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Included in Emmanuel’s Graham Watson Collection are some publishing ventures of the mid twentieth century that look back to and anthologize those nineteenth-century colour-plate books that are the focus of the collection. Among these are the short-lived ‘Batsford Colour Books’, of which seven were published 1948-1951, revisiting such nineteenth-century subjects as tropical and American birds, garden flowers, the Romantic ballet, and fashions. Last published is James Laver’s Children’s Fashions of the Nineteenth Century (London, 1951); price, seven shillings and sixpence.

It was not before the later eighteenth century that any sustained idea developed that children should have clothes with distinct fashions and different from their parents’ clothes. But the growing constriction and clutter of fashionable clothes for children during the Victorian period rather suggests that this new focus for fashion was not always a gain for children. At least to our eye, the smart fashions for boys’ clothes from the 1830s are simpler, more practical and less confining than later fashions will become, with a bold use of colour.  

Plate 1:  The Cyclopaedia of the British Costumes, from the Metropolitan Repository of Fashion (1832). 

Collars are still relatively soft and comfortable: the torments of the starched and ‘Eton’ collar are as yet in the future. In the early nineteenth century boys’ fashions allowed the relative freedom of wearing long trousers almost a generation before these were in fashion for adult men, replacing breeches fastened below the knee. 

Plate 2:  The Cyclopaedia of the British Costumes, from the Metropolitan Repository of Fashion (1834).

In the background of this 1834 plate is a very large country house, complete with lake: the target audience is those who might dream of such a background to their own lives. As with so much fashion, what is worn by the wealthy would then be imitated in adapted form by a broader section of society. A plate from 1837 shows fashionably dressed children at play, with girls’ fashions that are simpler than what will follow, although even young female legs must be covered up.

Plate 3:  The Lady’s Magazine and Museum (1837).

A plate from the 1850s shows how far children's fashions have come in elaboration in twenty years. The young boy is still in petticoats, and children’s fashions match the voluminous decoration of their mother’s outfit. 

Plate 4:  Les Modes Parisiennes (1855).

Another plate of the same decade shows both girls and boy in comparably elaborate and fancy fashions. 

                                             

                                                                          Plate 5:  Les Modes Parisiennes (1855).

But these were clothes for town, and a plate of the 1850s shows the simpler and more comfortable children’s fashions that were suitable for boys and girls while in the country.

Plate 6:  ‘Simpler Clothes for the Country’ (c.1856).

As the Victorian era progresses, successive phases of girls’ fashions entail their wearing as many as seven petticoats, then a shorter version of their mothers’ crinolines to achieve the same effect as the petticoats, and eventually even a child-size version of the fashionable bustle. There was much tightlacing in pursuit of tiny waists. By comparison with the relatively flimsy fashions of the Regency, the fabrics used had become much heavier. The cost of laundering such clothes would be considerable and hence a sign of status in itself. Even for quite young children, fashions by mid-century were elaborate. 

Plate 7:  ‘Costumes for Young Children’ (c.1858).

Later, shifting social customs meant that children accompanied their parents more in public and had to be dressed for display in elaborate fashions. This was a trend that would only gather pace, as these plates from the 1860s, 1870s and 1880s illustrate:  

         

                                                         

Above, left to right; Plate 8:  Les Modes Parisiennes (1860). Plate 9:  Girls’ Dresses, from The Queen (1876). Below, Plate 10:  The Ladies’ Gazette of Fashion (1881).

Also from the 1880s are some children’s fashions for the seaside, and it would be hard to design garments less congenial for the beach: 

Plate 11:  Le Journal des Enfants (1886).

The young girl on the right appears to be dressed in a scaled-down version of her mother’s bustle in order to go shrimping.  The obsession with slender waists meant that even young girls might wear corsets under beach attire and for bathing. (‘Rustless’ corsets were advertised for this purpose).  

Published seventy years ago, this Batsford Book’s retrospect is itself a period piece, adopting an unimpressed, even dismissive view of the Victorians and their fashions for children – some of which were still within living memory – while paying great respect to aquatints and lithographs of the earlier nineteenth century, which it calls nostalgically ‘the period when the art of fine illustration was at its height’.

Barry Windeatt (Keeper of Rare Books)

Images by Helen Carron (College Librarian)

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