Boys' Clothes: Mid-18th Century

Figure 1.--Copley painted this portrait of Thomas Aston Coflin during the 18th Century, I'm not sure about the date. The dresses worn by boys and the girls were indistinguishable. This boy's dress is a scaled down version of the styles being worn by adult women.

The mid-18th Century is the most important period in any history of boys and girls clothes. It was at mid-century that specialized childrens clothing first appeared. No where was this development more apparent than Georgian England. This was not an accident. Profound economic and social changes were underway leading the way to many of the recognizeable features of modern society, urbanization, industrialization, increasing domesticity, and the growing cult of the individual. These changes were especially pronounced in the developing modern economy of England. One outcome of these trends was changing attitudes toward childhood itself, changes that led to advent of children's clothes.


Fashion was essential for middle and upper classes throughout Europe in the 18 century and helped to identifies groups socially. There were major develipments in in retailing and distribution and etiquette during the 18th century. It was the time of the rise of the dress designer and couturier. Important developments were made which would lead to the ruise of ready-made clothes in the next century. [Ribeiro]


The origin of our contemporary attitudes and in effect the invention of children's clothes can be found in Georgian Britain. The Georgian eras (1714 to 1837, named for the first four King Georges) roughly correspond to the 18th century and the organizational thread of this web site. The Georgian era was one of tremendous change, as society reorganized itself in ways that we have come to define as modern: the advent of industrial economies; increasing emphasis on domestic life; the cult of individuality. Nowhere is this change more evident than in family relationships, as the family came to be based for the first time on bonds of affection rather than economics. The child, once at the periphery, moved to the center of family affections as the Victorian era approached.

While there is much evidence that parents have always prized their children, Georgian Britain led the way in Europe to viewing childhood as a special phase of human existence. Artists themselves participated in this movement as both recorders of contemporary values and as activists promoting change. Wider audiences come dramatically into play as well. The century saw the advent of the first opportunities in Britain for the public display of art (such as the founding of the Royal Academy in 1768) and the widespread popularity of inexpensive prints and illustrated books created expressly for children. Collectively, these works of art played public and private roles central to the creation of a new view of the child.

Figure 2.--Ana Marie and Edward Ashely? were painted by Francis Coks in 1767. Edward was 5 1/2 years old at the time and had been breeched. He wears the standard coat and knee breeches of the mid-18th Century which were virtually identical to his father's clothes.

View of the Family

The evolving institution of the family found fervent champions among writers and artists beginning in the 1740s. Most sought to imbue the country gentry with what were fundamentally middle-class values. This led to a blurring of class lines during the period. Among the values promoted were domesticity--a cult of family and hearth that lay at the heart of the Romantic movement and which were to become the very core of the Victorian ideal. Similarly, many writers and artists promoted a cult of "sensibility," which sought and highly valued heightened emotional response to life and art. Morally didactic scenes built on sensibility, such as artist George Morland's revealingly paintinng "The Comforts of Industry" and "The Miseries of Idleness". Art in the 18th Century often, as in Morland's two paintings, sent none to substle moral messages, focusing on the family, hoping to instill parental devotion by exhibiting the rewards that awaited virtuous parenting.

View of Childhood

The popularity of the family portrait exploded in the mid-17th century in Britain and the countries of Western Europe benefiting from expanding economies. This provides more images than ever before of families--offering more images of childhood and period clothing than ever before. The explosion in the number portraits of course was the result of the expanding middle class. Many of modest beginnings were able to enter the middle as a result of the wealth created by the expanding economy. The expanding middle class also wanted portraits which had previously been primarily obtaininable by the affluent. The ne middle class sought to emulate the wealthy classes in recording themselves in paint as well as other media.

The middle class not only was responsibe for the commissioining of more portraits than ever before, but the values of the increasingly important middle-class began to reshape the structure of the family and the position of children in the family. The rising economic and political influence of the middle class made these values increasingly important. These changes can be noted in the art of the era and in clothing fshions. It is no accident that it was during this period that children began to be seen as very different than adults rather than simply small adults. The result was in the late 18th century the appeaance of destinctive clothing styles for children. Changes in the child's place within the family and can be seen visually in family portraits. The often statically posed, hierarchical images such as Arthur Devis's "The John Bacon Family" (1742-43) give way to the more animated and varied representations of children with their parents that are depicted by later artists. The artists perhaps unconciously provide a onderful record of changes in family patterns and relationships.

