Playing Dress Up: Kid’s Clothing in the 17th century
October 8, 2012
Historical Children’s Clothing in the 17th Century
“A Boy And A Girl With A Cat And An Eel” by Judith Leyster, 1635
Children didn’t always wear “kid’s clothes.” Setting children’s clothing apart from adult clothing is a relatively new concept developed in the last 100 years or so. In modern times, we still dress our kids in scaled down, more “cutesy” versions of our own clothes, but with a much more definitive line between what is kid-appropriate and what is adult-appropriate. In the past, parents did not raise children; they raised tiny adults. Younger generations wore in their youth the same clothes their parents were wearing–with few alterations for smaller, growing bodies. There are a few exceptions to the adult-clothes-only rule, including toddler dresses, coral teething necklaces, and pudding caps which were all made specifically for toddler-aged children.
Boys in Dresses
Some children’s trends from the past may seem quite strange to us. Today, little boys are expected to wear pants, but up until the late 19th century (and sometimes beyond), boys under the age of 5 wore dresses. Gender issues make up a major portion of our modern fashion sensibilities. Girls wear pink. Boys wear blue. Girls wear skirts. Boys wear pants. It’s become a major source of conflict both socially and politically. For years now, there have been movements to abolish these gender-defining guidelines. It is now acceptable for girls to wear pants and even shorts, but boys are still expected to shun skirts.
Young Boy by Jan van Bijlert, 1640-1660
In 17th century Europe, the sight of a little boy in a fluffy pink skirt wouldn’t have been frowned on in the least. Boys wore skirts from the time they could walk until the age of 6 or 7. Since zippers and elastic were centuries in the future, a 17th century mom couldn’t just slip a pair of pants over her squirming toddler’s legs. Breeches required buttons and buckles to hold them in place: two nimble, dexterous activities that toddler hands cannot perform on their own. Until a boy was considered mature and independent enough to handle his own dressing, he wore skirts. Unlike breeches which required a fitted liner, skirts did not need underwear. A dress allowed toddlers to easily use the chamber pot or lift the fabric out of the way to pee. Toddlers also grow rather quickly, needing new clothes in a matter of months. Skirts could be hemmed and let out as the child grew, a much more economical option than paying for a new pair of breeches every 4 months. The addition of a full-length apron protected the dress from all the drips, drizzles, and mishaps little boys always seem to get covered in!
Portrait of King Louis XIV and his Brother, Duc D’Orleans, 1640s
Sometimes it can be quite hard to tell a little boy from a little girl in portraits. Many, if left unlabelled, still stump art historians! Usually the only major difference between toddler girls and toddler boys is the lack of flowers or jewelry, though many wealthier families decked their children’s gowns with heaps of pearls, coral strands, collars, lace, and flowers regardless of gender.
Beads, Baubles, and Bells
“Susanna de Vos” by Cornelis de Vos, 1627
Would you give your 3 year old child a string of beads to chew on? In a world dominated by recalls and warning labels for small parts, we’ve become accustomed to keeping small things out of our children’s grasp. In the 17th Century, toddlers were often given strands of beads to play with and chew on. Coral was considered healthful, a talisman to ward off sickness and disease–a big threat in a world without vaccinations and other modern medical advancements. A common baptism gift to an infant was a string of smooth coral beads which the child continued to wear until they married and had children of their own. The coral beads would then be passed on to the next generation.
The portrait of the little girl is Susanna de Vos, the daughter of the Dutch painter Cornelis de Vos. He painted many pictures of his changing family over his lifetime, from his oldest children to Susanna, his youngest. You can see that she is wearing a pair of coral bead bracelets. Here’s a painting done 3 years later in which you can see that she is still wearing her coral bracelets (along with her cross necklace):
“Self-Portrait Of The Artist With His Wife Suzanne Cock And Their Children” by Cornelis de Vos, 1630
You can also see that her elder sister is wearing a coral bracelet of her own. If you look at an earlier portrait, you can see that the bracelet is actually made from a long double strand coral necklace given to her when she was still a toddler! In addition to her coral bracelets, Susanna is holding a silver rattle on a chain. Her sister keeps her close by on a braided silk leash. Accessories like this helped keep track of where a rambunctious young one was. Many portraits show small trinkets dangling from cords and chains on the waistbands of children’s aprons. One of the most common is a rattle or a bell.
Detail of “Portrait of Doña Antonia de Ipeñarrieta and Her Son don Luis” by Diego Velázquez, 1631-32
This is a great painting for three reasons: first, it shows another young lad in a gown; second, he is holding a pretty scarf in one hand while his mother holds the other end; and thirdly, a little golden bell hangs from his belt. The low position of the bell makes sure that it gets the maximum amount of motion and therefore makes the most sound.
Silver Bell on a Chain, 17th Century
“The Lacemaker” by Nicolaes Maes, 1656-57
We call very young children “toddlers” because they toddle around, wobbling on new legs and generally motoring about in a haphazard fashion. Since they haven’t quite got the hang of being graceful, they often fall down. To protect them, 17th century mothers would make pudding caps. Pudding caps were soft, quilted “helmets” that would help protect a child’s fragile skull from dangerous bumps.
“The Family of the Artist” by Cornelis de Vos, early 17th century
Pudding caps remained popular through the early 19th century. Pudding caps in the 17th century usually took two forms: a padded ring that fit over a coif or a regular bonnet-style cap with quilted-in padding. Here is an example of a leather pudding cap from the Metropolitan Museum of Art:
Leather Pudding Cap, early 19th Century
Though it’s 19th century, the pattern it follows is the same as the pudding caps in the 17th and 18th centuries before it. They’re brilliant safety devices (and cute to boot), but they fell out of favor in the 20th century.
Paintings: Infant to Pre-teen
“(The Twins) Clara and Aelbert de Bray” by Salomon de Bray, 1646
“Magdalena and Jan Baptist de Vos” by Cornelis de Vos, 1622
Magdalena is the pretty girl in the red and white dress, a fabulous design! The little boy on the right is Jan. He wears a petticoat with blackwork embroidery. These simple petticoats with embroidered borders were very popular as children’s wear from about 1600-1650.
“2nd Duke of Buckingham, with His Brother, Lord Francis Villiers” by Anthony van Dyck, 17th Century (first half)
“Princess Mary Stuart And Prince William Of Orange (Future William III)” by Van Dyck, 1641
This is the wedding portrait of Mary Stuart and William. He was 15 and she was only 10 years old when they were wed. You can read more about it here: “A Stuart royal wedding, 2nd May 1641”
The image may look grainy because it is actually very, very large. Click on it and you can see every brushstroke!
“Portrait Of The Duke Of Medinaceli” by Francisco de Zurbarán, Mid-17th Century
“Portrait of a Girl at the Age of 10” by Cornelis de Vos, early 17th Century
“Portrait of a Young Woman with Fan” by Jan Daemen Cool, 1636
Again, this image looks grainy because you can enlarge it and see every paint daub! The details in the lace are breathtaking.