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"The Fashionable Child of the Nineteenth Century"
1999-08-12 until 2000-01-17
Los Angeles County Museum
Los Angeles, CA, USA United States of America

The Los Angeles County Museum of Art—LACMA—presents the exhibition The Fashionable Child of the Nineteenth Century, exploring the changing nature of children’s fashion of that century. On display are 29 children’s costumes drawn from the museums permanent collection, including a recent gift of childrens clothing from the late Mrs. Helen Larson of Whittier, California. The exhibition highlights developments in childrens clothing styles as reflections of changing attitudes toward children and charts the movement of styles between the generations. It is on view August 12, 1999 through January 17, 2000.

In conjunction with the exhibition, LACMA has produced a special brochure for children and their families. Using the guide, visitors can explore the museum’s permanent collection and discover the direct relationship between art of the nineteenth century and the changing concepts of childhood and fashion.

Prior to the middle of the eighteenth century, children portrayed in the visual arts (when the subjects were not biblical or mythical) were primarily represented in stiff dynastic portraits as the embodiment of the wealth and power that was their birthright. These children of the aristocracy appear to later viewers as miniature adults. They are always dressed in the height of fashion with a lavish display of silks, lace, jewels and gold required to affirm status. No concept of children’s clothing as stylistically or materially distinct from that of adult dress existed. There were swaddling bands and long gowns for infants, but once at the toddler stage, children were dressed in subtly modified versions of adult clothing—dresses for both boys and girls until about the age of 5, gender-specific attire from then on.

In the second half of the eighteenth century, changing attitudes toward children and new ideas about their natural innocence and purity translated into portraits of sitters more realistically posed in natural settings. Very young aristocratic children were shown wearing high-waisted, loose-fitting gowns of sheer white fabrics, believed to reflect their purity and allow greater freedom of movement. Gradually the age of girls wearing this style was extended until by 1800, fashionable women were wearing similar clothing. The style was said to be inspired by the dress of classical antiquity, but also suggested the extension of childhood innocence and purity into female adulthood. The two earliest girl’s dresses in the exhibition illustrate this fashion trend that lasted to about 1815.

Two other children’s styles, popular throughout the nineteenth century and into our own—the sailor suit and the Scottish kilt—were inspired by paintings of royal children. An 1846 portrait showed the five-year-old the Prince of Wales (the future Edward VII) in an exact replica of the suit worn by sailors on the royal yacht, Victoria and Albert. Three years later, the Queen had her children painted at Balmoral Castle, Scotland, in highland dress and plaids. Engravings of both paintings, widely disseminated in newspapers and the growing number of ladies’ magazines, spread these fashions to the English, European and American middle classes. The sailor suit and Scottish kilt are included in the exhibition.

During the 19th century, Victorian society practiced elaborate mourning rituals, partly as a result of Queen Victoria’s permanent deep mourning after the death of her consort, Prince Albert, in 1861. A beautiful black and lavender silk Girl’s Dress for Half-Mourning (c. 1864) in the exhibition demonstrates how even small children were expected to follow adult conventions at the death of a close relative: months of deep mourning in all black, followed by several months of half mourning in lavender (or mauve) and black.

An example of children’s clothing paralleling adult styles is a striking plaid silk Girl’s Dress with Overskirt (c. 1869), which reflects the prevailing fashion for puffed overskirts and decorative attention focused on the back of the garment, a transitional fashion between the hoop skirt of mid-century and the bustle of the 1870s and 1880s. The hem of this dress would have been well above the ankes of the wearer. Shorter skirts were one of the distinctions between adult and children’s fashions in the nineteenth century.

During these two decades, the Aesthetic Movement came to prominence in England as a result of the Arts and Crafts Movement. Highly influential, Aesthetic ideas were focused particularly on clothing. Referred to as Artistic Dress, drab colors, soft fabrics and rural-inspired smocking were among the hallmarks of this style. At about the same time, the romanticized versions of early nineteenth-century styles, created by the Aesthetic children’s writer and illustrator Kate Greenaway (1846-1901), had a profound influence on girls’ dress: high waists, deep bonnets, and ankle-length skirts. Examples are included in the exhibition. Vestiges of this style can still be seen in special occasion dresses for young girls.

Although children’s (especially girls’) fashions usually echoed the general silhouette of adult dress (hoops in the 1860s, bustles in the 1870s and 1880s, for example), by the end of the century children’s clothing was well on the way to its own stylistic development. Today an interesting reversal has taken place. Once special occasion clothing was closest to parental attire and everyday wear was simpler. Today it is special occasion dress that is childlike, while daily clothing is similar to that of older teenagers and young adults, sometimes following, sometimes leading. And movies, sports heroes and entertainers, not paintings, influence new styles.

LACMA’s internationally recognized Costumes and Textiles department has a diverse collection of costumes from the sixteenth century to the present day. The department also houses the Doris Stein Research and Design Center Library and the American Quilt Research Center.

Credit Line: This exhibition was organized by the Los Angeles County Museum of Art

Curator: Dale Carolyn Gluckman, curator of costumes and textiles at LACMA

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