Americans in the 20th Century tended to assume innosence as a basic attribute of childhood. This concept was not widely held by early 18th Century Britains and other Europeans. Attitudes were, however, changing. The nature of childhood was a matter of intense discussion fueled by inquiring literary output. Middle and upper class Europeans intensely discussed the question of the basic nature of children. Starting from views of the child as a creature of innate evil (a Calvinist doctrine), philosophers of the 18th Century began to form a very different consenus about childhood. The child began to be seen as an esentialy innocent creature--at least until corrupted by society. Beginning with the writings of the English philosopher John Locke around 1700 through the publication of the French philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau's influential writings on childhood in the 1760s, a major philosophical change took place in the European mind. The child by the mid-18th century had become more allied with the world of nature. Childhood began to be seen as a period of improbably extreme innocence. This view became widely held among Europeans and Americans throughout the 19th centry until shatered by Sigmund Freud in the early 20th Century.


The most profound shift in the family structure dealt with the father's position within the family, and his historical role as the economic provider and disciplinarian. Although fathers were still represented with their children by artists of the Georgian period, they were most often seen in the act of educating or guiding their proginy. At the same time, artists began validating the separate world of childhood as children broke down the traditional hierarchies of power centered on the father.


The educational value of play in particular seems to be a peculiarly modern notion. Play was discouraged by most parents in the early 17th century. Traditional 18th-century parents generally insisted that play, along with affectionate behavior, be abandoned at the onset of the "age of reason"--as early as 7 years of age. This is somewhat understandable in socities where fmilies produced little surplus and family members produced only the bare necessities. The expanding 18th century economy was changing this. Traditional attitudes derived from the heritage of English Calvinism were still widely held in the mid-18th Century. One classic expression of traditional views on childhod were the Letters of Lord Chesterfield to His Son. They were written in the 1740s and proved enormously popular when published in the 1770s. Lord Chesterfield advised his son: "No more levity: childish toys and playthings must be thrown aside, and your mind directed to serious objects." It was only during the mid-18th century that some parents began to see that play could be instructive and thus had a meaningful role in a child's development.

Figure 3.--Zoffany in this 1769 portrait painted the Reverend Randall Buroughs and his son Ellis. The boy wears a suit indistinguishable from adult fashions. Note the young age at which Ellis is being taught to read.

It was during the mid-18th Century that a public debate first time developed on the nature of childhood. The issue was widely discussed. The great philosophers of the day as well as social reformers began promoting the idea. Writers had raised the issue earlier. Locke had raised the issue in the late 17th Century, but his advamced ideas did not resonate with the public at the time. By the mid-18th Century, however, the powerful economic and social forces sweeping England, France, and the Lowlands was beginning to affect the public mindset. The now obvious percepts that children were more fragile than adults and more innocent began to resonate with the public. These were very novel ideas at the time. But once accepted they fundametally changed society's appraoch toward children. Reformers argued that cildren should be taught differently, given different diets, and dressed differently from adults. Some of these percepts, such as different clothing better suited to the needs of children, were not novel to human society. Ancient societies such as Greece and Rome had specialized children's clothing. European children had, however, for centuries worn the same styles worn by their parents. Interestingly, while all future generations of boys have worn specialized styles, at times they have been styles decided unsuited for their special needs such as the heavy suits or fancy lace-trimed Fauntleroy suits of the late 19th Century. Other new reforms such as diet appear to have been truly novel.

The idea that children were not just minature adults was not immediately widely accepted. At first it was the wealthy, more literate elite that accepted them. Society was slow to change. Tradition, economics, literacy, education, and many other factors affected the speed at which these new ideas were accepted. Children from working class families continued to work at an early age. They might begin working with their fathers soon after breeching. They often receiving little education. Many were appreticed at 12-13 years of age. Girls might marry at very young ages, sometimes as young as 12. Children were generally expected to uphold adult standards. Children convicted of crimes were treated as adults with penalties of enormous severity. While the progress of social reform was slow, it was at the mid-18th Century that the European attitudes began to change.


No where were the developing new view of chilhood more heatedly debated than among educators. Some philosiphers such as John Locke had raised new views toward childhood and education in the late 17th Century. His ideas on education were little noted at the time and did not resonate among 17th Century parents. As described above, however, England and other European countries were undergoing profound changes. When a new generation of social critics raised the issue of the nature of childhood and education, they found a greaty changed and more receptive audience.

John Locke

Beginning with John Locke's Some Thoughts Concerning Education (1693), the Georgian period engaged in a profound debate over education. Locke had suggested that the goal of education was to prepare the child to achieve future independence in the world. Even so, this meant controlling the child's true, perhaps unruly, nature. Boys were to be educated outside the home, safely removed from the "pernicious" domestic sphere of women and servants.

