Designed to please

24th January 1997 at 00:00
CLOTHES AND THE CHILD: A Handbook of Children's Dress in England 1500-1900 By Anne Buck Ruth Bean Pounds 19.95

Julia Thorogood takes the measure of a history of children's clothes

The dress of children shares the complex and changing patterns of adult dress but, provided by parents, it is edited by them for each stage of childhood. "

The notion of parents as "editors" of their children's clothes is a stimulating one. In the 1990s we are keenly interested in image-manipulation and, for parents, the designer trainer symbolises a world of lifestyle choices within which power struggles are played out. We may feel well-placed to appreciate the subtle status codes implicit in the elaboration of a hat or the buttoning of a fashionable boot.

Clothes and the Child is a new edition of Children's Costume in England from the Fourteenth to the end of the Nineteenth Century. It was first published in 1965 and, despite extensive alterations, that original fabric shows its age.

Anne Buck was keeper of the Gallery of English Costume at Platt Hall, Manchester, and can tell us that "there are more infant shirts of the 18th century in museums than adult's shirts and shifts of that date". All those parents, unable to throw away Baby's First Garment? Or did swaddling, still practised in many households until the middle of the century, preserve the delicate shirts because the children could not move?

Anne Buck does not speculate. She is aware of the "ambiguity" of sources and the questions they leave unanswered. To address the parental editing proc-ess, however, it is necessary to venture beyond the fact - the garment in the glass case - and make connections with both the reality and the ideology of childhood at particular historical moments.

As a describer of clothes she convinces. Her careful explications of child portraits include valuable clues to internal family hierarchies - which child is still "in leading strings", for example. For the unskilled eye she offers help on the basic matter of recognising gender: a cockade on the hat, a plume or a diagonal sash signify boy - useful info when both sexes might wear lacy frocks and pantaloons until they were six or seven.

Clothes and the Child is pinned throughout by dates. Too often they are left to stand alone. "Dress, which had become looser and plainer during the 1640s and 1650s, began to show more lavish trimmings by the 1660s."

No mention that this was the period of the Puritan Revolution when the devout were encouraged to renounce the vanities of worldly dress "trimmings of lace ribbons and useless buttons ... by mistake called ornament" as a Quaker diary of the period described them. Parliament's attempts to regulate dress by the revival of old sumptuary laws were among the many interferences that were popularly swept away at the Restoration in 1660. It would not seem unjustifiable to suggest that these events might have influenced the fashion statement.

The introduction to Clothes and the Child offers to link observation of the changing pattern of children's dress to changes in parental ideas of upbringing. By ignoring such major factors as religious belief it cannot be said to have succeeded.

Rousseau, whose Emile was hugely important in the abandonment of swaddling, is not mentioned, nor the romantic attraction of the Wordsworthian infant who arrived "trailing clouds of glory". Never mind whether or not it was wearing "large-flowered Damask clouts", (prestige nappies which were the 17th century equivalent to Pampers Premiums). Clothes are the focus of attention in Clothes and the Child; it has little to say about children.

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