This week has passed in a flurry of beautiful christening and baptism gowns and dresses.
Here’s a brief illustrated history of christening clothes through the millennia.
Traditional Antique Christening Gowns
Traditional big white lacy frilly antique christening gowns of the type we are familiar are relatively recent.
AD 100 -200
Infant baptism or christening started sometime between the second and third century AD.
We don’t know exactly what they wore to be christened in back then but it was very likely swaddling. Swaddling was popular for babies from at least 2600 – 2000 BC across cultures and millennia until the 1790s in the UK and beyond in other areas.
These votive offerings from ancient Greece show babies in swaddling bands as far back as 2600 – 2000 BC.
Swaddling bands were used to keep babies were tightly wrapped. They kept babies warm, straight limbed, safe from self-inflicted injury and out of danger by restricting their movements.
16th century 1500s
Fast forward 1300 years and we have actual examples of swaddling bands and we know they were definitely used for ceremonial events including christenings.
Swaddling bands were long strips of fabric, plain if you were poor and decorated with lace and embroidery trimmings if you were wealthy.
The few remaining examples we have are the fancy decorated bands that belonged to the rich. As is often the case, the plain every day soiled worn out clothes were discarded and only the best was kept.
The oldest surviving example of a swaddling band we have in the UK is Italian in origin and dates from 1575 – 1600 and is in the V&A Museum of Childhood.
swaddling band 1575 – 1600 V&A Museum of Childhood for blog http://www.buckinghamvintage.co.uk
17th century 1600s
by the 17th century the christening ceremony required babies to be totally immersed in holy water. The christening clothes needed to be relatively easy to remove and replace. The garment of choice was still the swaddling band with the addition of lace dressings and a bearing cloth.
The lace dressing christening sets were laid on top of the swaddling bands and consisted of a bonnet, a bib, a forehead cloth, mittens and sleeves. Lace was very fashionable for adults and its use extended to the well-dressed mid-17th century baby. The parts on display, sleeves, mittens and bonnet were beautifully made with great attention to detail. Less care was taken with the making of the partially hidden parts – the bib. Here’s a lace dressing christening set from the second half of the 17th century.
During the same period bearing cloths were used as an outer layer to wrap the swaddled infant. Bearing cloths were about one and a half metres square and were typically made of fine rich fabrics like satin, silk, velvet – and embellished with embroidery and lace using expensive metallic threads. They came in many colours.
Here is a cream as this 17th century example from the V & A Museum. This one is made from satin and silk and has ornate gold and silver thread bobbin lace.
This bearing cloth dates from 1667 and is made from crimson velvet and lined with ivory silk. It is kept in the Norfolk Museum Collection.
18th century 1700s
Another fifty years later and the bearing cloth began to make way for christening blankets. This 1725 multi-coloured example of a christening blanket from the V & A was made from fine silk dress fabric panels.
By the early 18th century christening customs had changed. Total immersion in holy water was no longer required and babies’ clothes did not need to be completely removed.
By the mid-18th century physicians were discouraging people from binding their babies in swaddling as it restricted their development. Christening clothes were expected to be white to symbolise innocence, purity and oneness with God. The age at baptism slightly increased and the christening ceremony became a more elaborate affair with more elaborate clothes.
The Victorian Christening gown as we know it was on its way.
These early christening gowns were made from silk and satin and the baby wore petticoats and underclothes beneath. The christening gown acted as a overcoat of gown.
This is an early fringed satin christening gown from the 1700s. (V & A museum.)
By the 1790s Swaddling had fallen out of use in the UK not only for christenings but for every day wear.
19th century 1800s
By the early 19th century christening gowns were modelled on adult women’s fashionable dresses with a high short bodice, low scooped boat neck adjustable with drawstrings and a high gathered waist also adjustable with drawstrings. These christening dresses had short capped lace sleeves and skirt front forming an inverted V. These dresses were designed to be worn over petticoats and not be removed during the ceremony. The shape changed very little throughout the 19th century.
Short lace capped sleeves on antique christening dress. Part of a large collection available to purchase from Buckingham Vintage. (www.buckinghamvintage.co.uk)
Early 19th century British christening dress from the Metropolitan Museum of Art 1810.
The christening gowns were long and full cascading down beyond the ends of the baby’s legs. It had a V shaped yoke bodice and an inverted V front panel falling from the yoke to the hem. The gowns were unisex though the pointed tip of the bodice could be pointed out for a boy or tucked in for a girl. The gowns were covered in beautiful embroidery, lace and pintucks.
Christening dress with a V bodice with the point turned out. Part of a large collection available to purchase from Buckingham Vintage. (www.buckinghamvintage.co.uk).
For the first half of the 18th century Ayrshire lace was popular on the front panel of the dress. From 1840 to 1880s broderie anglaise was very popular and its use widely adopted for christening gowns. Broderie anglaise lace consisted of embroidery around a series of cutouts patterns.
Here’s a Christening robe from the first half of the 19th century 1800 – 1850 from the V&A. This is embroidered cambric (a linen fabric).
Below we have an 1850 christening gown with a V bodice and long lace panel skirt. (V & A Museum).
This is cambric, a linen fabric, and embroidered with cotton and shows the V shaped short bodice and long inverted V decorated front panel covered in pintucks, embroidery and lace.
A few decades later by 1896, the late Victorian era white linen or cotton christening gowns like this were very popular. It is covered with broderie anglaise lace and floral embroidery. It has typical short frill sleeves made from lace, a V shaped bodice and inverted V front panel, wings of lace on either side of the front panel and horizontal frills of broderie anglaise lace on the front panel and is displayed in the V&A museum.
20th century 1900s
This style of dress remained popular until the mid-20th century and beyond. Part of a large collection available to purchase from Buckingham Vintage. (www.buckinghamvintage.co.uk)
21st Century TODAY
Traditional Victorian christening gowns are experiencing a resurgence in popularity partly fuelled by the christening of Prince George.
If you don’t have your own family heirloom christening gown it is still possible to buy original antique christening gowns from a small supply of antique and vintage baby clothes and christening gowns from www.buckinghamvintage.co.uk.
At the time of writing all of the christening gowns below are part of a large collection of vintage and antique christening gowns and baptism dresses available for sale online through Buckingham Vintage www.buckinghamvintage.co.uk.
Just click on the shop link at teh rop of the page or visit http://www.buckinghamvintage.co.uk and you will be taken through to the shop where there is a lrge collection of antique christele to purchase from http://www.buckinghamvintage.co.uk.
If you have any questions please don’t hesitate to ask via the contact page.
Thanks for reading this brief overview. If you are interested in any more articles on antique clothes please follow the links.