Clothing & Accoutrements

Children's Clothing

By Colleen Humphreys
(with Sue Felshin)

Children's clothing goes through several stages as they grow up. From the books I have, the changes are hazy, and overlap... I have pictures of babes in shirts, white gowns, and printed and colored gowns, through toddler size. I have a picture of a two-piece silk printed toddler's gown, back fastening. There are pictures of little girls in one-piece gowns with vertical bodice tucks that release into the skirts, and two-piece gowns (when the top and bottom match); the thing that seems to be the same is that they are always back fastening (for girls, and nearly always for boys).

So, my best guess, for us, for a baby, is an open-fronted shirt, with gown over it, in varying lengths, according to baby's mobility (long for infants, foot length for pre-walkers, ankle length for walkers). Then when it can sit up, the next set of shirts should be "closed". It's not clear when the switch between open and closed shirts comes; it seems you can do it whenever it's convenient. Then for walkers and up they should be shifts with gowns, until breeching age for boys and puberty for girls, when they switch to whatever the adults are wearing (with some child-like features retained). Petticoats were worn under the gowns. Oh, and I put aprons over them at walking age; the paintings show them on very young kids. The paintings mostly show bibbed aprons.


Diaper/Clout/Pilcher, Bib
For a diaper, use a square of white cloth folded in a triangle and the three corners pinned or tied in front. In the 18th century, the word "diaper" referred to a small, regular pattern on a fabric. When woven in, the pattern in the cloth made it more absorbent, so diaper cloth was usually used to make what we now call "diapers". It seems that at the time, they were usually called clouts, but sometimes called diapers or pilchers or pilches.
The diaper cover, also called a pilcher or pilch, was made of felted wool. It was also a triangle, pinned or buttoned in front, with two buttonholes and one button for the three corners. If you use cloth diapers at home, pilchers are easy to use and wash; otherwise, use a diaper or pilcher to cover the modern diaper—when I use disposables in camp, I just cover them with an unprefolded cloth diaper, folded into a triangle, with ties sewn near the folded corners. Sew a loop at the third corner and tie it on by passing the ties through the loop and either tying them in front, or if you have long ties, passing them around to the back and tying them there. Or you can use a triangle of wool, with a button and two buttonholes at the points. You can add a drawstring at the back waist to hold it on better. All are quick and easy to make; Kannik's Korner's layette pattern has directions, including for how to use them.
A detached bib (as opposed to a bib on an apron) is basically rectangular, with the corners rounded off. The neck hole is circular and slit and hemmed to the edge in the back to form a keyhole opening, with ties to hold it shut. (Some modern bibs are still made using the same shape.)
Shirt for babes
Open-front for infants
Kannik's Korner has a pattern for a simple, close-fitting shirt with a scoop neck and tight straight sleeves, slit straight down the front, all the way to the hem. These shirts were originally overlapped and pinned; we recommend using ties for safety.
Closed-front for toddlers
The closed-front shirt for toddlers is really more like a shift than a shirt. It's a narrow shift with an opening big enough for the head, tight sleeves, no bottom side gussets, and perhaps shorter than a typical shift. The neckline is not gathered.
Shift for walking-age children
Standard shift. If you are concerned about strings, make the neckline only big enough to clear the child's head and face the hem with tape rather than using a casing and drawstring. I put any drawstrings in the back, for safety reasons. You can put growth tucks in to make the shift last longer (this is undocumented, but makes sense given how many other children's garments have growth tucks).
An infant would normally wear boned or corded stays "to support its weak back". We do not recommend putting infants in stays.
Babes in arms wear a front-opening gown of some sort but patterns are difficult to document. It's often quite long—well past the babe's feet. Long gowns still ride up, when you pick up the babe, but even when they do ride up, they still cover the babe pretty well!
One infant's gown is cut rather like a woman's bed gown. Kannik's Korner's infant pattern includes a pattern.
Once they start walking (or perhaps as soon as they can sit up), gowns for children close in back and have the bodice and skirt cut separately and seamed together. Both girls and unbreeched boys wear these gowns. The bodice is usually cut with a pointed waist in front, but not always. For a young child, still unsteady on its feet, functional leading strings are very common. For an older girl, functional or vestigal leading strings are sometimes retained as a sign of childhood, but probably only on upper class girls.

