Historically, children have been clothed to mirror the adult society responsible for producing and assembling their wardrobes. The protective wrapping of infants and children not old enough to physically clothe themselves has alternately served as fantasy in miniature or as a burdensome necessity for doting or struggling parents or guardians. As manifest through images and surviving textile artifacts, the study of children's clothing predominantly serves to testify to social class or ethnicity. Only within the recent epoch, beginning with the Age of ENLIGHTENMENT, has the physical design of children's dress evolved to acknowledge and facilitate their developmental stages.

Children's Dress as an Extension of the Adult

Other than religious representations of the infant Jesus, early Western images of infants and children are within the context of larger, adult-dominated pictorial scenes. When not portrayed in the nude, infants are almost universally shown constrained by SWADDLING bands. Depending on the period or locale, these were widths of linen or cotton looped around clothing or strips of material, intended to immobilize the baby and prevent injury resulting from its uninhibited flailings. Older children, portrayed within the context of crowd scenes, are shown wearing scaled-down versions of adult attire, comprising tunics, coats, and cloaks of amorphous shape with only head or armholes, and held at the waist by belts or girdles. This clothing was functionally plain, fabricated by hand from hand-spun linen or wool. As fashion became more complex it evolved to differentiate between and accentuate the features of the female and male anatomy. Children's garments emulate this aesthetic, with only minor simplifications. During and following the Renaissance, those at the pinnacle of society reinforced their rank by wearing conspicuous and sumptuous clothing. Contemporary portraiture vividly illustrates an opulent vocabulary of silk velvets, metallic brocades encrusted with pearls, embroidery, stiffened lace and linen collars, and jewelry in both adult clothing and that of their progeny. This miniaturization extends to the wearing of form-modifying undergarments, including tightly laced boned stays, horsehair-stiffened underskirts and hoops, and varying shapes. A rigidly constructed combination conspires to make any playful or spontaneous childish motion impossible.

Concurrently, depictions of children of the working classes show functional garments that have been cobbled and reconfigured from larger, previously worn clothing. As textiles are an inherently costly commodity, while hand sewing is self-provided and abundant, fabrics initially acquired for adult purposes are almost indefinitely reused to the point of rags. The practical necessity of recycling endures throughout the nineteenth and twentieth century, with successive siblings, relatives, and neighbors receiving still-useful castoffs. Only the contemporary advent of inexpensive yard goods and lavish supplies of ready-to-wear clothing has served to diminish the financial hardship of purchasing new clothing.

Blue Boy (c. 1770), Thomas Gainsborough. Although Gainsborough's portrait was painted in the late eighteenth century, his preadolescent subject wears the fashions of a hundred years earlier. By the end of the eighteenth century, simpler clothing designed for children was being introduced, yet children continued to wear "fancy dress" for special occasions, including sitting for portraits. © .

Ethnicity and Children's Clothing

In broad terms, children's dress and body adornment reinforce, and are derivative of, cultural ethnicity. In pursuit of an adult aesthetic, children have been subjected to an unmodified array of social customs, in some cases almost from birth. Head flattening, whereby an infant's skull is distorted through pressure applied by boards, pads, bindings, and massage, created a mark of high status among tribal peoples in North and South America through the nineteenth century. The practice of foot binding in China, which requires the irrevocable manipulation of pliant bones to produce the culturally desirable lily-shaped foot, subjected girls between the ages of five and six to a first, painful step toward their initiation into womanhood well into the twentieth century. The universal vogue for ear piercing is clearly apparent in Eighteenth Dynasty Egyptian depictions of royal children adorned with large, decorative glass earplugs. More elaborate and ornate body altering techniques, such as TATTOOS

In The Richard K. Haight Family (c. 1849), attributed to Nicolino Calyo, both the adolescent girl on the left and her toddler sister wear bodices that reveal their shoulders, a style also popular with adult women, while their brothers are dressed in skeleton suits, a clothing style that was uniquely for boys. (Gouache on paper. . Bequest of Elizabeth Cushing Iselin).

and scarification, are reserved for adolescents as a rite of passage into adult societal status. Practiced by cultures of central Africa and by the Maoris of New Zealand and Dayak groups of Central Borneo respectively these remain as tools for reinforcing ethnic identities.

Specialized Clothing for Special Needs

The first customized children's accessories appeared in the seventeenth century to address the specific needs of toddlers, who were in particular peril of injury or death due to their inquisitive, sometimes unsupervised, adventures. The innovations of the pudding (a leather and textile padded cap) and leading strings (separate tethers or reigns cut as part of a dress bodice) were first introduced in Europe but remained in use through the colonial period in America. Other early attempts at protecting children included the ubiquitous presence of baby caps, as well as a superstitious and talismanic use of coral for jewelry and rattle handles as a safeguard against evil.

