By Mary Hatfield
One of the many sources that historians of childhood use to gain insight into childhood in the past is clothing. How children were dressed, and what was considered fashionable for children manifest something of the cultural ideas and values of a particular historical moment. For example, in contemporary culture we distinguish boys and girls by dressing them in blue and pink, we also see teenagers emulating the styles of their favourite music band or popular celebrities. Dressing a certain way can signify our membership in a religious community or our allegiance to a favorite sports club.
In a similar way the material culture of the past indicates how people visually signified the stages of infancy, childhood, adolescence, and adulthood and help us to understand the length and significance of each of these life stages.
Phillipe Ariés, the famous historian of childhood, argued that medieval society in France did not greatly distinguish between childhood and adulthood as different periods of the lifespan. Based on evidence from portraiture and artwork, he observed that children were dressed as ‘miniature adults’. He argued that this suggested very little separation between child and adult social worlds, with children becoming part of adult society around the age of 7. Many historians have criticized Ariés conclusion, but also recognized that visual and material culture can be an excellent source for gaining access to childrearing practices in the past.
Irish Children’s Clothing
At the beginning of the nineteenth century Irish children’s clothing was generally the responsibility of the mother or nurse. Depending on what a family could afford, women might spin and weave their own wool and then send the fabric to a tailor for making it up into clothes. William Hanbridge, growing up in West Wicklow in the 1810s remarked on his mother’s skill at organising his family’s clothing every year.
‘Nearly everything we wore my mother got manufactured. […] Old Nanny Myers was engaged to spin the wool for the frieze every year. When the yarn was ready it was sent to Jack Flynn to be woven and when woven then to the dyers in Donard who before dying sent it to the tuckmill. It came home a beautiful light drab which was easily soiled. Nearly all the Irish counties had different coloured friezes so that each man wherever he went was known by the colour of his coat. All the rest of the wool for blankets, flannels, stockings &c was spun by mother. For several days after the frieze was brought home Joe Gougher the tailor had a busy time of it, as there were a father and five sons.’ [William Hanbidge, Memories of West Wicklow, 1813-1839 (Dublin, 2005)]
Hanbridge identified how each county had traditional patterns and colours for clothing. Lydia Jane Leadbeater, travelling through Kerry in 1845, also remarked on the local’s choice of colours; dark blue frieze was used for most items of clothing, and women typically chose red petticoats and green gowns. [Lydia Jane Leadbeater Fisher, Letters from the Kingdom of Kerry, the Year 1845 (Dublin, 1847).]
This tradition of handmade clothes carried on into the 1930s and 1940s, Irish women’s magazines had regular columns for publishing patterns of knitted children’s clothes. From autobiographical sources we know that many women continued to make most of their family’s clothes until the 1970s. Although in the twentieth century fabric could be bought readymade and sewing machines made the job more efficient.
Artwork from the early nineteenth century
Paintings and drawings can be a rich source for understanding how children were dressed in the past. The Brocas Family, James Henry, Samuel, William and Henry, made many sketches of Irish children during the course of their careers, some were elaborate and time intensive portraits, while others seem to be quickly drawn sketches from life. From these it is possible to glean popular styles and patterns. In this image we see young girls at work, carrying baskets on their heads with light shawls draped around their shoulders.
Infancy to Childhood
Newborn infants were put into long gowns which extended past an infant’s feet as a way of keeping in extra warmth. When infants began crawling around these long gowns became impractical and at the age of eight or nine months infants received shorter gowns which allowed greater freedom of movement. Petticoats worn with a short bodice and pantaloons were common for boys and girls, and thought to be the least constrictive for children’s activities, and pictured here in a sketch by William Brocas.
For the first four to seven years of life boys and girls were dressed in the same clothes, indicating that age rather than gender was the principal distinction.
When girls entered adolescence, typically around the age of 12-14, their clothing began to reflect their status as women. Young girl’s diaries record them buying ribbons and fabric, noting the latest styles, and commenting on the sartorial choices of their peers. It was common for adults to criticize young girls’ vanity and obsession with appearance. Henry Brocas drew a caricature of girlhood that featured a young girl exhibiting her latest finery replete with lace and a flowered bonnet, while her mother scowls and labours over a wash bucket. The caption tells us that the mother condemns the girl for leaving her to ‘feed the pigs and break her health’ while a younger sister, dressed in a shorter petticoat and bodice, defends her elder sister, ‘Oh mama don’t scold Mary Anne.’
Poverty and clothing
Visitors to Ireland during the nineteenth century all commented on the widespread poverty among Irish peasants. Arthur Young, quoted in the Encyclopedia Britannica, reported in 1824 many people wore the same ‘wretched’ clothing day and night and had no stockings or shoes.
‘The dress of the people is so wretched, that, to a person who has not visited the country, it is almost inconceivable. Shoes or stockings are seldom to be seen on children and often not on grown persons. The rags in which both men and women are clothed are so worn and complicated, that it is hardly possible to imagine to what article of dress they have originally belonged. It has been observed that the Irish poor never take off their clothes when they go to bed; but the fact is, that not only are they in general destitute of blankets, but if they once took off their clothes, it would be difficult to get them on again. Their dress is worn day and night till it literally falls to pieces; and even when it is first put on, it is usually cast-off clothing; for there is not one cottager out of ten who ever gets a coat made for himself. A considerable trade has long been carried on from the west of Scotland to Ireland, consisting of the old clothes of the former country, and to those who know how long all ranks in Scotland wear their dress, there is no more conniving proof of the poverty of the latter county can be given.’
While poor people made do with whatever fabric they could find to keep them warm and dry, middle-class and elite Irish families had more options, and looked to the fashion in London and Paris to inform their sartorial choices. Irish newspapers often reported on what women at Dublin Castle wore, and these styles could then be mimicked.
Richard Rothwell (1800–68) was a prolific portrait painter in Ireland from Offaly. He trained in Dublin at the Royal Hibernian Academy. Exhibited in 1844, his painting of ‘The Mother’s Pastime’ depicts a young mother holding a child on her lap in an idyllic rural setting. Rothwell’s sentimental depiction of a chubby baby and doting mother depicts a clean, well-dressed child in the traditional long gown of infancy. Ostentatious ruffles, and decorative embroidery held little utilitarian value, but they conveyed care; indicating that children were protected and valued. The time that mothers and nurses invested in sewing these garments signalled their proficiency in needlework. The baby smiles endearingly at the viewer while the mother’s attention is directed at her child. The baby is dressed in a white gown with a short, tight fitting bodice and a long voluminous skirt gathered at the waist. The sleeves are off the shoulder and draw attention to a necklace, possibly of coral, around the baby’s neck. The scene imparts a sense of cheerful maternal care, and the product of that care; a well-dressed, healthy, happy baby.
Children’s fashion represents adults’ social and gendered expectations of their children, whilst also depicting the physical world children inhabited during childhood. While images of childhood are always mediated through the vision of the artist, if used critically they constitute a rich source for the history of Irish childhood.
 William Hanbidge, Memories of West Wicklow, 1813-1839 (Dublin: University College Dublin Press, 2005), 40.