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
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