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Collecting Mania: Vintage Childrenswear

Updated on May 28, 2010

Diminutive dresses and small-scale sweaters suit today's antiques collectors just fine. Across the country, lacy christening gowns, smocked gingham dresses, and colorful hand-crocheted booties lie carefully preserved in bureaus and archival boxes - all evidence of a new passion for collecting infants' and children's clothing of generations past. Collectors are enchanted by the small scale of these pieces, and pieces with handmade details offer touching testimony to a mother's love.

Doll collectors search for artfully crafted clothing to use as costumes. Americana buffs incorporate calico dresses and homespun jackets into country-decorating schemes. Antique-textile aficionados find the beribboned frippery of Little Lord Fauntleroy suits irresistible. And new mothers and fathers love the look of 1940s Dick and Jane classics on their own little ones. Whatever the inspiration, collectors today are searching everywhere for diminutive dresses, coats, hats, shoes, and other childhood apparel.

Only recently has children's clothing reflected the ideals of adult society rather than the personal tastes and comfort of children. Prior to the 19th century, children were likely to be dressed as miniature grown-ups, in clothes that restricted their freedom of movement. As infants and toddlers, both sexes wore long gowns, the sole distinguishing feature of these gowns being that boys' gowns opened to the front, girls' to the back.

Until boys were "breeched" at the age of 7 or 8, they often wore long dresses or pantaloons. However, by the 1860s many of the ladies' magazines touted short trousers and short jackets or blazers as the height of fashion for little boys. In the Victorian era, young European princes in sailor suits and elaborate velvet jackets were photographed for newspaper and magazine articles, thereby popularizing these fashions. Class-conscious parents ordered their pride and joy similar outfits trimmed with braid, rickrack, and sometimes fur.

Unlike their city counterparts, most children in rural areas had little occasion to wear such elegant clothing, and had to be satisfied with a few simple garments that lasted from wash day to wash day. These pieces were often hand-stitched by mothers using colorful calicoes purchased at the general store, when they could afford it. When money was short, resourceful mothers made do with whatever materials they had on hand, including sugar and flour sacks, and outgrown dresses and shirts of older children.

The amount of work that went into the hand-sewn 19th-century clothing is astounding, especially when you consider that a child was going to outgrow the outfit in a little while. Rural clothing is rare today because as articles wore out, they were often recycled into patchwork quilts. So-called Sunday-best clothing was worn less often and therefore survived in greater numbers.

Knitting, crochet, and lace were other skills that 19th-century mothers called on to create stockings, caps, scarves, mittens, and dress trimming. By the 1860s, patterns and detailed instructions appeared in publications such as Peterson's Magazine and Godey's Ladies' Book. White and multicolored yarn edgings for christening gowns, Sunday-best dresses, petticoats, and bonnets became the rage among readers. Simple sleeveless baby slips were trimmed with rows of elaborate crochet work.

Continued In Collecting Mania: Vintage Childrenswear Part 2


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