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The Language of Infant Clothes, c1650-1750 Part Three

It has become reasonably clear through my reading and searching, that the clothing of a newly born infant, for the first 4-6 weeks of life, stayed almost the same for around 150 years, from circa 1600-1750. The overwhelming change, both in attitudes and common practice, came about post 1750 when the appalling custom of swaddling finally began to be met with disapproval. It was shockingly terrible, the baby being literally tied to boards & wrapped around and around with cloth, with the aim of keeping his limbs straight. It took many decades for the custom to stop completely, but this new attitude to the health of new born's began to introduce looser clothing, less layering and more freedom for those tiny bones.

We are focussed on the years pre 1750 in this study. Swaddling was still in it's heyday, and these are the clothes that baby was layered in until s/he grew slightly larger, and started to mimic their mother's in what they wore. [Cruel again, but in different ways].

I wanted to know the terminology of baby clothes at this time, and all the references quoted in Parts 1-3 are useful, but Cunnington most of all. There seems to be little attempt to match names with actual clothing pieces, and I am going to try this to some extent now!

The naming of baby clothes - mostly using Cunnington, and some aspects a little vague:

1] Coif - Biggin - Cap

A coif is a three panelled cap, the panels going from front to back, closely fitting the head, usually worn as a decorative piece with other head wear underneath.

A Biggin is a little confusing. These are shaped like coifs but are usually less decorative or plain. They are worn day and night and can indeed be described as nightcaps. Babies wore caps 24 hours a day, for fear of the head getting cold. The term 'cap' is used alongside Biggin, and I have been unable to find a distinction between them.


I adore the two caps in my 'layette' because they have curved side pieces and amazingly tight flounces at the centre.

I am sure I have seen these in images before, but couldn't remember where, so I was thrilled to see, in the Kerry Taylor Auction Lot 411 on 8th April 2014 [See Part 2]. There, in one of the close ups, is exactly the same!

There it is in the middle! Along with other similar pieces from my layette. So exciting!

Image with kind permission of Kerry Taylor Auctions.

So, is this a Biggin? Possibly, and it has exactly the same head shape as a Coif.

2} Head piece, forehead cloth, cross-cloth.

These funny little things are triangles of doubled cloth, with ties attached. The point of the triangle sits to the back of the head, and the long edge lies to the forehead. The front edge is often decorated. The ties are either fastened under the chin, or at the back of the head. They are worn underneath the Biggin.

This layette has four of these head pieces. Two are embroidered along the front. The other two have the beautiful lace we discussed in Part 1.

One head piece has no ties and we must presume they were lost .

Now, just to confuse us all, there are also Head Pieces that are not triangular. These beautifully shaped pieces are also Head Pieces, and you will note that they have the wonderful deeply pointed flounce to match the Biggin shown above. See the charming pleated decoration also?

The Cunnington diagram of a 17th Century set [see below] shows one of these rather than the triangular Head Piece. I believe these may have been pinned to the chest when the baby was swaddled. Perhaps these are Cross-Cloths.

3] Ruff, Standing band, Falling band - Whisk

This is a progressive list. Ruffs came first, and were probably only worn once an infant came out of swaddling. A ruff was a heavily pleated circle that was worn around the neck, and required support to keep it standing upright. Standing bands followed in fashion terms - this was far more simple, being a collar that stood up at the back of the neck. Again, a support was needed to wear it. Finally, and to the great relief of all wearers, came the Falling band - a very wide collar that fell from the neck over the shoulders. Needing no support, there is documented evidence of the joy expressed in not having to constantly adjust the neckwear to ensure it stayed upstanding!

As far as I can learn, a Whisk is a falling band, very wide, that is made of lace rather than linen.

I am reasonably sure that these are Falling bands, with ties to fasten around the neck. These are quite wide and completely plain.

There are two of these in the layette.

4] Bib collar

I am not too sure about this tiny charmer! I think it is called a bib collar. It is embroidered, as you can see, and has two layers. It is worn over the top of the main garments at the neck as I hope to show you later.

Interestingly, it is the only piece that has tiny loops, so would have not been attached with ties or the dreaded open pins. [Most of the pieces in this layette have clear evidence of pins holes in rows, where un-guarded pins were stuck into the newborn infant clothing.]

There is just one of these in the layette [2 matching parts]

5] Clouts & Pilches

Clouts are baby nappies and pilches are cloths that cover the clout during the night. As far as I can tell, there are none of these in the layette. Possibly we should be grateful!

6] Long Bib

I think that the Long Bib is a [long] piece that goes down the centre front of the infant's body. And I think we have one in this layette!

Note the 'strapwork decoration, similar to that in the King Charles II collection, Kerry Taylor Auction Lot 26, on 14/6/2016

It is possible that the piece in this layette, with the 17th Century lace, is also a Long Bib but it is a strange shape so I am not sure! Here it is:

However, as you see, this does not have an extension that goes around the back of the neck.

7] Stayband

The Stayband is a piece of the same length as the Long Bib, and it lies to either front side of it. The loop at one end goes around the back of the neck.

We have three of these in the layette, all beautifully smooth and fine linen.

At this point, I think I need to show you a diagram taken from Cunnington. Page 67, 1965. It is a sketch of 'an actual set of babies garments surviving from the seventeenth century' In the 1960's, this set appears to have been kept in the Nottingham Castle Museum:

This diagram is so useful, because it confirms some of the pieces I have named in my layette.

[d] is the Stayband, shaped just as mine, above.

Still to come - names that have not changed - mitts and sleeves, plus mystery items in the layette.

Look out for Part Four, necessary because my website is groaning under the weight of all these images!

References used in this research:

  • First, a warm thank you to the Lace Mentor. I do not know what I would do without you!

  • Kerry Taylor Auctions, who kindly gave permission to use images and descriptions of past auction Lots.

  • Cunnington P & Buck A, ‘Children’s Costume in England’. Adam & Charles Black, 1965. Chapter starting page 65 – The 17th Century. Chapter starting page 103 – The 18th Century.

  • Lynn E, ‘Underwear: Fashion in Detail’ V & A Publications

  • Baumgarten L, ‘What Clothes Reveal’ Colonial Williamsburg Collection/Yale University Press 2011.

  • Hart & North, ‘Seventeenth and Eighteenth Century - Fashion in Detail’ V & A Publications 2009. Glossary.

  • Ashelford J, ‘The Art of Dress’ National Trust 1996. Chapter 1 – ‘'Gorgeous Attyre & Chapter 7 – ‘Swaddling to Sailor Suits – Children’s Clothes’.

  • Arnold J. ‘Queen Elizabeth’s Wardrobe Unlock’d’ Maney Publishing 1988.

  • Boehn Max Von, Translated from German Joshua J. ‘Modes & Manners. Volume IV The Eighteenth Century’ George G Harrap & Co Ltd. 1965.


  • 17th & 18th Century artists and portraits.

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