Children in adult’s clothes – the ‘ick’ factor

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:

  1. 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).
  2. 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.
  3. 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:

1. Practicality:

Diego Velázquez (1599-1660) Prince Baltasar Carlos in Silver circa 1633, The Wallace Collection

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.  Velázquez, 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.

Marcus Gheeraerts the Younger (1561/2-1636) Portrait of a Boy aged Two inscribed 1608

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  Velázquez’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!

2. Sexuality

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.

Angelica Kauffman (1741-1807) Henrietta Laura Pulteney circa 1777, The Holburne Museum

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.”

Marie Antoinette at age 13 by Joseph Ducreux, 1769, pastel, Versailles

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.

I'm so cute! I'm so innocent! My skirt shows my bottom!

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.

Louis XV as a very young child by an unknown artist, approximately 1712

Louis XV age 5 in coronation robes by Hyacinthe Rigaud, 1715

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.

Mariana of Austria and her older brother, Ferdinand IV, King of the Romans, by Frans Luycx, c. 1636.

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.


  1. Great post!
    Love the Shirley Temple image quote. heh. A lot of outfits for children of both sexes were appallingly short back then. Boys in short shorts… ha. But at least girls dresses usually came with matching bloomers…. mini skirts don’t do that now 😉 kidding…
    So interesting how drastically fashion changed for children. Now they’re nearly to the mini-adult mode again.

  2. You know what that Marie Antoinette portrait reminded me of?…Miley Cyrus when she was half naked on the cover of that magazine…except MA was much classier and prettier. Great post! I’m going to try and work this post into my talk as a great example of interpretation, research and blogging! 🙂

    • Elise says

      I loved the photo of Miley. That was the time that she was starting to find her own sexuality–the right of every teenager–at an age when she is still acting like a girl and was viewed as a girl. The picture showed her to be so vulnerable, and scared, like anyone should be when faced by the media. Her skinny, naked back and position appeared to be similar of engravings showing slaves being flogged, as if she was about to be flogged–which she was, albeit metaphorically.

      Anyhow, I was very interested to read this post and I was very excited to read the comments! You are right, Abby, Marie Antoinette is very similar to Miley!

        • D- Have you looked it up? I believe it was Vanity Fair. Everyone had a major meltdown over it because of the partial nudity (I use this term loosely, in repetition of what others had said).

          Elise, she does have a very dark appearance in the photo, but this is also at the height of Vampire fever, which the photo was compared to in appearance. Makes me wonder if they opted to go that dark route because of the ‘beauty’ we find it in, or if was to juxtapose her ‘real’ self to her Hannah Montana Disney-fied character/alter ego (or both). It was definitely the beginning of her shedding that image. All very interesting to discuss, for sure.

          • Now that I’ve seen it, I definitely agree that she is supposed to look vampire-ish! Look at that grey skin, and the bags under her eyes, and the very red lips! I don’t really see the resemblance to the Marie Antoinette painting, but it does trigger memories of another painting, which I think it is supposed to echo/reference. I’ll have to go have a look and see what it is that I’m thinking of.

          • Elise says

            I still saw her as a vulnerable and abused girl. But you are right–she does look….pallid. Very provoking picture, though! Too bad it causes such a moral firestorm, because I thought it was so interesting.

          • D- I just meant in age and how they were displayed as “adults”, not that she really resembles MA…does that make sense? Sorry for be unclear! 🙂

  3. I didn’t realise quite how womanly little boy’s dresses were, with hips and everything.

    Makes me wonder whether femininity was something boys were expected to have and then grow out of or whether women were seen as a category of people who never grow to maturity…

    • I think children were simply not really seen as gendered until about 6 or 7 when boys were ‘breeched’ and put on their first trousers.

      • I’d argue that those dresses are very definitely gendered though, particularly Geeraert’s Boy Aged Two. So why does a non-gendered child get the same clothes as a woman?

