Dressing Up: Children's Clothes from Around the World

exhibition dates: December 2, 2001 to January 26, 2002


Clothing is an intimate part of our lives from birth to death. We wear articles of clothing everyday. Our attitudes about what we wear are as varied as our individual and collective selves. But we frequently overlook the importance of clothing in articulating elements of our social and cultural identities. What we wear can reflect aspects of our class, gender identity, relay political messages and convey other more subtle meanings. Looking at the clothes that cultures around the world use to dress their children encourages us to consider what we wear in a new light. Looking at the recent history of children's dress in the U.S.A. will help us to understand the context of our reflections.

Children's clothes in the United States during the last two centuries reflect changing notions of childhood as well as shifting gender identities. In the early 1800's boys and girls were dressed alike from birth through early childhood. Babies wore "long clothes" which were white cotton dresses that extended beyond the length of the infants' body. The extra fabric could be tucked under the baby, providing warmth and protection. As babies became more active, from four to eight months, they graduated to "short clothes" or short white dresses which allowed for greater mobility. Everyday dresses were decorated with ornate lace and embroidery. Toddlers of both sexes wore short dresses in light colors. During this time the garb of adult males and females was highly gender specific. Men wore trousers and women wore skirts.

The age at which a boy wore his first pair of trousers was deemed a highly significant moment. The transition from dress to pants, known as breeching, signified the beginning of a boy's passage into manhood. The age at which breeching occurred depended on parental influences and social practices. At the beginning of the 19th century, boys ages three to six wore "skeleton suits" which were like contemporary jumpsuits. Skeleton suits were not worn by older boys or men. After six years of age they wore trousers with a tunic overdress. Then in the mid 1800's the knickerbocker suit, or knee length trousers came into fashion. Three year old boys wore knicker suits until they were about twelve years old when they began to dress much more like their adult counterparts. Still there were notable differences in the clothing worn by boys and men. For example, while men wore cut away frock coats with knee length tails, boys wore jackets without tails. Pant leg length was another telling distinction. From the 1870's to the 1940's men wore long trousers and boys wore short trousers. By the end of the 1800's the breeching age had dropped from six years old to two and the age of wearing long trousers, usually twelve to thirteen was seen as much more significant than breeching.

During this time clothing worn by females did not undergo nearly as much transformation. The length of one's clothes, however, did relate to one's age. Girls' skirts were shorter than women's. At the beginning of the 19th century, high waists and narrow skirts were worn by youngsters of both genders. In mid-century, women wore fitted bodices and full skirts. During this time dresses worn by boys and preadolescent girls were more like each others' than similar to what women were wearing. Children wore dresses slightly below the knee that had wide, off the shoulder necklines, short, puffed sleeves and full skirts. Young boys and girls wore pantaloons or pantalets, ankle length trousers, under their skirts. These were very controversial. Trousers were icons of masculinity and male power. It seemed that trouser-wearing females, even little girls, were seen as undermining society's natural order. Gradually, pantaloons became accepted. In the late 1800's women were first seen wearing bloomers, wide cut trousers, while riding bicycles. This caused an uproar and led to the gradually blurred distinction between men's and women's clothing.

New concepts of child rearing emphasized the role of developmental stages that were crucial for healthy development in the early twentieth century. Crawling was encouraged and babies wore clothing which allowed for movement. Creepers, or rompers were worn without dresses. Long white baby dresses appeared only for special occasions and child centered design motifs were utilized for children's clothing. Whimsical animal and floral motifs became gradually associated with one sex or another. Eventually color and trim also took on gender symbolism. Blue and pink colors were worn freely by both boys and girls until after World War II.

Parenting styles which favored an increase in gender equality influenced the incorporation of male and female clothing styles for children in the 1970's. Boys' attire grew less feminine and girls' clothing grew more masculine. Trousers became acceptable in any situation. This synthesis of clothing styles continues and signals a social evolution in which notions of masculinity and femininity have become less stratified and more shared (at least in clothing!). The effect of changing notions about gender and childhood will continue to be seen in the ways that we live, work, play and dress.

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