Jean-Jacques Rousseau

Philosophers such as the Frenchman Jean-Jacques Rousseau advocated increased freedom for children. He and others promoted play, especially out-of-doors, for developing physical strength. Child's play came to embody innocence, a romanticized world lost to adults and recorded by many artists. When the childless artist and poet William Blake observed a group of children playing in London's Fountain Court, he exclaimed, "That is heaven!"

Jean-Jacques Rousseau revolutionized English thinking on education in the 1760s by arguing that "experience," that is to say education, was a mixed blessing. His slender volume Emile, ou de l'Education, published in 1762 caused a sensation. He acknowleged his debt to Locke. He presented revolutionary precepts on education. According to Rousseau, the child should be allowed to run about "idly at hazard" until age 12, protected from harmful experience of the world by a tutor or guide.

Figure 4.--This painting by Frenchman Jean Simeon Chardin depicts a French boy about 1740-50. Note the quque and hair bow and the large cuffs on the jacket.

Rosseau inspired great controversy. His book was considered so revolutiinary that it was actually banned in several countries and he had to flee France for England. Even Rosseau's suporters had trouble defending him. His progressive ideas on childraising seemed to many dishonest given the fact that he abandoned his five illegitimate children to a foundling hospital. He claimed that he did it for their own good as he could not write and support them at the same time. The conditions in such institutions, however, make one wonder how the same mind that conceived of amore hymane approach to childhood could have condemned his own children to foundling hospital.

Rosseau's respect for childhood influenced educational theory on all levels. The force of his and other reformers' ideas and the economic and social changes underway at mid-Century gradually affected the European approach to childhood. Indeed, more and more children by the mid-17th Century were receiving at least a rudimentary education, and artists recorded such instructional settings in picturesque fashion.


Another highly influential French writer was Voltaire. His comedy Candide (1759) proved very influential.

Public attitudes

The new priciples of education and childhood were not immediately accepted by the public at large. In fact writers like Rosseau were severely criticzed, sometimes driven out of their communities for their revolutionary thought. Their ideas, however, inspired a heated debate in the changing societies of 18th Century Europe. There ideas did begin to take root among only the wealthier, more literate lasses.

Children's books

Books written expressly for children, including chapbooks (story books or nursery rhymes), alphabets, and readers, first flourished in the 18th century. Most of these books intended to awaken adult modes of perception in children. They promoted improvement, not pleasure. Many even sought to teach children, through word and image, about the likelihood of an early death. By contrast, William Blake hoped the ways of children would inspire adults to rekindle the visionary flame of childhood. Sarah Fielding in 17?? wrote the first English novel expressly for children, The Governess.

Visual Representations

Visual representations of the European child reflected these changing views. Artists increasingly depicted children outdoors, often close to animals and the larger natural world. Moving from artificiality to action, from stereotype to individuality, artists portrayed increasingly real-looking children. Sir Joshua Reynolds's Master Hare (1788) exerts a powerful presence in a landscape setting, in command of the world around him, embodying the new idea on childhood.

Figure 5.--The dresses worn by little boys and girls were very accurately illustrated in the movie, "The Madness of King George".

Men's Clothes

It is interesting to note that Up until the late 18th century, it was often the man who dressed, if not more flamboyantly than women, cerainly in very elaborate costumes. Mens' wardrobes were filled with laces and bows as well as high-heeled shoes with shiny buckles. Even American presidents were not immune, as a sartorially splendid George Washington appeared at his first Inaugural wearing a brocade jacket, lace shirt, silver appointments, and high-heeled shoes with diamond buckles. This began to change in the later decades of the century, perhaps not coincidentally at the same time that special children's clothing styles developed.

Boys' Clothes

The new developing image of childhood was reflected in their clothing. Boys at the beginning of the century continued to be dressed in dresses until 5 or 6 years old. After emerging from dresses they were atired in minature versions of their father's clothes. Elaborate and formal finery for the young gentleman of the 18th century might be a fine damask suit with pleated jabot, cuffs and stock--just like the outfit that might be worn by his farther.

Figure 6.--Johann Zoffany painted the two Blunt brothers about 1769. While still in dresses, some historians believe that the blue sash shows that they are boys. (Other authors suggest that color conventins had not yet developed.) They were born into a wealthy land-owning familes symbolized by the farm implements they are holding.

Clothes like their parents

The fashion of dressing children like their parents, still prevalent in the early 18th Century, reflected the prevailing view of childhood. It may be difficult for the modern reader to understand, focused as we are on on issues of childhood-including new definitions of the family. The nuclear family symbolized by June and Ward Cleaver for those of us who grew up in 1950s America no longer exists for millions of American children. The ubiquitously termed "family values," and child abuse--we must remind ourselves that childhood and the family have not always been as we know them. Many of the attitudes we hold concerning children and their special importance and needs were inconceivable to century Europeans before the mid-18th Century. Prior to the mid-18th Century, for example, the concept of childhood development and teen-age culture were unheard of. Children then, while loved by their families, were viewed as little more than small, vulnerable adults.