        Another question. These are formal portraits of upper-class children – how closely do you think these garments reflect what these kids would actually have worn regularly?

        • I suspect (and this is just a guess, not based on research) that upper-class children wore these garments on really formal occasions, and most of the time they were stuck at the back of the house/palace with their governess in much simpler clothes. It would have depended a lot on the country and the status of the children too – Louis probably got less informal time than Geerhaerts Boy, being king and all.

  4. Re: Shirley Temple: Actually, Graham Greene saw her as sexualised (and kind of exploited that way by the filmmakers, if I understood that right), and there was quite a scandal about it and a court case. I know from his authobiography, which happens to be the only book by him I’ve read…

    • Occasional people may have noticed, and complained about, Shirley’s attire, but for the majority of American’s she symbolised “wholesome family entertainment” See Barrios, Richard (1995). A Song in the Dark: The Birth of the Musical Film. Oxford University Press. ISBN 0-19-508810-7.

      • Can’t see that, I’m afraid, although I’d love to. 🙂

        I just noted that because it may have been the beginnings of current day sensibilities.

  5. Interesting, though-provoking post. I sometimes think those who came before would be appalled at the way children are brought up these days. Not that mini-adulthood is great, either…

    Agree about teeny beauty pageants.

  6. What a fascinating post. I would note that I am not sure I totally agree that our “sexualised” readings of some of these paintings is completely a case of the sexuality being in the eye/mind of the beholder; I must admit I’ve studied Victorian visual culture more closely than the symbolism in paintings from earlier eras, but I would imagine some of the symbolic elements Victorian audiences would have been able to “read” into 19th century paintings were there in decades or centuries prior? Example: if we consider the visual codes embedded in other elements of some of the paintings, particularly the Kauffman painting of fair Henrietta, I think there are some strongly sexual elements coded into details around the girl (aside from her clothing), particularly the budding branch/vine she is holding, even the basket of blooms (and the position it is painted at), the way there is an opening in the scenery where light is emanating. Surely, it is not merely the result of my modern sex-in-advertising mind that is seeing symbolic suggests of female fecundity, sexual “ripening,” etc? Anyway, I wanted to ask you what you thought of John Everett Millais’s painting, “Cherry Ripe,” which I know was the subject of academic controversies that relate nicely to your post here (http://www.jstor.org/pss/3828007). Also, how about Lewis Carroll (Charles Ludwidge Dodson) and his photographs of Alice Liddell and other girl children? In the case of Carroll, his photos relate to the subject of children in adult’s clothes only in the sense that young girls were often photographed by Carroll completely nude. Fascinating yet complex topic!!

    • Oh dear, what a Pandora’s box!

      I purposely didn’t discuss the 19th century in this post. First, the idea of ‘childhood’ and of children having separate responsibilities was far more developed. Second, there has been so much research into hidden sexuality in Victorian art. While I’m not sure I agree with all of the more elaborate and far fetched theories (I read an entire essay, with numerous illustrations, about the lesbian overtones of Victorian fashion plates, and how the feet were drawn to represent clitoris), I also think that the Victorians had a more complicated relationship with sexuality than they like to admit. Personally, I think that while people could have found Cherry Ripe very sexualised, there is someone out there who finds kitchen taps and potato pealers erotic, so that isn’t saying a lot. To me it is just a hideous, overly saccharine painting. I have to look really hard to see any possibility of it being more.

