“Darlings of Dress: Children’s Costume 1860-1920” by Norma Shephard is a beautifully organized look at sixty years of children’s fashions. The book is nearly two hundred pages of visual joy looking not just at children’s fashions, but the societies that designed them. Ms. Shephard provides a stunning timeline that clearly delineates the change from Victorian children dressed as miniature adults to the 20th century embrace of children as children who need to move and play.
While perusing the chapters, all laid out by decade, I was very impressed not only in the variety of the pictures (almost always more than one image of each style being discussed) but with the depth of knowledge Ms. Shephard provided. In each decade she delved briefly and concisely into the views of the day regarding the purpose of clothing, the prevailing thoughts on health, new technologies that were available, and children’s place within society. The book also does an excellent job of tracking the provenance of garments and the transition from homemade to store-bought as well as what garments were procured where. Even as catalog and store bought clothes gained traction, there were still some garments made at home. As each new style is introduced it is accompanied by a vivid description of shape, fabric options, as well as popular colors and combinations. Often, garments are described that are not actually pictured. While initially frustrating to not see the garments, they are so meticulously described that they come alive in the reader’s mind thanks to the fullness of Ms. Shephard’s writing.
The pages of “Darlings of Dress” are absolutely filled with beautiful black and white photos and illustrations, as well as colorized fashion plates, catalog images, and portraits for every era. It is charming and delightful to see not only how fashions for children were changing, but also how the advertising changed with the decades. This book brings so many clothing styles to life for the reader with a full accompaniment of shoes, and bags, and accessories for the growing little one. A personal favorite is the (slightly terrifying) child’s purse made of some taxidermied critter, complete with teeth and eyes.
The 1860s dressed children as pint-sized adults and ushered in the advent of the sewing machine. The 1870s, with the sewing machine more established, enabled the lower classes the imitate those with more means. Children's clothing became more ornate, providing a perfect introduction to the 1880s when children were dressed to see and be seen, as Ms. Shepard so accurately put it. The 1890s brought dress reform and a new consciousness about health and children’s needs while growing. By 1900, while elegance was still a concern, clothing started to be more about ease. The teens brought with them dropping waists, relaxed lines, and finally a bit more time for children to just be and grow as children. Ms. Shepard brings a wonderful personal history to the book as well, with the final decade of the book featuring several childhood pictures of the author’s father at various ages.
From the nearly 50 page introduction which is informative and fascinating to each well rounded chapter/decade, Norma Shephard has produced yet another beautiful look at a niche in historical fashion. Whether or not you’re specifically interested in children’s clothing, “Darlings of Dress” is a beautiful and insightful look at 60 years of fashion history.
Review by ASDP member Cisa Kubley