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Ribbons of Childhood in the 17th Century

Updated April 17, 2017

While today's parents expect that modern children's clothing should be practical and comfortable for the purpose of allowing play and learning, children's clothing was not so freeing in other eras. The function of an article of clothing called the "ribbons of childhood" reveal that our thinking on children has changed over the centuries. While society now thinks of childhood as it's own stage, 17th century society considered children miniature adults and constrained them in that mindset.

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Clothing Beneath the Ribbons of Childhood

To understand what the term "ribbons of childhood" meant in the 17th century, it is necessary to understand that at that time, all children were dressed alike for the first several years of life. Whether boys or girls, they were attired in long shifts covered by petticoats that were protected by bibs and pinafores. Without the convenience of disposable diapers, it was a never-ending task to change a child's dirty diapers, so access was important. Infants were in even longer gowns. Once children became ambulatory, the gowns shortened.

Function of Ribbons of Childhood

Seventeenth century children spent most of their time with women. Once they could toddle and walk, flat ribbons were attached to the shoulders of their clothing. Initially, an adult holding the ribbons helped them to remain vertical. Over time, however, the ribbons were used to direct where they went and how far away from their caregiver they could go. Keep in mind that at that time childhood was not considered its own development phase; children were considered miniatures of adults and were expected to restrain their activities. Not only did ribbons help keep children safe, but they did what children could not do themselves.

Materials and Other Functions of Ribbons

Ribbon manufacturing expanded greatly in 17th century Europe and America as did the popularity of satin and silk ribbons used for clothing decoration, at least for the merchant and upper classes. Thus, using these pretties for utilitarian purposes on children's clothing was natural. The working class and the poor used grosgrain ribbon, cloth tape, self fabric and string alternatives. To make clothing adaptable, ribbons also were used to create general-size shifts and pinafores with drawstring necklines, backs and sleeves to fit the child's size as they grew.

Duration of Ribbons of Childhood

Ribbons fluttered on children's clothing as a symbol of their child status until around the age of 6. At that age, children's clothing became more adult. Girls dresses took on the characteristics of grown women's clothing, while maintaining the pinafore coverings. Young boys transitioned to their first pants, a custom called breeching, and began to spend more time with their fathers and brothers. Restrained behaviour was expected, "no strings attached."

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About the Author

Jan Wondra began writing in 1979 for the "Milwaukee Journal," "Minneapolis & St. Paul Skyway News," Sauk County Media and "Adoptive Family" magazine. She holds a Bachelor of Science in journalism and design from the University of Wisconsin.

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