      I will concede that Henrietta’s portrait is very complicated, and I tried to express that in the article. The thing is, all the symbolism that we could take to indicate burgeoning sexuality were also symbols that were frequently used to denote innocence and childhood. The budding branch is the fragile flower of childhood, gone too soon. The basket of flowers was a common symbols of childhood and innocence in 18th century art – you could even see it as being held in front of her to indicate that she is still going down the path of childhood. The light falling on the child was an artistic device usually used to indicate that someone was under God’s protection. Or, the light and the opening could just as easily symbolise the wider world she will be going into, away from the shelter of childhood. Yes, this is linked to sexual maturity, but it is also linked to intellectual and emotional maturity – it doesn’t have to be all about sex! Of course, the Kaufmann probably just did it all because flowers look pretty and gave the girl a graceful pose and allowed for pretty lighting, and she got to show off that she could do still lifes, portraits and landscapes all in one picture. 😉

    • I did a little research, and the in the 18th century mourning glory (the vine Henrietta is holding) symbolised the brevity of youth, as it lasts only one day. I’m not sure how that affects the reading of the image as having sexual undertones.

  7. thanks for your response. very fascinating indeed! I still think there’s an argument to be made that the use of flowers, branches, and the like in portraits depicting female children or adolescence is not a coincidence…and not detached from sexuality. Just as it is important not to over-read for sexual elements, it is important not to elide some of the erotic frisson that, assuredly, contemporary audiences would have “read” in the images. Again, my pre-Victorian history is a little rusty, but if the periodical press and literature of the 18th and 19th centuries are any indications, the lovely pastoral ideals we imagine graceful ladies and gentlemen of these eras represent are a far cry from the historical-cultural realities that existed. Example: the sexual, physical exploitation of children, particularly female children, not just through the socially sanctioned marriage market. Look at how many illegitimate children were borne of the Royals of England in these centuries and how many of the conquests of Kings like Charles II were young women (barely women). I think of literature from this period, which is filled with images of young females being under threat of rape (the novel Pamela, for example; the poem “Rape of the Lock.”) In Restoration theatre, the stock character of the rake symbolises the cultural type of male who existed in the upper circles of the society also depicted in paintings (the rake’s goal being to “deflower” young virgin females simply for sexual sport). Underneath the veneer of upper class morality and piety, this was a highly sexual world, prostitution was rampant (and wealthy male theatre goers needed to be skilled in the art of reading visual/sartorial codes embodied by the young women at the theatre in order to determine who the courtesans were…) Anyway, point is, the fecundity of “Mother Nature” and images of youthful females have rarely been presented without the suggestion that female maturation is linked to sexuality (Robert Herrick’s “Ode to the Virgins to Make much of time” with its line “gather ye rosebuds while ye may, old time is still a-flying” exemplifies the idea that there is a whole body of seduction themed art from this period. In Herrick’s poem, readers assuredly knew that the rosebuds to be gathered were not just random life experiences but also sexual ones–why else emphasize “virginity” in the title)…surely similar coding can be found in the art as in the poetry). Final note: in many medieval and renaissance paintings depicting religious figures like Mary, the “conception” part of the immaculate conception is often symbolically figured via things like beams of light and fecund plants and flowers (definitely something re-figured in 19th century Pre-Raphaelite painter, Dante Gabriel Rossetti’s “The Annunciation.”) I’m not saying all 18th century art is bawdy, but I think there’s a middle to be ground where, yes, sometimes, a shoe is just a shoe, but I think over-reading can be just as problematic as under-estimating the original potency of many elements in these images. Thanks for always presenting such evocative and interesting topics!!!!

