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Thursday, May 20, 2010

Girls' Dress in History

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Working with frocks and dresses to adorn young girls for life’s special celebrations will soon invoke an interest in the origins of so many charming styles. History always adds depth to beauty, and it is no less the case with something as every-day as little girls’ frocks.

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Flower girl dresses, in particular, borrow from centuries of past fashion and through history enhance the romance of innumerable wedding days. The flower girl is a wonderful personage who adds to any themed celebration not only by the charm of childhood, but also by the charm of costume.
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Hundreds of years in human past, children were not considered the innocent babes modern society now so cherishes. Children were rather tiny adults full of sinful tendencies; life was strict and full of harsh discipline with little to no play. Fashion of these centuries from the 1400’s well into the 18th Century, for children, were either uncomfortable mini-versions of elaborate adult costume or confining garments of swaddles and stays intended to confine children so adults could work. Swaddling was one done so tightly to infants with the intention of slowing the heartbeat and quieting crying babies through sleep. It was a stark world for children and fashion reflected the times.
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Happily the 18th century brought the idea that children were born innocent and were in fact “divine creatures of nature”. New and wonderful beliefs now encouraged outdoor play and the virtue of whimsy in childhood. In this era, we find the empire dress with a high waistline and flowing skirt to allow movement and play. The empire dress remains a favorite flower girl dress for many historically themed weddings. Kate Greenaway would later illustrate beautiful children in empire dresses of the 18th century more than one hundred years later in the late nineteenth century.
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The nineteenth century brought the elaborate Victorian style which introduced some uncomfortable finery for young girls. One reason was the increasing affluence in middle classes afforded families more options in fancy dress. This era brings us the very elaborate leg-o-mutton sleeves or gigots, tight bodices with corsets, and a multitude of crinolines. The publication of fashion books such as Godey’s shared high fashion from Paris throughout the modern world. Brides very often select Victorian elements for their weddings and it remains a favorite era for romantic traditions and fashions. It is Queen Victoria who chose for her wedding flower girls in white and has forever given us the traditional model of the sweet and innocent carrier of petals.
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While Victorian dresses were oh-so beautiful, it was difficult garb in which to actually live. Early pioneers of women’s rights began to work against the confinement of elaborate Victorian dress. Famous feminists of the time are Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony. Another feminist of the time is Amelia Bloomer whose name precedes her in fashion as the first women’s pants, bloomers, are named for her publication of the garment in early feminist newspapers. Bloomers, too, remain a favorite accessory for many flower girl dresses in modern vintage and historically themed weddings.
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Gradually in the mid to late 19th century, girls’ dresses became more relaxed again. Popular styles were sheaths for bodice that would button over a slip with several layers of ruffles at the skirt. The late 19th century brought also drop waist dresses which often had wide sashes that tied into large bows at the back. This style is also a popular choice for flower girl dresses, sometimes combined with an old fashion square collar. For very dressy events, young girls may again mimic their fashionable mothers and lady adult friends of society by wearing a bustle and tight waist bodice. A wedding affords perhaps the only modern application of a bustle when the bride’s train is gathered at the back of her bodice to form a bustle. Only the most historically themed wedding would use a bustle for a flower girl dress. The distortion of figure and resulting silhouette is strange for a modern adult, but near disturbing for a young girl.

This era also brought the world a Golden Age of Children’s Literature with classics such as Alice’s Adventure in Wonderland, Little Women, and Peter Pan. Kate Greenaway publishes her illustrations in this time period, depicting charming young characters in empire dress of the previous century. A tenderness and gentle appreciation of children that remains our current model of child care has its seeds in the late 19th century.

The turn of the century brings another girl’s classic dress in the Yoke dress. The dawn of the industrial age brought machines that women soon learned to operate outside the home and many women began to work. They required more comfortable work clothes. Other modern women played sports; some professionally. These cutting edge families required comfortable clothing for their children and the yoke dress became popular for young girls. Yoke dresses typically had fitted shoulders and sleeves, but would gather just above the chest and flow into a free, loose skirt of short length (usually above the knee). This style dress, although sometimes modified, is the predominant play dress decades into the 20th century. Yoke dresses will evolve into float dresses and other favorites with short skirts. Many flower girl dresses will resemble turn of the century yoke dresses with fancy smocking at the chest and free flowing skirts. Flower girl dresses that pay homage to the yoke dress will most commonly be seen at more casual and vintage weddings.

More sophisticated girls’ dresses of the turn of the century would be drop waist cottons with above the knee skirts that are elaborately embroidered with lace insets and tiny pleats. With this style, the girl would often wear a huge bow atop her head and dainty patent leather Mary-Jane style shoes. This type dress was still considered “high fashion” and was a bit uncomfortable, but now considered not practical for every day wear. Of course, the turn of the century high fashion dresses for young girls are very popular in contemporary weddings with vintage themes and often outdoor settings.

While the early 20th century brought us shirtwaists and Gibson Girls, the Flapper Girl of the early 1920’s is perhaps the favorite fashion plate of these two decades. World War I brought women to workplace in unprecedented numbers, ladies’ hair and hemlines went short and the “flapper dress” was born. Girls as young as seven would wear these loose-fitting tunic inspired dresses. The hemline was now set at the knee for young and adult. The flapper dress was worn as a work garment and dressed up with swaying spangles and beads for evening outings. Even First Holy Communion Dresses were made in the flapper style. At this time the romper or bloomer dress came to be for young girls. These were short dresses with bloomers beneath so little ladies could run and play with complete ease. Physicians of the time encouraged sunlight and outdoor activity for children’s good health.

Flapper dresses can be seen in vintage inspired wedding for flower girl dresses and brides. Often the bride will even wear a bobbed haircut to match. The fine detail and simple lines can inspire a very elegant wedding with simple fashion lines and great fun at the reception!

Mid to late 20th century fashion ideas for flower girl dresses are considerably more modern and very themed. Some ideas would be poodle skirts of the 1950’s and even flower-child inspired flower girl dresses from the 1960’s. Themed weddings from mid to late 20th century tend to be more casual and fun oriented, the flower girl dress will reflect that spirit. Truly historic weddings can be lavish and infused with endless tradition and romance. So, pull out your favorite historical novel or love story and dream your dream wedding. But, don’t forget to adorn the little flower girl as she will be a young personification of your wedding day vision!