The two little crinoline gown's I bought recently and available in the store, are simply classics of the 1840-50's, early Victorian period.
No wonder, then, that they are so widely included in some of the best books on the history of clothing.
The references I am using in this blog come from the following, all highly recommended, books. They should be on the shelves of every antique clothing collector [full references can be found in The Study - Book List] :
'Children's Costume in England' Cunnington, P & Buck., A.
'English Women's Clothing in the Nineteenth Century' Cunnington, C Willet.
'The Art of Dress' Ashelford, J.
'Fashioning Fashion -European Dress in Detail 1700-1915' Takeda, S. S. & Spilker, K. D.
'19th Century Embroidery Techniques' Marsh. G.
To the casual on-looker, this little frock can be admired just for it's aesthetics; the perfect proportions, the profuse decoration, the purity of brilliant white. But there is so much more to be learnt from it - a whole social history of the mid 19th Century.
I will focus on just these aspects - The role of women in early Victorian England. The place of the child aged under 6 in the home. The lot of women & children in poverty during fashion changes.
There is far wider research one could do!
An Iconic photograph of an Iconic frock - c1855 boys frock. 'Fashioning Fashion ... p149, 2010. Reference as above]
Beginning at the beginning, we all know that children were dressed as images of their mothers, up to the 1850's. They were also a kind of A-sexual being, neither male or female, in their earliest years. So what was fashion like for women in the 1840's in particular, and leading into the 1850's?
Cunnington places fashion alongside all other design, such as architecture, as he describes the 19th Century. In the 1830's we can understand why he talks of the 'Gothic; Romantic era. The huge sleeves & tiny waists show a woman's form to be utterly over-emphasised, in the pursuit of man's approval. Moving into the 1840's, our decade of interest, Cunnington see's a great change, probably with the reign of a young Queen Victoria. He calls this decade 'Gothic; Sentimental'.
He describes these years for women as their possibly most inactive. Little women who were incapable of physical exertion, and who spent most of their time in domesticated bliss, bearing children and managing servants in the home!
Womens' fashions were cut according to this role in the 1840's. 'In her costume, she assumed an air of sublime passivity, a standard so acceptable to masculine taste. It was her function to symbolise the domestic virtues, and she dresses up to the part.' Cunnington, p135. 1937.
If we examine the two frock's in Poppies Cottage, let us see what he means by these comments:
If we take our minds forward for more than a Century, and think of the Womens Power Dressing decade of the 1980's, what key feature was used in dress design to show that women sought equality with men? The horizontal, wide, padded shoulders! Just like mens'!
Now just look at the severely sloping shoulders of this frock in the 1840-50's. Could they be more submissive in nature? How helpless, how vulnerable was the wearer.
Then the slashed neckline. Very appealing to look at but so difficult to wear for females and children. 'Girls' dresses copied the line of ladies' evening dress, including the uncomfortably low neckline that cut across the shoulders and pinioned the arms to the body. Ashelford. p283, 1996.
Sleeves cut tight and below the shoulder line, 'made it impossible to raise the arm beyond a right angle'. Cunnington, 132, 1937. Poor children. Poor women!
Cunnington also comments on the back fastenings as shown below:
'Such a dress, almost always with a back fastening of hooks and eyes, proclaimed that the services of a maid or a sister would always be required. It symbolised a ladylike dependence on others.' [Ref's as above]
Finally, the skirt - such weight! Cunnington tells us that at least 4 - 5 yards of fabric were used in these crinolines for women. No wonder they were incapable of doing much! In our child frocks, the skirts are almost circular, so much fabric is pleated into the waist. Add the extra flounce layer and we already restrict the child beyond imagination. And, if we look inside the frock, there is a deep, excess fabric length remaining that helps the skirt to stand out so well.
So, these dresses were uncomfortable to wear, restrictive and also unhealthy. But it wouldn't be until the 1880's & 90's that Victorian adults seemingly became aware that small children needed the freedom to play and exercise, They had such freedom, briefly in the Regency era, where simple little slip dresses were in vogue from the circa 1790's to the 1820's, but the Victorians took children back to a World of discomfort and pain, and all for fashion and social status.
These classic frocks were often made with a 'new' embroidery technique. Broderie Angliase.
Lets set this into social context. The 1840's & 50's were a tremendously exciting period for most of society, not least those involved in clothing and fashion. We are at a time when the sewing machine is first gathering interest [although not yet in domestic use], and the Great Exhibition of 1851 devoted huge sections of floor space to the industrialisation and innovation in textiles.
There was a growing 'middle class' of tradesmen and businessmen who had money to spend, and they wished to emulate the rich.
Lace, hand made for the best, was very expensive indeed. Even the middle classes found it difficult to purchase it in enough quantity to follow the fashion for lace on dresses of the time. In came new idea's for making decorative applications to fabric that, although not true lace, was attractive enough for the growing demand.
Hence, the use of Broderie Anglaise, not just in small trims, but in full gowns, as with our little frocks. Broderie Anglaise was especially appealing for children's wear because it was stronger than lace and easy to wash. It consisted of eyelet open-work, each little hole being edged with stitches to secure the raw fabric. This intricate task would involve following pre-drawn designs, including botah shapes, hearts and all manner of fashionable emblems. Marsh. 104/2008
So, the gentry were happy to pay a fortune for their lace, and the middle classes delighted with these new forms of cutwork 'imitation lace', only one section of society suffered: The women and children living in poverty who, to sustain themselves, took on this back breaking and eye staining work. 'Ironically, this 'democratic' decoration owed its affordability to the meager wages given to the female and child laborers who often produced it'. [Takeda & Spilker, p149, 2010.]
Our two little frocks are living proof of this period, thrilling and full of promise for some in society, but just further drudgery for others.
With an enticing glimpse into social history at the mid 19th Century, we are almost done [with so much more research for you to complete].
But finally, why have I called these gowns George and James, rather than Georgina and Jane?
Well partly, from research, and partly my own examination of these rare frocks over the years. Cunnington & Buck illustrate one of these frocks on page 164/1965. They describe it as 'Frock for a boy or girl, broderie anglaise on cambric [Englishwoman's Domestic Magazine, 1857.'
As said throughout this article, the frock could be for either sex, below the age of 6 years. The style spanned from the 1840 to 1850's period. But there were subtle differences.
'Girls clothes were trimmed with lace and frills, while boys had buttons, tabs and braid'. Ashelford, p 282/1996.
These frocks are decorated, not only with broderie anglaise, but with extremely fine soutache braiding. Tiny and profuse French knots add further detail without the use of girly trims.
Our first hint that these frocks are for the boys. But the most noticeable element, again shown in Ashelford, with an image from 'Petit Courier des Dames, 1841', is the different depth in the torso of the gown. [Ashelford 283/1996] :
So, it is overall the torso, the depth of the male child chest to waist, that makes me finally believe that these frocks were for boys. I may be wrong, but it is so blatant, that the girls would have a true waist worn with a sash, and the boys would have a lower waist to accentuate their male form.
The frock would not be complete for boys without a pair of trousers below, but even with those trousers, this was possibly one of the few hints of a time where women had so little say in life - apart from the early years of her son, when she could truly say to all gentlemen; 'this is my son, aged under 6 years. He is in my image. He is not to be toughened up. Not to be made into a man. He is mine and too young for you!'
Well done the ladies!
Thank you so much for reading.