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Children’s Clothing: 1760-1980

Start Date 08 November 1980
End Date 05 April 1981
Venue Philadelphia Museum of Art
Location Philadelphia, USA
Curator Judith Straeten 

Costumes from the Museum’s collection have been selected for this exhibition to show the main lines of development of children’s costume over the past 200 years and also to illustrate the way well-to-do Philadelphia children have been dressed. Most strikingly revealed by this exhibition is the great extent to which children’s clothes were a reflection of adult fashions, from the miniature 18th-century gentleman’s costume or the christening robe that copies the corseted and panniered silhouette of mid-18th-century women, to the high-waisted cotton dresses of the early 19th century and the leg-of-mutton sleeves of the 1830s and the 1890s, through the boyish look of the 1920s and the Mondrian dress of the 1960s. 

Clothing designed specifically for children and based on practical considerations of the shapes of their bodies or their activities has appeared at intervals over the centuries. An early example is the skeleton suit, a tight-fitting suit with the trousers buttoned to the jacket, worn by boys in the late 18th and early 19th century after they discarded the skirts of babyhood. It was followed, in the mid-19th century, by the sailor suit. Originally worn by young boys, the sailor suit by the end of the century became almost a uniform for both sexes nearly up to adulthood — the equivalent of our blue jeans — and remained popular with so little variation that dating two of the examples shown here presented some difficulties. children’s costume continues to be influenced by the attitudes of men and women toward fashion, and the greater freedom of adult dress in recent decades has been responsible for the trend in children’s clothing toward practicality and imaginative design. 


Judith Straeten