French Boys Clothes: The Concept of Childhood

Figure 1.--This painting is by François Boucher. It was painted in the 18th century. I would estimate the early 18th century, but I do not have the precise year. It shows how some French artists were making children the focus of attention in the family. The boy here does not yet wear the new fashions appearing for children in the late 18th century. Noitice the sort of roll around his cap. It was a protection for his head in case he fell down. Also notice the toys that he plays with. Both little boys and girls were dressed alike in this period. It was also common for boys (until the 20th century when the teddy bear appeard to play with dolls. Some literary works describe boys with cloth dolls.

French fashion attitudes for children, as in oyjer countries, are in part affected by the concept of childhhod itself. This concept has changed greattly since the 17th century and France has played an imprtant role in the development of modern concepts of childhood. One of the most important writers addressing this issue was Jean Jacques Rosseau in the 18th century. In more modern times, World War I signoficantly affected the French family and the French view of children.

The 16th Century

France in the 16th century, according to one of our French readers, was "not a green paradise for children". Infant mortality was high and many children did not survive childhood. This was one reason many families had large numbers of children. The licky nes survived. For most children, their adult lives beagn at about 13-14 years of age--this was the case for children of all classes. Working class children often entered the work force evern earlier, at about 12 years of age as appretices. To the extent that children were seen as different from adults, the differences were often seen as negative characteristics. The Church at the time had rather a stern view of childhood. They were often looked on as sinfull creatutes. Children were seen by the Church as reaching the age of reason at about age 7 years. The view of children was thus far different from our modern concept of childhood. Perhaps because there was no real concept of childhood, the representation of children in the paintings of the day were very marginal.

The 17th Century

The view of children in the eraly 17th century was little different than in eralier ages. Pascal asserted "a child isn't a human!" The famous Bossuet (who was [?the preceptor his the little king]) wrote, "the child-life can be those of a animal!" After the mid-17th century for a variety of reasons ( not explained here ), the perception of children changed dramatically and the modern concept of childhood began to develop. Franch philopspers led the way in the development of this concept. Rerhaps the most important was Jean Jacques Rosseau. There were, however, others, including Fenelon and Condillac which made important contributions. They addressed not only the new concept of childhood, but also practicak matters such as child care and education. With this developing new concept of childhood, the modern child began to appear. The child becomes the subject of increased attention. We note after about 1650 more painted portraits of children by French and other European artists. Also at the end of the 17th century we see more items such as toys and dolls that are made for specifically for children.

The 18th Century

The representation of children in 18th century art is notably more important than ever before in Fraench art. (The one notable exception is of course Jesus.) Many painters such as Chardin place the child at the center of his work, making it the focal point of attention in the painting. Other artists begin using the child as a subjet of allegory depicting sweetness and innocence. The great philosopher Diderot articulated childhood as a happy period of the life. As part of the increasingly accepted concept of childhood, specialized clothes began to appear for children. The big change on France concerning children's clothing occurred about 1780 and here England played a major role. This English influenced-clothing released the child from the constraints of heavy, restrictive garments designed primarily for adults. The light dress became the basic attire for little girls and boys. Older boys once breeched wore long pants skeleton suits.

The 19th Century

The 20th Century

After the World War I, there were important changes in the French family. Mothers played an importante role during the war. With their husbands away at the front, they had to manage the family--assuming responsibilities once hanfled by their husbands. In all to many instances, their husbands never returned or returned as inavalids. Many women entered the work force to do war work. This had a powerful impact on the role of women in French society. It changed how they viewed their lives and their roles in society. It also affecteectheir roles within the family. Life for women became less restrictve and in many ways more fulfilling and happy. These changes were reflected in the manner of dress both for themselves and their children. Some mothers began treating their children as little dolls. French fashions for children after the War exhibited more and more a juvenil look. We are not sure how the children reacted to this. One French reader tells us, "The children themselves had no objection. Younger children presumably did not even notice the change and did not know any other sttle of dress." Some styles were quite fancy, even for boys. Certainly fancier than was common in America, England, and Germany. (I'm less sure about Italy.) These attitudes persisted in France throughout the 1950s and even into the 1960s. The Paris Student Riots of 1968 had a major impact on changing Fernch attotudes, brining them more in line with the rest of Europe. Some in France still have some of the old attitudes, but with movies and television as well as the importamce of international trade, French children today dress much like children in the rest of Europe. It is often very difficult today to differentiate European children by the way they dress.


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Created: October 24, 2001
Last updated: October 24, 2002