Many of our contemporary attitudes surrounding children began to develop in Georgian Britain. This period (1714 to 1837, named for four King Georges in sucession) stands out as one of tremendous change, as society reorganized itself in ways that we now recognize as modern: the growth of nation states, the emergence of a middle class with democratic aspirations, the advent of industrial economies; increasing emphasis on domestic life; the cult of individuality. Nowhere is this break with the past more evident than in family relationships, as the family came to be based for the first time on bonds of affection rather than economics. The child, once at the periphery, moved to the center of family affections.

Parental attitudes toward children have changed remarkably in various historic epochs. Considerable evidence shows that parents have always prized their children, Georgian Britain led the way in Europe to viewing childhood as a special phase of human existence. Artists themselves participated in this movement as both recorders of contemporary values and as activists promoting change. Wider audiences come dramatically into play as well. The century saw the advent of the first opportunities in Britain for the public display of art (such as the founding of the Royal Academy in 1768) and the widespread popularity of inexpensive prints and illustrated books created expressly for children. Collectively, these works of art played public and private roles central to the creation of a new view of the child and provide many graphic depictions of children's clothes in the centuary before the development of photography,.

Figure 7.--Boys until the later part of the 18th century were dressed in smaller versions of their fathers' clothes with little regard for the needs of childhood. Strickland Lowry painted the Bateson family pictured here in 1762.

Boys after they were breached from dressed were just like their fathers in the early 18th century. Men's coats weremade with fuller skirts, and the sleeve s were made with wide cuffs. The sleeved vest became shorter and was often richly embroidered; after a time the vest was made without sleeves. Another 18th-Century addition to male costume was the buckled knee breeches. A smart formal suit for the young gentleman of the time might be an elaborate fine damask suit with pleated jabot, cuffs and stock.

New specialized children's clothes

It was in England at mid-Centuru when someone had a novel thought, that boys might be dressed in distinctive juvenile clothes, in this case long trousers or pantaloons. Someone had the inspiration that boys might wear sailors' trousers. Men and boys at the time wore knee breeches. English seamen (not officers) had, however, been dressing in pantaloons since the 17th Century and English boys adopted trousers a half century before their fathers did. While initially a novel concept, the practice after mid-century began to acquire increasing popularity.

English children were the first to be emancipated, little girls and boys before breeching changing to soft, unlined frocks in the 1770's with France and the Colonies following next. Some well-known writers had taken the age to task for its manner of confining infants' bodies in tight clothes, among them John Locke, the English philosopher (1632-1704), who was probably the big influence in the change. He was followed by Jean Jacques Rousseau, the French philosopher (1712-1775), who carried on the crusade and was forced to flee Paris for England because of his revolutionary ideas.

Infant Clothing

Infants' swaddling clothes lasted well into the 18th century. The baby also owned a complete set of dress clothes which were worn for the christening ceremony and any other public occasion. Such garments were exquisitely made and beautifully embroidered. The skirts attached to the tiny bodices were invariably a good four feet in length. Yellow was the traditional color for the christening dress with embroidery in silk, or gold for an "upper class baby."

The Age of Reason and comfortable clothes

The writings of the Age of Reason were having an effect in putting children into comfortable-clothes, the trouser costume known as the English sailor's dress being a short little jacket with a "v" open-necked blouse, often with a ruffled or frilled collar, a waistcoat without skirts and the long breeches.

Country Differences


Early American clothes for children were basically similar to English styles, perhaps simpler and sturdier.



Mismanagment of the economy by royal authorities retarded the growth of the middle class. The French middle class until the Revolution in 1789 had limited political power and thus influence. Even so there was a substantial middle class.

Industrial Revolution

It was during the mid-17th century, in the Midlands of England that the Industrial Revolution began, cerainly the most profound economic and cultural development of mdern times. And it was the cotton textile industry that served as the engine for this phenomenal transformation of society. It would be decadeds before the actual production of clothing was mechanized, but the efficent production of cotton textiles was the first step in that direction and in fact all modern industrail manufacturing process. The results have not only transformed economies, but revolutionalized our very life styles.


Berkeley Exhibition, "New Child, the Emergence of Modern Childhood in Georgian Britain".

Ribeiro, Aileen. Dress in Eighteen Century Europe: 1715-1789 Revised Edition (2002).

Christopher Wagner

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Created: February 20, 1999
Last updated: November 8, 2002