Monday, June 1, 2015

Get Set: A Set of Girls' Petticoats in Clermont Collections

Part of our pursuit as a museum is to recapture the day-to-day of people's lives, and one of the most common experiences for parents is getting their children dressed every morning.

Dressing children throughout history has been fraught with  issues practical, moral, emotional, and financial.  What is appropriate for their age and gender?  How well does it fit current fashions?  How well can it be cleaned?  How long will it last before the child outgrows it, and a new one must take its place?  How on earth do you convince a young child to hurry up and put their clothes on!? (okay so the last one is one from my own experience)

In 1830, Lydia Child devoted a seven-page chapter in "The Mother's Book" to "Beauty - Dress - Gentility," in which she warned

"Extravagance in dress does great mischief both to fortune and character; but want of neatness and want of taste are peculiarly disgusting."

Even then, the fear of placing to great an emphasis on physical beauty was being balanced with the concern that the opposite extreme would leave children looking like sloppy urchins.  Louisa May Alcott balanced the same concerns in her books, first admonishing Jo in "Little Women" to wear a corset lest she look unseemly, and then gently scolding Meg for borrowing a French corset that pinched her sides for the sake of vanity.

Clermont's costume collection houses a good selection of children's costumes, especially from Honoria and Janet (above, at right): baby gowns and caps, children's dresses, and even dress-up costumes lovingly folded up and stored as reminders for the future.

But the box that caught my this time was a collection of things that appears to have been from their mother's generation.  Alice Delafield Clarkson (at left) was born in 1872 and grew up largely at nearby Holcroft.  She was a well-dressed young lady and fairly representative of what you might expect a well-to-do girl of the late 19th century to look like.  It is likely the little trove I found belonged to her since on quick inspection, the shape is more consistent with torso-hugging late-nineteenth century modes than the broader ones of Honoria and Janet's childhoods.

The big gray garment box contained exactly nine items: a light-as-air cotton slip or petticoat and 8 matching flannel petticoats.  These plain clothes were finely-made without being showy-- practical without being dull.  They were just the thing for little Alice.

The petticoats are cream wool flannel, surprisingly soft and light if you haven't handled a lot of historic wool products.  Wool could be woven in many weights and textures--a lot of which have been abandoned today.
Growth tucks have been let out.

At 29" long, the petticoats likely fell somewhere below the knee for their original wearer.  Little girls wore short skirts until somewhere in their early or mid teens.  It allowed them the physical freedom to run and climb and play.

In spite of their almost utilitarian look, they are finely constructed, with neat little flat-felled seems, and pretty hand-embroidery along the scalloped hem.

Button holes in waistband.
You can see in the picture at right that there is a long fold along the bottom.  That was a growth tuck: a little fold of fabric stitched in place that could be released as the child got taller (see below at left).  These tucks have all been let out, but the wool was pressed in that fold for so long, it was apparently hard to convince it to stay down flat.

The waistbands all have button holes in them. The could then be attached to a vest or corset waist like the Ferris Good Sense waist shown above.  This popular technique kept the petticoats from slipping down a child's straight-waisted body and falling off all the time.  

These petticoats address many of the problems that mother faced when dressing their children: balancing beauty with economy and practicality.

Embroidered hem is constructed by folding the fabric under,
embroidering the scalloped edge, and trimming away the
excess fabric.
The repetition of eight matching petticoats gives a sense of the repetition of the morning routine, and perhaps that is what I like best about them.  Eight matching petticoats would have eliminated the need to do much thinking in the morning when dressing a child. They could be piled on top of each other for extra warmth.  They could be relied upon as one easy step among all the challenges of parenting.

While Alice was most likely dressed by a nanny in the morning, just like her own children thirty years later, the job of selecting and purchasing her clothing still would have fallen to her mother.  It was just one of the many way wealthy mothers supervised their children's health and upbringing while delegating the mundane activities of dressing, feeding, and basic instruction to servants, while reserving an hour or so each day for their version of today's "quality time."

So these petticoats were most likely worn by Alice, chosen and purchased by her mother, and put on the girl by her nursemaid.  That's a little piece of three different people's "every day," all from one set of undergarments!

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