Every time I have posted an image of an portrait of a child from pre-1800, the issue of children wearing adult’s clothes and our discomfort with historical children’s clothes has been raised.
Mariana Victoria in her lovely blue frock incited a particularly lively discussion (following all the comments has been lots of fun from my end!). We all loved her dress, but some of us were rather uncomfortable with the way she was portrayed (the ‘ick’ factor), some of us felt that while it wasn’t exactly practical, it made lovely dress up clothes for a seven year old, and some of us didn’t understand what all the fuss was about at all.
I think our perspective on historical children’s wear, and the discomfort we often feel about it, is based on three factors:
- Practicality. Many portraits of upper-class children in the 16th-18th centuries show them in clothes that look uncomfortable, restrictive, and unsuitable for the activities we associate with children (playing and getting dirty).
- Sexualisation. Formal historical children’s clothes tended to emphasize, and create, the same figures and shapes that we associate with sexual attractiveness: broad shoulders on males, low decollate, small waists, and wide hips on females. Seeing a small child presented as a mature and virile or sensual adult upsets our view of children as innocent and undeveloped.
- The role of children. In modern society, children are given time to mature without adult roles and responsibilities. Historically, very young children were expected to work, infants were crowned rulers of countries, small children were engaged to each other, and barely more than small children were married, and sometimes had children of their own. Seeing children dressed as adults reminds us that they were treated as adults, and, until the 17th century, were essentially viewed as adults.
Let’s explore these factors through some historical portraits:
Look at poor little prince Baltasar, barely age three. The heir to the Spanish throne is too young to wear trousers, but is posed in a heavy, constricting jacket, with a sword and staff, his elaborate hat on the cushion next to him. VelÃ¡zquez, far more than many artists of his era, depicted children with childlike physiques and faces, rather than as miniature adults, so his portraits make the contrast between the child’s soft uncertainty, and the hard rigidity of their clothes, so unsuitable for naps and romps, all the more obvious.
In contrast to the naturalistic depiction of Baltasar is the child in Marcus Geeraert’s Portrait of a Boy aged Two. If not for the title of the painting, and the slightly more diminutive, childlike hands, one could be forgiven for mistaking the boy for a middle aged man trying on his wife’s frock. There is nothing to distinguish the boy’s dress from one that would be worn by a fully grown woman, and only the knife at his waist indicates that the portrait depicts a boy, and not a girl. A little boy of two, however, does not engage in the same activities as a fully grown woman, and so the portrait can make the viewer as uncomfortable as we presume the child to have been.
Neither VelÃ¡zquez’s nor Geeraert’s portraits give any indication that the children they depict could run, play, get dirty, or nap as we expect children of 2 or 3 to do. The only nod to practicality is the skirts: presumably it was easier to put diapers on a not-entirely potty-trained boy in a skirt than in fancy trousers!
By the late 18th century society began to discuss childhood as a separate part of the life-cycle, and to consider that perhaps it should have it’s own attire. Portrait of the time depict upper-class children in simpler, looser flowing white garments, much more practical than their elder’s paniers and three-piece suits. Despite these advances, one thing hadn’t changed: children were still viewed as potential pawns, their value to be realised by the marriages they made.
The 11 year old Henrietta looks charmingly childlike in face in this portrait by Kauffman, but her dress belies her innocence. Her neckline plunges down her front, hinting at a bosom to come. A sash outlines her waist, and the lines of her leg are clearly visible through her skirt. Henrietta may only be 11, but in just 5 years she could be married off, and, at least to modern eyes, her dress alludes to this, making the contrast between face and dress particularly, well..icky.
As Paul so succinctly and aptly put it “The combination of stays, a low decolletage and flaring skirts creates a nubile, sexual shape on a woman. Seeing a little girl’s figure manipulated by a frock to emulate a sexually developed woman is off-putting.”
While Henrietta’s portrait still shows her as still a child, a few years could make all the difference. Ducreux’s portrait of the 13 year old Marie Antoinette was specifically created to present her as a prospective bride for the French Dauphin. By modern standards her face, attire, and figure give the impression of a woman in her 20s. Marie was married at 14. If her mother and the French court had had their way, she would also have been pregnant at 14.
Sexuality, is, however, a social construct. While the bust-waist-hip ratio is universal, almost all other aspects are dependent upon society. In pre-Westernised Japan the nape of the neck was considered extremely erotic, while breasts were no more tempting than bellybuttons are to most of us today. 19th century Chinese erotica dwells on the scent of the rotting flesh of bound feet, hardly an enticing picture to us!