Around the 1760s, another style of gown becomes common—at least in paintings of upper class children. This gown has vertical tucks in the bodice which release into the gown skirts. There are usually horizontal tucks in the skirt and sleeves, and it is usually made of lightweight white fabric. It is worn with a wide, colored sash, with the bottom edge of the sash falling at the natural waistline and the width of the sash covering some or all of the lower chest. Upper class children wear a great many of these gowns, and they also wear a great many gowns of the standard cut (gathered skirt seamed onto smooth bodice) which are white, and it is sometimes difficult to tell one from the other in art.

Later still—apparently not until after the end of the American Revolution, a new style of gown evolves where instead of having vertical tucks in the bodice, the bodice is gathered by means of drawstrings at the neck and waist. In art, these gowns can look rather similar to the slightly earlier style with the bodice with vertical tucks, particularly in low-resolution on-line scans.

About the word "frock": This word is sometimes used to refer to particular children's garments. It may be a synonym for "gown", or it may refer to a particular style of "gown", or various different styles over time; if so, I haven't yet found out what particular style or styles. The word is used more frequently later in the century than earlier; whether that's because different garments were worn more frequently, or because of a simple vocabulary change, I don't know.

Boy's front-closing garment
Boys sometimes wear a front-closing garment. I'm not entirely sure whether this is a main garment or an overgarment.
One version is just like an ordinary back-closing gown (gathered skirt seamed onto bodice) except that it closes in front rather than in back. The bodice front meets edge to edge and is sometimes decorated with semi-military frogging. For an example, see Copley's Thomas Astin Coffin.
The other front-closing gown is the "wrapper gown". I'm not sure what the period name for it is. It is basically a T-shaped garment, a lot like a man's unfitted banyan. Beth Gilgun's Tidings from the 18th Century has a pattern for this garment. (Many children find the neck hole as sketched to be overly wide, or not deep enough, so try making it considerably smaller, and enlarging it to fit the child, once the gown is cut out, may be the best choice. An experienced sewer can make this gown, completely by machine, in an evening. It takes longer, of course, if sewn by hand, or by a novice, but it is a fine project for a novice.) Beth Gilgun's pattern says to tie the gown in front but it should actually overlap and close with a sash.
These garments may only have been worn by wealthy boys, and they may only have been worn over regular back-closing gowns.
Young children often wore a handkerchief around their necks, crossed in front and tied in back, for sun protection (linen or cotton) or warmth (wool). A child wearing a woolen handkerchief in this way, along with a cap or hat, running around and playing, is surprisingly warm.
Leading strings
You may wish to put leading strings on the back of a gown. One inch wide ribbon (such as grosgrain ribbon, cloth tape, or self fabric) sewn into the shoulder seams (or onto the shoulders if no seams) works very well. They can be two pieces, or just one piece, which hangs down in a loop. I like the one-piece-joined kind, rather than two separate strings. Do not ever leave a child in leading strings unattended, nor allow them on any modern playground equipment while wearing leading strings, ever, under any circumstances. Leading strings may increase safety around guns and fire, but in other places they can wrap around necks, so use good judgment! Vestigial leading strings on the gowns of older, upper class girls are often two or three inches wide and made of the gown fabric.
Just like a woman's petticoat. Drawstring waists are easier with growing children. You can put in tucks near the bottom and then let them out as the child grows. (It does not seem that deep hems were ever used.) With enough tucks and fullness, one petticoat can last a child through four years.
Basically like a woman's apron, except often has a bib. The bib part can be pinned at the top corners (in, out, in, out, between layers), or use safety pins from the inside if you're concerned about straight pins.
Pudding cap
Pudding caps were common for those learning to walk, perhaps for older toddlers as well. They are a band around the head, lined, stuffed, and edged with leather, tape or suchlike, with ties to hold the circle to the correct size, and other ties under the chin. Some had criss-cross tapes across the top, forming the crown, others have 4 triangles, lined and stuffed like the circle, stitched to it and meeting at the top. Tidings has a pattern for this. Do not overstuff the pieces; if they are too round, the cap will not stay put very well.
Shirt for older boys
For breeched boys, the shirt is the same as a man's shirt, except that if you are rich and want to be fancy, you can put a ruffle around the collar. Younger breeched boys usually wore their shirts open while older ones often wore them closed like grown men. There is also a shirt for newly breeched boys with a round ruffle collar, but this may be earlier.
Hair, hat, accessories
While an infant boy will wear a cap, an older boy is often seen bareheaded, with short hair and short bangs, but still in gowns, until at least age 3, but often far longer, until 5 or 7 years old especially earlier in the century. In paintings, boys often wear swords, or are playing with masculine toys (swords, kites, toy guns, shuttlecocks) and animals such as squirrels, with no hats, while girls have caps and female accessories such as birds and dogs (especially spaniels). Girls have their hair parted in the center and boys have their hair parted on the side or combed forward. Girls sometimes have short bangs showing; short wispy things. Older girls usually do not. The change from wispy bangs to no bangs seems to be around ages 3-8, about the age where girls become neater, and have more manageable, thicker hair. Boys are usually bareheaded. Older boys, if they have a hat, will wear one like a man's; wealthier little boys will wear a big floppy one, sometimes silk covered and/or cocked, with a big silk bow like a bow cockade. A linen or wool work cap is another choice. None of this is hard and fast; it's just tendencies.
Reproduction shoes are quite expensive, particularly for children, who soon outgrow them. In the eighteenth century, they solved this problem by letting children run barefoot, especially in summer. This can be difficult in modern times of asphalt roads and broken glass. A reasonable compromise is to buy black leather dress shoes or sneakers. Tie them with cloth tape instead of modern shoelaces, and only use two holes. Or for an upscale look, attach reproduction 18th century buckles over unobtrusive ties. Or get moccasins. Red leather shoes are common in portraits of baby boys (and to a lesser degree, girls) with wealthy parents.


