Kids these days. You have no idea how easy it is with clothes. I mean, look at poor Alexei Bobrinsky up there in his tight lace-trimmed vest and pants and powdered wig. Admittedly, most ordinary children of the 18th century didn’t need to wear this kind of getup. If you were a kid having a portrait painted, chances are your family was wealthy. Because fabrics were extremely labor intensive and therefore expensive, most children in pre-industrial Europe and America wore what their parents could find for them, which were usually repurposed, scaled-down versions of adult clothing.
Babies may have had it the worst.
In 18th-century Europe and America, most babies began life swaddled (tightly swaddled). The infant was dressed in a shirt and ‘tail coat’ (an early word for a diaper, cloth of course), and then a very long strip of cloth (usually linen) was wrapped in a spiral around the full length of the baby’s body. The poor, immobilized child may be swaddled a few times a day to exercise his limbs and be cleaned, but otherwise the baby spent the first four to six weeks of his life like this. People believed that swaddling would give the child a straighter back and limbs.
Before safety pins were invented, baby diapers made of linen or rags were fastened with pins. Ouch.
When the diapers were finally removed, the child was “short-dressed,” meaning dressed in a long, loose dress that reached down to the feet. If you’ve ever watched a baby learn to walk, imagine adding a floor-length dress to his challenge. Infants could be kept out of trouble and burning stoves by sewing “guide cords” to their clothing. The mother (or nanny) held on to one end to pull a child away from dangerous things like the burning stove while she went about her dozens of chores. On a toddler’s head, a toddler often wore a “pudding cap,” which was an early incarnation of a crash helmet, with a rolled piece of cloth that acted as padding if the child fell.
Yes, that’s a little boy in the picture. As an aside, Rubens was about fifty when he married his teenage wife.
If you’ve ever wandered through an 18th-century portrait gallery, you might assume that all the portraits of children are of girls and never of boys. Each child appears to be wearing a ruffled ruffled dress and long, bouncy curls. And a corset (although a more accurate term would be “struts,” as corsets were called back then). But take a closer look. Many of these children are actually boys. You can sometimes tell it from the shoes – boys’ heels are usually slightly lower than girls’.
Here are just a few examples. To reiterate, these are all boys.
Eventually, when a boy reached the age of six or seven, he discarded his dress and was given “breeches.”
Girls were dressed in clothing resembling that of their mothers from an early age, often as young as two years old. Most parents believed that a rigid upper body was essential for developing good posture, which is why you see both boys and girls wearing whalebone (boned) bodices.
The French writer Jean-Jacques Rousseau is widely credited with influencing the change in (Western) children’s clothing – at least boys’ clothing – in the second half of the 18th century. He stressed that children’s physical and social needs should be viewed differently from those of adults. Therefore, Rousseau argued, they should be allowed to wear simple, comfortable clothing. This was a radical concept for the time. “Skeleton suits” appeared for boys, so called because they fit loosely on the child’s body. (As an aside, Rousseau, that great emancipator of children, fathered five children with a woman he never married. He sent them all to a foundling hospital. Nice.)
A few examples of skeleton suits:
Ok, it’s not exactly something a kid would wear to go outside and shoot hoops, but the skeleton suit was certainly an improvement over stiffened bodices and floor-length dresses.
Despite this, boys’ skirts did not entirely disappear. Here is a picture of Franklin Delano Roosevelt at the age of three (1884).