YOUNG GIRL’S DRESS OF BLOCK-PRINTED COTTON
British, ca. 1780–90
In its fabric and construction, this young girl’s dress speaks to the success of the British cotton industry as well as changing attitudes towards child development in the second half of the eighteenth century. Produced in increasing quantities and available at a wide range of prices that reflected quality of fabric and complexity of printing, patterned and plain cottons began to replace silks for daywear in the wardrobes of men, women and children across the socio-economic spectrum. Small-scale, repeating floral designs, known as calicoes, were used extensively for women’s and girls’ dresses. Although white-ground calicoes were more popular overall, dark colored grounds were particularly fashionable in the 1780s and 1790s. Barbara Johnson (1738–1825), a British woman of the rural gentry, kept a scrapbook of her dress fabrics; included among these is a black-ground calico with a small, trailing floral pattern (Victoria and Albert Museum, T.219-1973), purchased in 1787, which is very similar to this example.
By the late eighteenth century, children were no longer viewed as miniature adults or restricted by the more formal styles of their parents’ clothing. A new emphasis was placed on comfort and freedom of movement that were deemed essential for children’s physical and mental health. This simply styled dress with a high-waisted bodice is gently fitted with small tucks front and back that allowed for growth. The eminently practical fabric choice of a colorful, washable cotton was a sensible concession to the needs of an active young girl.