An infant wears a long open-fronted shirt over a clout (diaper) and pilcher (diaper cover), with a cap, and often a bib and apron. (Most reenactors use shifts for babies since they are not familiar with Kannik's Korner's layette pattern. A shirt is actually easier to make and use than a shift with a drawstring: since it's only waist-length and is open in front, it's easy to change the baby. But if you already have a shift for your baby, it's still okay to use it as far as I'm concerned.) Make the gown extra long, which will do for a babe, and "shorten" it with growth tucks (to ankle length) when he shows signs of walking, and let the tucks back down as he continues to grow! A baby cap has a deep brim and a flat caul which is shaped via tucks or gathers. The tucks or gathers terminate at the center of the caul, where there may be a small insert of plain or white-on-white embroidered fabric or hollie point lace.

Long gowns on babes (2 feet below toes) are practical. I didn't know this before, but the gowns always ride up when you hold the babe, and when they are that long, they still cover them completely! Ankle length dresses on crawling babes slow them down a little, a boon for fireplaces! (However 18th century people tried to keep their babies from crawling—it was considered animal-like.)

To Carry Your Babe

1. Speculation:

To carry a baby or small child you can take a length of cloth, square or nearly so, wool or strong linen (ok, ok, cotton if you must), and fold it into a triangle (you can use a cut triangle if you are comfortable with the cloth's stregth, if it is more convenient), and tie the narrow points into a square knot. Be sure it won't come undone. Put this over one shoulder, and under the other arm, with the loose point at the hip, under the arm. Arrange it so that the knot is just in front of the shoulder, with fabric spread on the corner of you shoulder not on your neck (this is vital for avoiding neck pain!). Stick the child in the sling, lying down or upright, and while still supporting the child's back and bottom, pull the loose point up between you and the child's body, creating a hammock. This friction is what holds the child in place. Adjust the cloth, folds, tighten or loosen by retying the knot, and practice, and you'll be amazed at this method's versatility. With a little practice, you can nurse and walk around with the baby in the sling. And by practice, I mean to wear the child this way daily for about a week, 20 minutes a time. One or two sessions are likely to be frustrating, but it's worth the effort to learn (unless you prefer the next method, of course). This is an easier method to use with a very young baby than the "on the back" method. I carried my third child this way, all day, when he was 16 days old, at a reenactment.

Safety: Simple friction holds this together, but no ties hold the baby in. Always be aware of your child, and have a hand free to support and control the child.

Documentation: sketchy. Shawls for babies are listed in inventories. Older people mentioned carrying babies with shawls in Scotland, around the 1900s.

