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Brief Illustrated History of Christening & Baptism Clothes

by Patricia Evans May 24, 2022

Brief Illustrated History of Christening & Baptism Clothes

 Brief Illustrated History of Christening & Baptism Clothes – Swaddling, Bearing Cloths, Gowns & Dresses throughout the millennia

Traditional Antique Christening Gowns

Traditional big white lacy frilly antique christening gowns of the type we are familiar are relatively recent. Take a browse through this article to see how fashions have changed over the years and visit Little Angels Couture to see what modern designs are available https://www.littleangelscouture.com.au/collections/christening

 AD 100 -200

Infant baptism or christening started sometime between the second and third century AD. It is first mentioned around A.D. 160 to about 220 (How Old Is Infant Baptism. Piper, John). During this time period it was likely the clothing that infants wore when they were baptized were swaddling bands. Swaddling bands are "long strips of cloth wrapped all around the baby". The purpose of wrapping a baby with swaddling is to restrict the baby's limbs from movement. The earliest depiction of swaddling bands has been found in tombs that are 4,000- to 4,500-year-old in Crete and Cyprus. In these tombs there are votive statuettes displaying babies in swaddling bands (Swaddling, Wikipedia). 

These votive offerings from ancient Greece show babies in swaddling bands as far back as 2600 – 2000 BC.

 Votive offering from ancient Greece 2600 -200 BC

 During early baptism (around AD 160-220), babies were wrapped in plain swaddling bands. Swaddling bands were more restrictive than the muslins we swaddle newborns in today. 

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

The most well-known mention of swaddling bands is at Jesus' birth when in Luke 2:7 it states, "And she brought forth her first born son, and wrapped him in swaddling clothes." It was customary at the time that Jesus' swaddling bands were the same bands that were used at Mary and Joseph's wedding ceremony. During a wedding ceremony of the time period " under the wedding canopy, these decorated bands would be tied around the clasped right hands of the bride and groom; hence the saying, ‘they tied the knot’.

The same bands were then used to swaddle a baby born to that couple for their baptism. The swaddling bands used for marriages and baptisms had evolved to include elaborate, symbolic embroidery

Swaddling bands were used to keep babies tightly wrapped.  They kept babies warm, straight limbed, safe from self-inflicted injury and out of danger by restricting their movements.

16th century 1500’s

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 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 they 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

17th century 1600’s

Clothing for infant baptism began to change around the 17th century (1600s) due to the fact that infants were now required to be totally immersed in holy water.

Because infants were being immersed it was important to be able to unclothe infants for baptism and then replace the clothes quickly over swaddling bands so the infant would not get cold. The christening clothes needed to be relatively easy to remove and replacing them quickly was important since churches of the time were not heated and could be very cold in the dead of winter

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.

 

 1650 – 1700 christening lace to be worn over swaddling clothes from V&A

During the same period bearing cloths, as they were called, were used as an outer layer to wrap the swaddled infant. (These are still used today – Christening Shawl or Blanket)  

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.

 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.

17th century 1651 -75 Christening Blanket or Bearing Cloth from V&A museum

 

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. 

 Crimson Bearing Cloth 1667 Norfolk Museum Collection.  Collections Object Page - Collections (norfolk.gov.uk)

 18th century 1700s

Below is an early fringed satin christening gown from the 1700s. (V & A museum.)

 

Antique satin christening robe from V&A Museum from 1700’s

 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.

 1725 -1730 Silk brocade on silk christening blanket. V&A museum

 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. On example was the introduction of Embroidery such as Ayrshire Embroidery. For the first half of the 18th century Ayrshire lace was popular on the front panel of the dress

History of Ayrshire Embroidery

In 1814, Lord Montgomerie died in Spain (one account says Sicily) of consumption and his widow, Lady Mary Montgomerie returned to their estate in Ayr, Scotland. She brought with her a beautiful baby’s christening gown, made by a French needle worker. This gown had delicate eyelet embroidery and overcast fillings, fine satin stitches and beautiful lace stitches that were inserted in the cut-out spaces within the design. Lady Montgomerie lent the christening gown to a Mrs. Jamieson, the wife of an Ayr cotton agent and asked her to duplicate the designs on the gown, and then to teach the poor women in the Ayr district the technique, thus creating a much-needed income for the families. Mrs. Jamieson, together with her two daughters, all of whom were accomplished embroiderers, studied the beautiful overcast filling stitches and patterns, added more lace filling stitches and then in turn taught the technique to outworkers, who were mainly farmer’s wives and their daughters.

