During Jane Austen’s lifetime (1775-1817), British and American society saw a philosophical shift from viewing children as miniature adults to appreciating and celebrating that unique time in one’s life. We can see this change reflected in the clothing. In the earlier part of the 18th century, once children grew out of their baby clothes, their garments were just smaller versions of what adults wore - and in some cases, even babies wore stays to help promote proper posture! By the end of the 18th century, all of that changed. As Sarah Jane Downing notes in Fashion in the time of Jane Austen, philosophers like Rousseau are to thank for recognizing the active play of children required a more flexible wardrobe.
Both of these images show a boy and a cat but the clothing is very different! The boy on the left is from before 1749 and he is dressed as a tiny soldier, with a wig and tiny sword to complete his outfit. Whereas the boy on the right, painted later in the 18th century, has a loose fitting garment that allows for freedom of motion. His newfound mobility is captured in his position as well as with a stocking beginning to slip down his knee. Which one would you rather wear? (or wrestle a young boy into?)
Pudding caps, lead strings, and more!
In the second image featuring a boy with a cat, we also see a peculiar garment called a pudding cap.
In the days before 3d printed helmets, very young children might be seen wearing a pudding cap to protect their precious heads.
Another accessory used during the 18th and 19th century to help very young children move were “leading strings.” These strips of fabric were actual strings attached to the clothing of a small child to help them learn to walk (and stay close to their adult), similar to the child leashes sometimes seen today.
Happy Breeching Day!
Without modern conveniences like disposable diapers and sanitary cycles on washing machines, parents and caretakers in the past found different ways to manage children's bodily functions. Among those coping techniques, very young children wore unisex garments that were basically long gowns. This allowed for easier toilet training and cleaning up any inevitable accidents. Once the time was right, boys would graduate into wearing pants. This occasion was “breeching” and Jane Austen herself even writes to ask for the pattern of ‘the jacket and trousers or whatever it is that Elizabeth’s boys wear when they are first put into breeches.’ According to Downing, this practice continued on until the late 1830s. Girls would also begin to wear more feminine garments at this age although the change into dresses was seen as less dramatic.
Want to learn more about children’s fashion in the long regency? Check out Sarah Jane Downing’s book!
We also have some special downloadable images made by our very own Meredith Ammons for you to enjoy!