Monday 8 April 2024

Dressing toddlers in the early modern


One of the best images of a toddler age child in the seventeenth century is Rubens painting of himself and his wife, with their son. (Figure 1) Painted when Frans Rubens, born in 1633, was about two years old, it is typical of an upper-class toddler of the time. His mother is holding a leading string attached to the back of his clothes, and round his head, over his biggin (linen cap) is a “pudding,” a roll of fabric designed to cushion his head should he fall over. The use of these continued into the eighteenth century. John Thomas Smith, recalling his infancy in the 1760s, said that he wore a black pudding, writing “As to the antiquity of this cap, which is now seldom seen, and I believe totally unknown in the nurseries of the great, I can safely observe that the child of the great painter Sir Peter Paul Rubens wore one.” (1) Several eighteenth century pudding caps survive in museum collections, this link is to one in the Colonial Williamsburg collection.

Figure 1. Detail from Rubens with his wife and son. Met Museum

Leading strings and hanging sleeves

Hanging sleeves, which at times were not sleeves at all but sham strips of fabric that hung from the shoulders, were fashionable in the sixteenth century, and can be seen in the 1563 painting of Lady Katherine Grey with her young son. When they went out of fashion for adults they continued to be worn by small children, so that they could be used as leading strings.  You will however, sometimes see both hanging sleeves and leading strings on the same garment, as in Gesina ter Bosch’s 1649 watercolour, where the leading strings may come from the apron. A late 1650s painting by Pieter de Hooch in the Rijksmuseum, show a back view of a small girl with hanging sleeves (Figure 2). 

Figure 2. Gesina ter Borch, Drie staande vrouwen en twee kinderen. Rijksmuseum


Coats and skirts

Small boys were kept in skirts until they were breeched, that is until they started wearing breeches, which was about the age of five. This painting, by Van Dyck, of the three eldest children of King Charles I, earned Van Dyck the King’s displeasure, because the future Charles II is shown still wearing skirts. (Figure 3) Van Dyck immediately painted a new version with Prince Charles in breeches. The three children in the painting are left to right, Prince Charles (b.1630), the Princess Mary (b.1631) and Prince James (b.1633). The painting was completed sometime in 1635, so the children would have been five, four and two.  Prince Charles appears to wear a floor length coat, which does up the front, his masculinity is implied by the row of ribbon points around his waist, which would have been used to hold up breeches were he wearing them. He wears a biggin or cap on his head, but his collar is the masculine style of wide band. Compare his appearance to that in the late 1635/early 1636 Van Dyck. In the later painting he is dressed in breeches, so the ribbon points have a purpose, and he no longer wears the childish cap on his head. In both paintings the Princess Mary wears an outfit very similar in style to that of an adult. In the later painting she has an apron over her skirts.