By the late eighteenth century, philosophical departures celebrating the inquisitive nature of childhood set the tone for innovations in the attire of children. Influenced by the writings of JEAN-JACQUES ROUSSEAU in Émile (1762), and reflecting his pursuit of nature in child-rearing practices, a dramatic revision in the formula of dress began by banishing corsets and SWADDLING clothes in western Europe. A new empathetic and rational approach expounded the wearing of high-waisted, loose-fitting muslin chemise gowns over long pantalets for small children of both sexes. A plentiful supply of cotton and linen goods brought on by the increased output of the Industrial Revolution underscored the appeal of this soft, picturesque fashion for women as well. The skeleton suit, a period novelty, was recommended as garb for slightly older boys. A more formal look, its tailored design facilitated ease of motion by providing trousers that buttoned into the suit's bodice. Short simple hairstyles were worn with soft, flat-soled slippers to compliment this neoclassical look for children and adults alike.

After a mid-nineteenth century return to miniaturized adult dress, the influence of both the aesthetic and dress reform movements at the century's end can be seen in the stylistic direction of children's styles. Popularized in the 1890s in the West and in Western-influenced societies a penchant for pastel-tinted natural dyes and soft smocked shapes supplanted the garish, synthetic palette and Parisian-derived silhouette fashionable in the mid-nineteenth century to join the permanent vocabulary of children's custom and ready-to-wear clothing for the next century.

Special Occasion Dressing

The prospect of dressing for a unique occasion furnishes children and their guardians with a varied menu of socially prescribed garments. RITES OF PASSAGE are enduring and momentous events that traditionally require clothing of formulaic and memorable design. Frequently worn only one time, attire for occasions such as christening, FIRST COMMUNION, BAR AND BAT MITZVAHS, quinceañera (a girl's fifteenth birthday celebration in Latino cultures), CONFIRMATION, and social debuts is envisioned as a timeless garment of fantasy. As if in theatrical costume, the fledgling wearer assumes an unfamiliar identity and acts out a culturally defined role. Accordingly, many of these garments reflect an ethnic aesthetic, and sometimes provide a single opportunity to resurrect a long-silent family history. Surviving images of children taken at these thresholds of life serve to document the transition and its accomplishment through the interaction between garment and wearer.

Children's Clothing and Gender

The inherent naïveté of infants and small children has traditionally precluded the relevance of gender-specific dressing. Even christening gowns failed to betray a baby's sexual identity until the advent of color-coded ribbon trim in the twentieth century. Following their release from the bondage of swaddling, toddlers of both sexes were androgynously garbed in skirted, feminine styles. During the seventeenth century, these were interpreted in the same heavy, stiffened silk or wool worn by older children and adults. By the beginning of the eighteenth century androgynous baby and toddler dresses of bleached linen or cotton were embellished with an inexhaustible range of intricate embroidery and openwork. The strengthening affect of the handwork, coupled with the presence of rows of growth tucks, simultaneously served to preserve and extend the life of the dresses. Frequently they passed from one sibling to another, many times being worn by children of opposite sexes.

For small boys, the sartorial rite of passage marking the transition from dressing in skirts to short trousers occurred somewhere between the ages of three and five, generally corresponding with a first haircut. Into the twentieth century, the age of BREECHING remained subjective, and was ultimately determined by sentimentality and the readiness of family members to release their baby on the path toward manhood. A preoccupation with gender-mandated roles characterized children's dress for most of the nineteenth century. Parroting the vocational demeanor and somber tones of men's attire, boys were costumed in sailor and Scottish suits, military uniforms, and a variety of tailored clothes. The somewhat effeminate tone of the theatrically derived Little Lord Fauntleroy suit made it the ideal transitional garment for recently breeched children.

The homemaking woman of the same period was advised by a newfound proliferation of ladies' companion and fashion publications. The increased accessibility of home-sewing patterns, augmented by the proximity of merchandise in department store displays, exposed all classes to the allure of fashion trends. Affluent young ladies were dressed in store-bought cage crinolines and bustles, while homemade interpretations sufficed for most. Distinct, sexually prescribed parameters continued to govern the fashionable look for children and adolescents throughout most of the twentieth century, before they were superceded by the overwhelmingly popular trend toward transgender dressing that became prevalent by the mid-1980s. The carefree, practical appeal of intermixing ready-to-wear components came to dominate the contemporary fashion scene for all ages.

Increased exposure to fashion trends through pop culture and marketing devices has progressively lowered the age of children's personal involvement in the selection of their own wardrobes. Clamoring for looks endorsed by media icons, contemporary children demand a historically unprecedented voice in the way they look. The modern emphasis on named or designer apparel has also strongly affected the youth and even infant market as trademarks designate the status and fashion savvy of the young and their parents. In the late twentieth and twenty-first centuries shoes have become part of this trend as choices for this formerly utilitarian and expensive item have been influenced by peer pressure.

See also: Child Development, History of the Concept of; Consumer Culture.


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