18th Century

Or, if historical children’s clothes still bug you…

You could always just get rid of them altogether.

Lady Cockburn and Her Three Eldest Sons by Joshua Reynolds, 1777

I’ve gotta say, at that age, nekkid is probably the best way to go, as long as the weather is warm enough.

I do feel sorry for Lady Cockburn though, that looks like three kids under three!


  1. Plus a parrot. She’s not looking entirely happy about the whole situation.

    • Well, she didn’t have to give birth to the parrot, but those things are still a handful. They’re vicious! Not at all what you want around three naughty little boys, unless you are hoping to keep one of the boys in dresses for a long time!

      • Only vicious if they:
        (a) Don’t know you
        (b) Don’t like you
        (c) Are mad at you for something you did to annoy them.
        (d) Haven’t given them the attention they think they deserve (i.e.: Your entire day)

        The few minutes in between, they are sweet angels. At least mine is
        Oh, and they yell when they want something or are mad at you. My macaw yells back if you shout “Hey!” at him.

        • I forgot to mention that the green wing macaw she has probably did a bunch of yelling. How else could he have been heard over the children?

          She looks rather distracted, but at least the macaw looks happy enough not to yell.

          Sorry, I just can’t stop going on about the bird! 🙂

        • I bet anything that (b), (c), and (d) all applied in this picture! (b) and (c) for the little boys (just look at how close the top one is to bopping it on the head, and the baby would have no problem yanking it’s tail), and (d) for the poor, overwhelmed mum!

          • I can’t help wondering how much those children harassed the macaw. They look like they could be very naughty. And a macaw’s tail is so long…… and pretty……


  2. So interesting! THIS painting seems completely void of the images/symbolism I was going on about in some of those other paintings of clothed children. I go back to my decidedly unresearched hypothesis that paintings of older female children (not but girls who are on the cusp of becoming young women) are coded with allusion to their burgeoning fertility/fecundity, which sort of foreshadows and probably played a role in normalizing the patriarchal social orders of the day that saw women’s destinies in terms of their procreative roles as bearers of future heirs and carriers of bloodlines. I get what you were saying about reading “pedophilia” in all historical paintings as possible proof of such things being in the jaded modern eyes of the beholder. I wish I had more time and energy to research the idea of female sexuality in art from the 18th century, though, because I just can’t shake the feeling that there was something erotic going on in the ways the girls were portrayed in so many of those paintings….I recall in my research into 19th century art and photography that MEN were the social endorsed primary producers and “consumers” of art (the boys club of the Royal Academy and all that). Surely, even within the domestic spaces of the aristocrats, paintings of a family’s girl children were displayed within the home as part of a show of the “commodities” that a family possessed–so, it might be to a wealthy family’s advantage to have a portraitist deliberately portray a man’s daughters in nubile, inviting terms, as an advertisement to visitors who may either eventually be on the marriage market OR who might be part of a family with whom a strategic marital alliance would eventually be made. Enough of my annoying blathering. Your posts on this topic have my curious mind eager to learn more!

  3. I should note that it is striking to me that the mother’s bosom is covered. This makes me curious about the extent to which a woman’s decolletage was exposed in this time period was an important sartorial code about the woman’s marital status (I seem to recall my 18th century lit prof mention something about the idea that a young unmarried woman would publicly show a more exposed bosom, whereas a mother or widow would not?). I know that, unlike the modern mother, the aristocratic mother of this time would not nourish her children from her own breast–that was what the wet nurse was for, so I understand the painter’s decision not show the bosom of the mother too much. However, I am struck by how, even though this woman, who clearly knows of the ways of nature and sexuality, as she is holding the fruits of her loins here, is presented in a much less charged way than some of the younger females in other paintings you’ve shown. In fact, I think there’s a deliberate removal of eroticism here–this may be reflective of the idea that Reynolds was respecting the social ideal of motherhood as the embodiment of purity, etc?

    Yes, much to the annoyance of everyone, I’m sure, this all again makes me want to go back to the images of girls/young women that some commenters found a little bit disconcerting (due to charged tension implied in the contrast between the voluptuousness and sensuality which a lower neckline on such a young female wearer might convey and the apparent age of the depicted “model”). I can’t shake the feeling that, in regards to the relative emphasis/exposure of the female subject’s bosom (in the culture and the art of this period) there’s a fashion social code that we are overlooking when we say that all readings of these paintings of girls/women as even remotely sexual is a modern invention?? As I am not a fashion historian and as the clothing of the 18th century is not something I know much about, I would love to know more!!

    • Well. I mean.. If you look at photographs of me from 5 years ago, and photographs now, I show a lot less cleavage. It’s not because I’m buying into some patriarchal worldview. Sounds a little bit like feminist paranoia. Women tend to cover up more as they get older.

      I say bravo to Lady Cockburn for managing such a coiffure (her maid?) and keeping all those little hands from pulling it down to strings. Poor woman, a Macaw to take care of on top of everything else.

      • I’m sure the maid has a lot to do with her coiffure!

        Interestingly, I’m showing more cleavage that I did 5 years ago. I guess I have a French attitude towards matrimony (well, 19th century French, I don’t know how they feel about it today!). As an unmarried woman, you are safer more covered up, and you really need men to assess you and like you for your personality, not your figure. As a married woman, my dress is only influenced by what I like, and by what Mr D likes (and trust me, if he had his way I would show way more cleavage and legs than I do!), so I feel free to show more skin than I did as an unmarried woman. Also, I feel that when I was in my late teens and early 20s, a more innocent mode of dress suited me. At almost thirty (eek!) a more sophisticated look goes with my age better. More sophisticated doesn’t always mean cleavage, but it can.

        But if I had just been pregnant 3 years in a row, you better believe I would be covered up like Lady C!

    • You know, this is really interesting–I recall noting the opposite observation in regard to age and coverage when looking at some Hogarth prints–the younger women were wearing kercheifs, while the older women in the prints had exposed decolletage. Extremely unscientific data on my part–these were just a few prints, and I haven’t done any sort of numerical data gathering (# of younger vs older women with kercheifs or anything). But clearly a complicated issue–and I think that often, our modern notion of what’s sexual is difficult to untangle from the historical perspective.

      Regardless, this lady just looks…tired. LOL…I would be, too! Even with wet nurses and, probably, a parrot-keeper.

  4. Rowenna…fascinating. You got what I meant. I was writing from a historical perspective. Not sure where the notion of “feminist paranoia” about buying into a patriarchal worldview” comes at all into what I was writing about. I was wondering about the HISTORICAL link between marital status and age and exposed or unexposed decolletage in women’s dress in the 18th century! As for modern culture, Hollywood certainly doesn’t provide many examples of the hypothesis that women cover up more as they get older. Look at Helen Mirren!! 🙂 We now live in the age of the “Yummy Mummy” after all. Yeesh!

Comments are closed.