This is a natural method of baby-carrying, if you are already wearing a knotted shawl...you tuck the baby into your shawl, for warmth, then pull one arm out, to get more freedom of motion, and there you have it. Was it done just this way? I don't know, but we must do something to carry babies, and this is as close as I can come. If anyone finds any hard documentation or more information, please let us know.

2. Proven method:

I don't know, for certain, that this is how they tied babies on, but when done this way, the shoulder area of the mother and baby look exactly like the child on Mom's back in the troops-leaving-London scene in Hogarth. I'm willing to bet that this is one of the ways it was done.

When you are experimenting, have a helper!

Take a piece of linen (or any period-appropriate fabric) about 30+ inches wide (22 is too narrow, I tried!) and 2 1/2 to 3 yards long.

Put the center of the fabric behind the baby's back and under its bottom. Throw both ends up over mom's shoulders, spreading the fabric out for comfort, pulling the inside edges tighter than the outside (this bit is obvious when you are doing it). Put the ends back to the back, and tie in an overhand knot under the baby's bottom, pull tight, and finish the square knot (some experienced and confident souls only do the first half, with older kids).

This method works with very small babies up through any child you'll carry piggyback.

As always, always be aware of your child, and be ready to put a hand or both hands back to control baby.

Young children

Young boys and girls were dressed essentially alike, although boys graduated to older children's clothing at a younger age (typically 3-5 for a boy, around puberty for a girl). Boys and girls both wear shifts, back-fastening gowns, and, optionally, shoes and stockings, and aprons, often with bibs. A toddler may wear a pudding cap. Boys may optionally wear front-closing gowns (or perhaps these are worn over the regular gown).

Older girls continue to wear gowns over shifts for everyday. Make the gown very long and a little wide, with several growth tucks (1 inch tucks work well), to get a second year out of it; it's fine if the back gapes open several inches the second year. Around 5-10 they seem to wear stays, at least in portraits. The records show "stiffened bodices" to their gowns. In portraits, they wear fancier clothes that are more like women's; everyday clothes continue to be the simple back-fastening gowns. This continues until about puberty, when the styles are just like the women's. This is a continual disappointment to 9-year-old girls who want a shortgown and petticoat or a front-closing gown... One way to help them be content until they are older is to have them start making their own clothing, starting with a petticoat, which is easily within the ability of a novice sewer. ("Mom, I want grown-up clothes!" "No, you are too young" is harder than, "as soon as you make them"!)

Example: My son at age two (his first drum lesson!)

1. Pudding cap
The pudding caps keeps a toddler's brains from turning into pudding when it falls. I used the pattern for the puddin' cap from Tidings. Do not overstuff the pudding cap. It won't stay on as well. I made my son's out of wool, and trimmed it with a fancy twill tape. Works great.
2. Cap
A linen cap with tucks and hemstitching, every stitch handsewn to complement the
3. Lace
I obsessively hand-made bobbin lace for my son's cap. His cap is rather sliding to one side.
4. Shift
5. Gown
I used the front-closing gown, too (from Tidings); it's so fast and easy and cute, although the black and white photo in Tidings isn't all that nice). It should have overlapped in front, with a sash, rather than tying at center front.
6. Tucks
Both of the tucks in his gown have been let down.
7. Haversack
Just like Daddy's. This is an indulgence.

Older children

Older children were dressed using the same garments as for adult clothing but with some slight variations.

Boys were breeched at around 3-5. Earlier in the century, they were breeched older. For modern boys, what I do, is tell them, once they are 3, "as soon as you stay dry all day at an encampment, then I'll make breeches." This worked for my training-uninterested boy ... and many boys continue to have accidents, and this can be a great incentive. Maybe even an authentic incentive! You can also tell them that George Washington wasn't breeched until he was 7 and look how well he turned out! (Seven was not an unusual age for breeching when Washington was a boy.)