The presentation of children is also dependent on the times: what looks sexual and mature to us was not abnormal to the time. Take little miss Shirley Temple, the epitome of early 20th century cuteness and innocence. Even today we see her as adorable, and anything but sexual, but an objective analysis of her clothes reveals how ‘sexual’ they are – or could be seen to be. Her skirts graze her upper thigh, her shoulders are rarely covered by more than tiny straps. Are Shirley’s clothes inappropriate? Were they inappropriate when her films were made?
3. The role of children
For most children, up until very recent times, childhood was not a time for irresponsible games. Poor children worked, just as their parents did, and rich children were trained to fill their father’s role, or groomed to be used as pawns on the marriage market. Portraits, not surprisingly, show this. Little girls are shown as desirable woman, because for most of them that was the most important role they could fill. Little boys are shown as commanding and capable rulers, and in some cases, expected to be commanding and capable rulers.
Little Louis XV, for example, became king at age 5, and, according to French tradition, was raised entirely by men from the age of 7. From the earliest age, his life was full of responsibility, not least of all the burden of having to unseat his controlling regent. He faced a country with strained relations with all its neighbors, and was expected to head an absolute monarchy, one by divine right, facing the challenges of the Enlightenment. It’s no wonder that his portraits go so quickly from depict him as a mere baby in elaborate baby clothes to a miniature adult in full adult garb. At 2 he was merely a French royal, his road to the throne buffered by the 5 heirs between himself and his great-grandfather, the current king. At 5, with all five heirs gone in quick succession, it was imperative that he be a small adult, regal and commanding – embodying all the hope that the court and country had for him.
The portrait of Mariana of Austria and her brother Ferdinand also demonstrates the expectations that were had for children. Mariana, from the youngest age, was expected to ‘carry on the family tradition of intermarriage’ (I kid you not) by marrying her first cousin. She may be an infant in the portrait, but she literally wears her families expectations: the charms around her chest proclaim the greatness of the Habsburgs, and her marriage was expected to perpetuate that greatness (pause for irony, and go read up on Mariana’s kids if you don’t get it). Her brother’s future was to be equally glorious, and his grand attire and swashbuckling pose make that clear. Modern ‘tiger mothers’ (of any ethnicity!) have nothing on 17th century monarchs for their expectations of their children.
The thing about all three factors by which we judge children’s garments in historical portraits is that they are all constructs of our attitudes and the society that we live in.
We expect children to get dirty and rumpled and to play freely, and we expect to see this in images of children because (thanks to digital cameras etc) images of children are so plentiful. Only a few years ago, when cameras were less common, getting your picture taken was a big event, for which everyone, children included, dressed up in their finest attire. Painted and drawn portraits obviously represented an even bigger investment of time and money, so, not surprisingly, an effort would be made to put the child in the very fanciest clothes that could be had, to commemorate the families wealth and the child at their finest moment.
We live in a society that is hyper-sensitive about sexualising children, and the drawback to this is that we see sexualisation in places where none was intended, or would have been seen. Yes, a certain amount of sexualisation was intended in portraits of early teenage girls, where they were intentionally being marketed as marriageable, but in most cases the sexuality is more in our minds than in the painting.
Finally, while children in eras past were given more adult responsibility, the way we treat children today might horrify our ancestors as much as their behavior horrifies us. Think of the children on talent shows on TV, the child musical protege, the young actress at the oscars, the teenage golf star. We celebrate all of these: coo over how adorable and precocious they are, but surely the stress and scrutiny we put them under is no worse than that endured by child-brides and child-kings?
I think, with all things, that we should neither judge others actions by our standards, nor expect commendations for acts that we perform because we value them. It was their choice, and their time, and we live in our time, by our choice. The ick factor in historical portraits of children is all about us, and our perceptions.
However, I still say that child beauty pageants and weird and creepy.
Aries, P. 1962. Centuries of childhood: A social history of family life. New York: Vintage Books.
Stone, L. 1979. The family, sex and marriage in England 1500-1800. New York: Harper Torchbooks. p. 298.
LeVine, R. A., & White, M. 1992. “The social transformation of childhood.” In A. S. Skolnick & J. H. Skolnick (Eds.), Family in transition. New York: HarperCollins.