In the 19th century, a needlewoman of Ayr doing Ayrshire embroidery could earn the same income as a bobbin lace maker of Devonshire. Mrs. Jamieson set high standards for her outworkers, only accepting embroidery that was perfectly executed. More than one person would work a design; the embroiderer who specialized in the fine lace stitched fillings would be paid at a higher rate than the previous embroiderer who may have done the satin stitches and eyelet work.

Ayrshire work was sold all over the world, including North America. This style of embroidery began its decline during the US Civil War in 1861 to 1865 when the northern states formed a blockade to cut off the cotton grown in the southern states, which was being exported to Britain. The Scottish muslin trade never recovered from this lack of supply. As women’s fashions changed there was less of a demand for the fine floral embroidery. The end to Ayrshire embroidery came when the Swiss invented a machine to duplicate the eyelet holes and lace stitched wheels, undercutting the Scottish handwork

     Ayrshire Embroidery Antique Gown Ayrshire Embroidery Antique Gown - Little Angels Couture

   Sleeve detail antique christening gown

 Beautiful example of Ayrshire Embroidery

 

The Victorian Christening gown as we know it was on its way.  (June 1837 – 22 January 1901)

These early christening gowns were made from silk and satin and the baby wore petticoats and underclothes beneath.  The christening gown acted as an overgarment

19th century 1800’s

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.

 Early 19th century British christening dress from the Metropolitan Museum of Art 1810.

 1810 Christening gown MMA.

 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. The gowns were covered in beautiful embroidery, lace and pintucks.

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.

   Christening gown 1800-1859 V&A

 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.

The gown below 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.

 1896 broderie Anglaise christening gown from V&A

This style of dress remained popular until the mid-20th century and beyond and brought to my mind the elaborate Royal Christening Gown that had to be recreated for the current Royals as the age of the original gown made it too delicate.

    

Known as the Honiton christening gown, the garment that Prince George is wearing is actually a replica of the dress that Queen Victoria commissioned for her first-born child, daughter Victoria Adelaide Mary Louisa. Little Princess Victoria was baptized in 1841 in Buckingham Palace, on her parents' first wedding anniversary.

The gown had been inspired by Queen Victoria's own wedding dress and was made from white silk with a handmade lace overlay. Janet Sutherland, a miner’s daughter from Falkirk, Scotland, made the lace. Queen Victoria later noted in her journal that "Albert & I agreed that all had gone off beautifully & in a very dignified manner."  The dress was worn by 62 royal babies over the course of its 163 years of royal service. Five monarchs have been baptized in the gown, beginning with Victoria and Albert's first son, the future Edward VII. George V, Edward VIII, George VI and the Queen all wore the white lace dress, as did Prince Charles, Prince William, and Prince Harry

 20th century 1900’s

A few decades later by 1896, the late Victorian era white linen or cotton christening gowns like this were very popular.  Also, those made with broderie Anglaise lace and floral embroidery.

 

  21st Century TODAY

Traditional Victorian christening gowns are experiencing a resurgence in popularity partly fueled by the christening of Prince George and his cousins.

  Late Victorian Christening Gown  Late Victorian Christening Gown - Little Angels Couture

Many families have passed down these precious gowns through the generations but 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 christening gowns from Antique Gowns - Little Angels Couture  

At the time of writing all of the christening gowns below are part of our collection of vintage and antique christening gowns and baptism dresses available for sale online through Antique Gowns - Little Angels Couture

 Pictures and links of current Little Angels Couture collection

     

 

Antique Christening Gown with embroidered birds and garlands  Antique Christening Gown with Embroidered Birds and Garland - Little Angels Couture

     

Late Victorian Christening Gown  Late Victorian Christening Gown - Little Angels Couture

 

    Absolutely Exquisite antique gown  https://www.littleangelscouture.com.au/collections/antique-gowns/products/absolutely-exquisite-antique-doll-baby-christening-gown-perfect

  

Antique Christening Gown Lace/Broiderie Anglais - Little Angels Couture

  

Beautiful Antique Embroidered Lace Gown Beautiful Antique Embroidered Lace Christening Gown - Little Angels Couture

 

If you have any questions please don’t hesitate to ask via the contact page.

 




Patricia Evans
Patricia Evans

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