened dresses sadly restricting their movements, their bonnets so large that they must be placed well to the back of the head, their pantaloons flapping over the tops of their shoes.

But by 1833 fashions have become less extreme. The skirt is almost a crinoline, though, so far, no hoops have come into being. The skirt is held out by stiffly corded petticoats, probably four or five, starched almost to cracking-point. The leg-o'-mutton sleeve is almost universally worn. We still see the small puff sleeves on several dresses, and sometimes the long tight sleeve with the puff from elbow to shoulder.

The tremendous hats and bonnets of the last year or so have been supplanted by the smaller bonnet—not actually poke, but rather like a sun-bonnet in style.

Collars are frequently so large that they stand out several inches beyond the shoulders of their wearers, giving an extraordinarily wide effect, reminiscent of the dress worn at the time of Henry VIII. This is the mode for both boys and girls. It is extraordinary how this particular fashion of enlarging the shoulders and sleeves, and tightening the waist, has become so popular from time to time. We see it again in a more modified style between the years 1880 and 1890.


Excerpted from English Children's Costume, 1775-1920 by Iris Brooke. Copyright © 2003 Dover Publications, Inc.. Excerpted by permission of Dover Publications, Inc..
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

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