Sunday, August 25, 2013

Infant Shirts in the 19th Century

My mid 19th-century infant shirt without the flaps folded.
Behold! It's my first ever post based on a question posted in the comments! A big shout out to Lou McCulloch, who asked whether the flaps on infant shirts fold in or out. And the answer is... the flaps fold OUT. But let's back up and look at infant shirts in general and why there is any confusion about flaps at all.

I got an infant shirt for Christmas a few years ago (thanks Mom!) and I wasn't really sure what to make of it except that it had some of the finest hand sewing I had ever seen, including intricate stitching and lace work. Like most 18th- and 19th-century shirts, this piece is made using rectangles and squares of fabric instead of a curvy, contoured pattern.

Overall view of the shirt when unfolded. It is simply made with a rectangle of fabric plus some lace for the sleeves.
Detail of the shirt, showing how the seam on the flap is turned under when the flaps fold out.
My first clue about the direction of the flaps came from the super fine hem; the seam allowances on the flaps were turned so as not to show when the flaps folded out. But if the flaps folded in, neither side would be visible, so why would the direction of the seam allowance matter? I still wasn't sure, so I looked to images of 19th-century infants to see if any flaps were visible in those. I couldn't find anything. But that's no surprise, since shirts are a type of undergarment and you generally can't see such things in portraits. As the nickname implies, "unmentionables" are rarely discussed in historical documents, especially in the Victorian period.

My newest infant shirt, with reinforced armpits and fine decoration.
Then I found an infant shirt in on e-bay that settled it for me, and I needed to buy it so I could add it to this post. The flaps are embroidered, showing a distinctive right side and wrong side and proving that the flaps fold out. I also stumbled upon an image from the Dictionary of Children's Clothes by Noreen Marshall showing the many layers infants wore in the 1880s. It shows the flaps folding out over a barracoat or petticoat, followed by a slip and then the gown. That's why the flaps don't show in art and photos; they are sandwiched between two other garments before the outer gown is added. There are a lot of layers involved. Babies had a much more complex wardrobe than I had realized!
Detail of the hand embroidery and bobbin lace adorning the shirt's flaps.

Front and back views of an infant shirt as it would be worn under a barracoat. The flaps fold out over the barracoat and another slip might be added to cover both the shirt flaps and barracoat before the gown went on.

 More posts to follow on the infant layette later, but for now I will close with a big thanks to Lou. You gave me an excuse to buy some new books and a darling infant shirt to add to my collection.


  1. Thank you for your wonderful research regarding my question. I had two early infant shirts, circa 1830s, in my collection-rather basic examples, and just was frustrated as to how to properly display the flaps. I just love your website, and again, appreciate all of your concern for the correct manner of costume display!

  2. That's really interesting! I wonder if they serve as a washable layer in this case, protecting the front of the petticoat or gown from spitups and snot and other such infant output?

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