Anne Buck's Clothes and the Child has excerpts from diaries and novels. Page 60 quotes Peter Erondell, a Huguenot writing in England, where he has a mother talking to her servants and kids about their clothing, and gushes about the fatness and sweetness of the babe, and sounds just like me, except for the dialect spoken! This quote is from around the 16th c., which is early for us, but shows that mothers talked the same way they do now, well before our period! The mother is speaking to the child's nurse:

Unswaddle him, undoe his swaddling bands, give him his breakfast while I am heare, make his pappe, take away the firebrand which smoketh for it will taste of the smoke, wher is his little spoon? wash him before me, have you clean water? O my little hart! God blesse thee. Rub the crowne of his head, wash his eares, and put some fine clout behind them to the end to keep them drye and cleane, wash his face, lift up a little his haires. Is not that some dirt that I see upon his forehead?...What hath he upon his eyelids? Me thinks that his eyes are somewhat waterish, make them cleane, how quick is his eyeball, hath he not a pimple on his nose? His little cheekes are wet, I belive you did leave him to crye and weepe, picke his nostrils, wipe his tongue, let me see the pallet of his mouth, he hath a prettie chin. What a fine necke he hath! Pull off his shirt, thou art pretty and fat my darling, washe his arme-pits...Now swaddle him him again, but first put on his little biggin and his little band with an edge, where is his little petticoat? Give him his coat of changeable taffeta, his satin sleeves. Where is his bibbe? Let him have his gathered aprone with stringes, and hang a Muckinder to it. You need not yet to give him his corall with the small gold chayne, for I belive it is better to let him sleepe untill the afternoon.

Another book, or maybe the same one, has one mother criticizing another to her husband, about the ridiculously young age the other woman breeched her son.

Boys, once breached, wear breeches like their fathers'. An easier way to deal with the younger-than-authentically breeched boys is to make "slops". They are simple drawers, drawstring at the knee and waist. Full bottom. A simple way to get a pattern is to take a modern sweatpants/sports pants pattern, cut it off just below the knee, straighten the back crotch seam (adding, of course), and extend it upwards several inches, then redraw the waist from the side seam to the new higher center back. Sew the crotch seams, sew the side and inseams, make a casing with a hole for a drawstring at center front, and add knee cuff/casings for drawstrings, tied at the outside. To make cheating drawstrings, take a piece of elastic, about 1/2 the measurement of the knee or waist, sew drawstring pieces to either end of the elastic, thread it through the casing and tie. It will still be adjustable, but it won't be necessary to undo it when in the porta-potty! They look totally authentic, too. If the boy is in regular breeches, consider using elastic cord (available in white or black) in the back gusset, to serve the same purpose. Thread it though and tie it off carefully, so that the ends don't show. That way, your boy can pull his breeches down in a hurry if he needs to!

Boys shirts: Just like men's. Unlike men's shirts, they were often worn totally open at the neck, and fancy ones sometimes had a wide ruffle on the collar.

Waistcoats: Also often worn open at the neck. Make it about 1-2 sizes too big, and put 2 or 3 ribbon bows across the back to draw in the excess. Take them off when no longer needed.

Jackets: As far as I know, the only commercial pattern is the Mill Farm frock coat.

Smock/overshirt: A heavy woolen overshirt helps keep a boy warm while playing.

A knit cap or cocked hat is appropriate, as is short hair. Little boys often had lots of ruffles, and fancy bows on their hats (probably boys in wealthy families only).

Girls switch to adult clothing around puberty. There are very few differences, but an older girl may keep her bangs for a while or wear her hair in a braid, rather than getting rid of the bangs and putting her hair up like a grown woman. Ordinarily, however, a girl switches from the trappings of childhood (back-fastening gown, and optionally bangs, leading strings, and bib apron) to the trappings of adulthood (front-fastening gown without leading strings, hair in a neat bun, bib-less apron) all at once.



Buck, Anne. Clothes and the Child. Holmes & Meier Publishers, Inc., New York. 1979. ISBN 0-8419-0517-7.

Buck, Anne. Dress in Eighteenth-Century England. Holmes & Meier Publishers, Inc., New York. 1979. ISBN 0-8419-0517-7.

Rose, Claire. Children's Clothes. Printed in Great Britain by Courier International, Tiptree, Essex, for the publishers B. T. Batsford Limited, 4 Fitshardinge St., London W1H0AH. 1989. ISBN 0713457414.


Lower class children

Unfortunately, there is not very much pictorial documentation of lower class children from the Revolutionary War era. As far as I know, there is none at all for Massachusetts Bay.

Upper class children



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