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Dressing children

Newborn babies of both sexes were wrapped in strips of cloth. This age-old practice not only kept the baby warm but was believed to prevent the limbs from growing crooked. On becoming mobile at around the age of one, children were coated – put into more practical ankle-length clothing. At this age, boys’ attire is often impossible to differentiate from that worn by young girls as both sexes wear skirted garments, facilitating both movement and toilet training. Fabric strips attached at the shoulder (known as leading strings) supported a child learning to walk and restrained them from wandering into danger.

Breeching, which took place around the age of six, marked a major rite of passage for boys. New clothes, similar in cut to those worn by adult men, were purchased for the occasion and sometimes a portrait was commissioned. For girls, the transition into adulthood was less obviously marked through attire, although cutting the leading strings for girls was a symbolic break with childhood. Clothes worn by young girls tended to be similar to those worn by their mothers but with a few subtle differences. Stays for example – stiffened undergarments which shaped and supported the torso – were less constrictive than those worn by women but were worn from the age of about two or three.

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