History of Baby Clothes

     History of Baby

Overview of recent history of baby clothes

The history of baby clothes is not something about which a great deal is written yet it is a fascinating subject. As a creator of knitted baby cardigans and blankets I am always mindful of the traditional baby colours. I try to create garments in different shades but when it comes to creating a web-based shop I have to bear in mind the wording that will be entered in searches.

For instance, if I tag two cardigans as "blue baby girl cardigan"  and  "pink baby boy cardigan" they are unlikely to be found as people rarely enter those exact descriptions in their searches. But by putting the gender I have a better chance of the item being found than if I just put "baby cardigan".

Furthermore, whilst attempting to create garments that could be worn by either sex, I still have to put the buttons on one side or the other! For unisex garments fastenings are generally made to do up on the male side as it is considered ok for a girl to wear boys' clothes but not the other way round. I often wonder what the situation will be in another sixty years or so? 

Such problems didn't exist in the late 1800s and early 1900s as anyone who is fortunate enough to have family photos from those periods will be aware.

Baby Clothes before the end of World War I

Victorian family group photo showing all white baby clothesFamily group late 1800s showing all white baby and child clothing

Until around the time of the first World War babies and young children wore the same clothes regardless of whether they were boys or girls. Both sexes wore dresses.

White was the usual colour children’s clothes and nappies as this enabled them to be bleached during laundering.

Boy and Girl 1915 in unisex clothing1915 a brother and sister in unisex garments

Colour development in the history of baby clothes

When and why did we start to believe that it was blue for a boy and pink for a girl?

Jo B Paoletti, a professor at the University of Maryland, has been studying the meaning of children’s clothing. She has published a book on the subject, “Pink and Blue: Telling the Boys from the Girls in America”.

Paoletti notes that pastel shades were introduced into baby wear from the 1920s.  She quotes an article from a trade publication dated 1918 which states that pink was a strong colour for boys whereas blue was prettier for girls. It was only from around 1940 that blue became identified with boys and pink for girls.

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Once gender specific colours for baby wear became the norm, parents became concerned about the social repercussions of dressing their babies in the wrong colour. There were concerns, for example, that by dressing a boy in pink he might grow up to be a cissy.

Although in the main we tend not to believe this today, when buying clothing for a baby shower, for instance, it is far more acceptable to give a baby girl something in blue than it is to give something pink to a boy.

During the 1960s the rise of the women’s movement led to a move towards gender neutral colours once more so as not to pre-empt the child’s development. But what goes around comes around… 

Since medical advances have allowed the sex of the baby to become known before birth, there has once again been a shift towards buying gender specific garments.

History of baby clothes and the knitwear of the 1950s

Two young children paddling in sea, one in knitted swimsuitMy sister in her knitted swimsuit

Fabrics and yarns have played as big a part in the history of baby clothes as colour.

In these days of cheap, mass produced clothing, a hand made garment, especially one in a natural yarn, is regarded as a luxury, as something a bit special to be sought after and treasured.

When I was a child in the 1950s just about every woman could knit - and did. My grandmother, who had fewer daily commitments than my mother, would spend most of her time knitting. She knitted her own clothes as well as garments for her granddaughters. Most memorably she knitted us vests, swimsuits and, joy of joys... knickers!

The wool my grandmother used for our underwear was pure but it lacked the softness of modern 100% merino and cashmere yarns. Few people had washing machines so everything was hand washed yet our woollies still used to shrink wash by wash, becoming itchier as they got smaller and tighter against the skin.

Knitted vests were just about tolerable. Knitted swimsuits were ok until you tried to come out of the sea wearing them at which point the shoulder straps would sag so the whole garment enveloped your knees. But the worst of all were the knitted knickers!

As a five-year old I simply couldn't bear the feel of them.

But, as luck would have it, in those days we had a bath which stood on legs (that's another former fashion that's now back in vogue). Many a morning, before going to school, I'd remove my knickers and throw them far under the bath, unable to tolerate their itchiness a moment longer. Going to school without any was heaven.

Sometimes my mother found them when cleaning and when I went home for lunch would insist I put them back on. What amazes me, in retrospect, is that she never checked I was wearing them before I left the house in the mornings.

Anyway, eventually the embarrassment of continually sending a knickerless child to school got to her and my mother bought us manufactured ones.

But in the main, in those days, factory-produced clothes were more expensive than homemade ones and were something of a status symbol.

How things have changed!

Modern natural yarns have made itchy handknits for children a thing of the past as they now offer a supreme degree of softness as well as being eminently washable. Despite that, I still wouldn't wish to inflict knitted knickers on anyone!

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