How society perceives children has changed significantly over the last few hundred years. In centuries past, children grew up much more quickly than they do now. In different ways – while now it’s exposure to social media and wanting to be an adult that drives them forward through adolescence, this is a very recent development.
In the past, children may have gone out to work from as young as five or six, or been responsible for multiple younger siblings instead of attending school. While some children do still take on these responsibilities, these are considered exceptional circumstances.
As our perception of children and childhood has changed, so has how children are dressed (much as adult fashions change, so too do trends in children’s clothing). Let’s take a look at how children’s clothing has changed over the years, both in style and function, and how the concept of ‘boys’ and ‘girls’ clothing has developed over that time.
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Historical Baby Clothes
Back before the turn of the twentieth century, pretty much all baby clothing looked the same. Both male and female children wore long gowns. The idea that boys should wear pants and girls continue to wear skirts comes from sixteenth-century Europe and the invention of breeches. While breaches were generally worn by older boys and men rather than babies, who continued to wear gowns for another couple of hundred years, this was the first point at which boys’ and girls’ clothing started to look different.
While nowadays we associate a dress as being specifically ‘girls’ clothing, back then it was just what all children wore. The age at which a boy became old enough to wear breeches, usually around seven, was an essential rite of passage and signified the very beginnings of him becoming a man.
Developments in Gowns
At around this time, parents were encouraged to stop ‘swaddling’ their children (wrapping them tightly in blankets). While parents had previously done this because they thought it helped limbs grow straight, many switched to long slip-style dresses. New gowns had boned bodices and petticoats, but these had fallen out of fashion by the late 1700s and been replaced with looser-fitting, more comfortable garments. Clothing for older children also became looser and more relaxed around this time. By the turn of the nineteenth century, these gowns, worn by young boys and girls, also bore a similarity to the dresses worn by adult women – these had become more relaxed, too.
Up until this point, baby gowns were mostly white for ease of bleaching, but around the 1850s, the colorful prints we associate with modern children’s clothing began to increase in popularity. They weren’t wearing multicolored dinosaur patterns just yet, but the journey to them had begun!
Baby Boys in Pants
At this point, we’re seeing a movement towards what we recognize as modern kids’ clothing. In the nineteenth century, more modern trousers replaced breeches as the clothing of choice for boys and boys began being ‘breeched’ at younger and younger ages. By the end of the century, the average breeching age had dropped from seven to two or three. This meant that the significance of being ‘breeched’ shifted slightly, and the point at which boys transitioned from short to long trousers became more critical in signifying age and maturity.
This Era for Girls
During this time, girls’ clothing was also changing – just not as much as boys’ clothing was. Baby girls, overall this long time period, continued to wear dresses and skirts from infancy to adulthood. While the specific styles and fashions changed over time, and children often wore shorter and more relaxed versions of adult garments, the fundamental shapes remained much the same.
They did, however, wear a sort-of trouser garment under their dresses – pantaloons. These are more like long underwear than pants designed to be seen and usually partially concealed by clothing. Pantaloons for girls were controversial on introduction as any trouser-style shape was considered ‘masculine.’ At the time, the idea of a girl wearing any unfeminine or boyish clothing was not widely accepted. By the end of the nineteenth century, little girls were generally becoming more active – their clothing began to represent this, with simpler shapes.
The First Rompers
When do rompers come in?
The earliest rompers were called ‘creeping aprons’ and were invented as a way to cover up a child’s other clothing. Around this time, science began to understand the importance of learning to crawl as part of a child’s early development, and their dress was getting ruined. Unsurprisingly, it wasn’t long until babies began wearing their ‘creeper aprons’ without their other garments underneath. Earlier concerns about girls wearing pantaloons primarily melted away, leading to the development of the romper as the first unisex pants-based outfit for children.
Over the next few years, rompers essentially replaced dresses and other items as the ‘go-to’ clothing option for babies and very young children. Their more straightforward, more relaxed design also paved the way for even more changes – printed fabrics and bright colors became even more prevalent. This development in fabric choices paved the way for the eventual demarcation of ‘boy’ motifs and ‘girl’ motifs that we recognize today. Over time, animals, cars, and darker colors became associated with boys’ clothes, and flowers, pastels, and fairytale motifs with girls’ clothes. Eventually, even the cut of rompers changed to differentiate between a ‘boy’ romper and a ‘girl’ romper, despite this being mainly if not wholly unnecessary.
Baby Pink and Baby Blue
Things have changed somewhat in recent years; the color pink is still strongly associated with baby girls and blue with baby boys. This first began in the early twentieth century, around 1910, and became widespread in just a few years. However, the two colors were still used for both boys and girls until sometime after World War 2, when the industry simply decided that pink was for girls and blue for boys.
What is most interesting about this is that while it is still considered perfectly acceptable for a baby girl to wear blue, it is less acceptable for a baby boy to wear pink. This de-feminization of boys clothing, and the masculinization of girls’ clothing, means that overall children’s clothing is much simpler than in. Years past and has lost many of the more ‘feminine’ features – ruffles, trims, bows – that characterized it just a couple of hundred years ago.
Baby Clothes Today
Now, the previously unthinkable idea that girls can wear trousers is widespread in society for girls of every age and stage of life. This began in the 1920s when as pants for adult women became increasingly popular, the first toddler play clothes featuring pants for girls were developed. These first garments did also include a skirt element – they were bloomers under shorter dresses – but they were, definitely, trousers. By the time the Second World War rolled around, girls of all ages were wearing pants for casual occasions but still expected to wear pants for more formal occasions.
Today, boys’ and girls’ clothes are increasingly interchangeable, especially for young children, though dresses and gowns are rarely seen on baby boys. The apparent shift towards practicality over decorative elements looks to be firmly entrenched – rompers are going nowhere!
Gifting Baby Clothes
If you are buying baby clothes for a loved one, or loved ones, who are expecting, baby clothes are a fantastic practical gift. However, you may not want to buy clothing in newborn sizes as babies grow out of these first clothes extremely fast. For this reason, many new parents choose to keep things extremely simple. At the same time, their baby is tiny and launder a few baby grows regularly rather than have to get rid of a considerable amount of baby clothes because their child has outgrown them before they’ve even been worn.
You can, if you’d prefer, gift second-hand baby clothes; many people do these days as it’s more environmentally friendly and encourages recycling. While many baby items can’t and shouldn’t be recycled, such as mattresses and car seats, clothes are perfectly fine. Just make sure everything is clean and made of an appropriate material – scratchy fabrics and zips can irritate incredibly soft skin.
You should also make sure that you’re buying clothes that work for the parents’ taste; not everyone wants their child to wear ‘cute’ clothes, and many parents now prefer duller colors and shapes rather than patterns of ducks or trucks. You don’t want to buy clothes that aren’t worn because the parents don’t like them!
As a general rule, it’s a good idea to buy baby clothes for when the child reaches about six months old. The parents will have primarily run out of gifted clothes by then and will be very grateful. Just remember that if the baby is born in summer and you’re buying clothes to be worn six months later, they need to be season-appropriate.