18th C. · Conservation Projects · Regency Era

Wet Cleaning an Infant Shirt for Conservation Part 2: IDing and Dating the Object

23 SEP-22 OCT 2019
Supervisor: Professor Rebecca Kelly for TMD 538, University of Rhode Island

I had some hunches about what periods this shirt might be from based on the pieces being cut from geometric shapes. It resembled my 1810s chemise I made, as well as patterns I have seen for reproducing 18th century Western European women’s chemises. These chemises feature gussets in the same manner as this shirt; the main difference is the chemises have sleeves. Earlier chemises had a fuller sleeve, which needed to be reduced once very fitted sleeves became popular in the 18th century. At this time children’s clothes tended to follow women’s fashions. During the Regency era, some children’s sleeves were very tight and short, leading me to question if perhaps there are no sleeves because they would have been took bulky and unnecessary, as very small children don’t sweat in the same way as adults do.

This is where I began my search. I looked at reproductions of extant sewing books (mainly The Lady’s Guide to Plain Sewing, Books I and II as reproduced by Kannik’s Korner), when it was possible to get my hands on them, but I found that the diagrams were quite confusing, and the sewing instructions were even more so. I am hoping to return to these books at some point and puzzle them out because they are fascinating! Additionally I looked at many infant shirts in other museum collections through their online databases. Unfortunately, none completely resembled the one I was working with, and museum dates are not always accurate or very specific if the object hasn’t been researched after accession by a specialist.

I almost always begin research by raiding my own bookshelf, as I may find information I didn’t know I already had. On the other hand, it often reveals gaps in my (small) library that I may want to fill, such as when I have been researching for my 1810s Redingote. I have not yet succumbed to an interest in children’s clothing, so I stuck to borrowing, rather than purchasing books for my research.

I began with my most used reference book, Tortora and Eubank’s Survey of Historic Costume. I like to start with this book because it is a useful general overview of Western European costume history. I use the 4th edition because that is the one I purchased in college, but it is my understanding that subsequent editions haven’t been significantly altered to the point where an experienced dress historian needs an updated edition. I also strongly dislike the cover images chosen for the last two editions. They appear to be modern images of people dressed in historically inspired outfits, which I feel is misleading to students and diminishes the importance of the field of dress history.
One of the downsides of this book, is that generally it only includes a brief section on children’s dress for each fashion era. So in this case, I had to find a better beginning point of reference.

Women’s Dress During the American Revolution: An Interpretive Guide is quite a good read. It is a spiral-bound publication put out by the Brigade of the American Revolution Press, part of the nonprofit living history association Brigade of the American Revolution. I have only interacted a little with re-enactors, but it has always been an educational and interesting experience. I would be much more skeptical of this book as an academic source if it had a single author, but as it was assembled by a committee with an editor, that gives it more credibility. Additionally, they go out of their way to address some misconceptions which have previously influenced re-enactors, which indicates to me they value historical accuracy enough to be transparent. While those who have assembled the book may or may not be academic researchers, the re-creation of a historical garment is its own exercise in research, and often focuses on finding information that is overlooked by research performed for other purposes.

For example, here I was looking for a source which might confirm what I suspected to be true so far based on my observations, that the triangular gusset and use of geometric shapes in cutting was common in women’s 18th century and early 19th century chemises. The problem is, unless you are looking at a source for reproducing historical garments, most history books don’t include such information. They tend to use silhouette, fabric design, and surface decoration as a means to identify garments.

The proposals which sprang from my observation were confirmed by the Women’s Dress During the American Revolution book, which stated the practice of cutting chemises from geometric shapes continued into the 1840s. I have since read elsewhere that it continued only to around 1820, but of course, sewing practices, being a human endeavour, never neatly fits into a timeline. The image below, from an auction, is an excellent side by side comparison of construction of a women’s chemise and a child’s undergarment (likely also a chemise) from around the turn of the the 19th century.

Image from the Charles A. Whitaker Auction Company

Re-enactment is often a family affair, so I was also curious to see if there was anything written about how long this cutting practice extended for children’s wear. If there was going to be an exception in the timeline, I anticipated it to be with children’s clothing, as due to the shape of their body, one can get away with more geometric cuts in children’s clothing. Geometrically cut pattern pieces are also easier to sew together, thus saving time and labor on a garment which might be quickly outgrown or worn out.

From there, I moved on to the books in the University of Rhode Island’s Historic Textiles and Costume Collection, where I found a copy of Clothes and the Child: A Handbook of Children’s Dress in England 1500-1900 by Anne Buck. From this book I determined the name for this garment was probably an “open infant shirt”. While this one doesn’t have an obvious front and back, Buck (1996) writes that front opening infant shirts are prevalent in the late 18th century and tend to be made of squares and rectangles.

Information Update

Object: Open infant shirt
Accession No.: N/A, Conservation Teaching Collection
Materials: Unknown
Date: Likely late 18th century
, possibly early 19th century

References

  • Buck, Anne. Clothes and the Child: a Handbook of Children’s Dress in England, 1500-1900. NY: Holmes & Meier Pub, 1996.
  • Fifield, Rebecca L, ed. Women’s Dress During the American Revolution: An Interpretive Guide. 5th ed. Brigade of the American Revolution Press, 2004.
  • Kannik, Kathleen. The Lady’s Guide to Plain Sewing [Books I and II]. Kannik’s Korner, 1993.
  • Tortora, Phyllis G., and Keith Eubank. Survey of Historic Costume . 4th ed. New York: Fairchild Publications, 2005.

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