    • True, you could see the late 18th century as the age of rampant sexuality, but you could equally argue that it was the age of burgeoning prudishness. It was the time of Charles and Mary Lamb, and their sanitised, child suitable, Tales from Shakespeare. It also gave rise to the first published fairy tales, all heavily purified from the earthier versions told to children.
      Jane Austen’s novels (most started in the late 18th century), reveal the strong emphasis on propriety in Georgian England. There isn’t a single kiss described, and those who do venture outside of extreme prudishness are punished for their behaviour. I believe Jane herself said that she never wrote a scene between men, because she had never overheard what men talked about when they were alone, and could not covey it realistically. While Pamela and a number of other works of the time depict a much more raucous England, they became famous purely because they were sensational, and scandalous. They depicted a part of life that wasn’t generally acknowledged or written about.
      In France, all the slanders written against Marie Antoinette show that such behavior was considered to be outside the accepted social norm. Her Grandfather in law may have had numerous mistresses, but it is documented that his children thought that was unacceptable, and his grandson, MA’s husband, would have been horrified. Times were changing, and the changed times were the ones Henrietta lived in.
      All this is just to argue that you could argue the other way. I think to see the 18th century as a highly sexualised time is just as inaccurate as to see it as a completely innocent, prudish time. It probably depended entirely on who you were – then, or now, I would have been, and am, pretty incapable of picking up on sexual overtones. Most of the time my mind is so innocent it couldn’t find the gutter if there were giant flashing arrows pointing to it. For people like me, without a lot of prodding and explanation from someone else, paintings like the one of Henrietta will always be about childhood innocence (and based on Kauffmann’s rather prudish oeuvre and string of paintings about “Beauty Guided by Prudence Rejects Folly” etc., I suspect she meant it in a more innocent way too).

  8. Excellent post, thank you. It certainly is about the context as much as the content! And since we have a modern context and understand it, then disapproving of those ghastly pageants is an informed choice! 🙂

  9. gina says

    It is interesting the way children were bought up in those days, especially if they were in a wealthy family, from an early age their lessons were often very intense as they were trained to take on the role that society and their parents expected of them. I wonder if lower class families could afford portraits whether the children would be playing or working?

  10. Excellent points–I especially like thinking about the practicality question. I think people often forget that paintings are are special-occasion attire moments in most cases–so certainly, even royalty wouldn’t have been that trussed up all the time, and common-born children even less so. I actually find the children’s gowns of common people to be even more adorable in their simplicty, even though the basic shapes are really nearly identical…aside over. But we rail on how impractical these kids’ portrait attire was, forgetting that our own kids are dolled up in christening gowns, flower girl dresses, and those cutesy toddler-boy three-piece suits with coordinating bow-ties. Totally impractical. But we only do it on special occasions–just as I imagine these children were only “fully trussed” for formal functions–and portraits. I agree 100% that most of the time they were in simpler, easier-to-clean clothing tucked away somewhere with a governess, so we can’t judge the practicality of their clothes based on the portraits. Plus–babies are waaaay easier to change in infant shirts and gowns than in onesies. Seriously. Who decided babies in pants was a wise idea? Now, that’s impractical.

  11. My last post on this: I guess what I was getting at is that when you note that “children were still viewed as potential pawns, their value to be realised by the marriages they made,” female children were viewed not simply for their eligibility as wives, but due to the reproductive roles they would come to play as the producer of heirs, so depictions of FEMALE children/childhood are intrinsically different from those of males, because their expected places/roles within the patrilineal social order was inextricably linked with their sexual/reproductive roles. Thus, when, for example, 18th century viewers of the Henrietta painting looked at its elements, it just seems completely plausible to me that it depicted both innocent youth and a foreshadowing of its loss in ways that alluded to the culturally understood reproductive/sexual roles of women in the 18th century marriage market.

  12. If you look around in the local stores you will see that we haven’t drifted to far from the children dressed as adults and as sexual beings style. This is particularly true in clothes for preteens! In Canada we have graduation parties for kids going from Junior High to Senior High School. These kids would be around 15 years old. The outfits these girls showed up in had my prudish eye brows up into my hair line! Half of them were wobbling around in stiletto heels nearly as tall as their neck lines were low.
    It is our tendency to see the past through rose colored glass…prettied up and romantisized. Or we see it through black glasses…horrified at how dark and evil it’s standards were. In reality it was both. And in reality our own world is both. Sure our medical advances are awesome and we gave women the vote and out lawed child pornography BUT people are dieing of new diseases and from to much livin’ the good life. We have better ways to kill off whole countries of people. The perverts are still out there getting sneakier by the day. We shouldn’t judge because in many cases we are no better and in some cases we are worse.

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