Whar makes babies modern? Bringing up babies is a practice which has always been part of human societies, but is constantly being rethought and redefined, It can be a site of conflict between older generations who rely on tried and tested practices, and young parents who are looking for the most up-to-date methods based on the latest scientific advice. Clothing can be a particular battleground as it is a very public expression of the parents’ income and opinions.
Romper suits for toddlers were garments that marked a shift in attitudes to childrearing in the early 20th century. They originated in ‘crawlers’, simple overalls designed to help babies move around without getting tangled in the skirts of their dresses (dresses were OF COURSE worn by boy babies as well as girls – partly as they were more practical over bulky cloth nappies). The earliest ‘crawlers’ don’t survive, but were probably made at home by fastening the front and back hem of a dress together- they’re mentioned in diaries and letters from the 1880s.
Then in the 1890s, doctors started to recommend more exercise for young girls, with ‘gymnasium suits’ based on swimming outfits: baggy blouses and breeches, with a waist belt. Dressmaking pattern companies in the U.S.A. published patterns for these, recommending them as ‘rompers’ in which girls could play outdoors without fear of ruining their dresses. Rompers and playsuits for girls up to the age of 7 or 8 were sold in the U.S.A. but don’t seem to have caught on in Britain – perhaps because they would only be worn informally, with dresses needed for school.
This attitude changed – as so many did – in the aftermath of World War I. After the huge loss of life and accompanying social upheavals there was a shift in attitudes towards home life and women’s roles. Women as wage earners, as mothers, and as voters, were keen to learn and to develop new skills. Women’s magazines, already important in the 1890s, competed to attract readers with recipes, dressmaking patterns, and advice columns. Women with enough time and energy could sign up for correspondence courses in dressmaking: one of the most popular was from the Women’s Institute of Domestic Science, based in Pennsylvania, but with a British office. Their booklets gave patterns, making up instructions, and detailed advice on how women, men, and children should dress. The 1919 version of their course was probably the document that introduced romper suits to British mothers.
Women’s clothes had been radically simplified during World War I, to allow for quicker and more economical dressmaking (fabric was rationed) and to do away with complex construction and fastenings. The loose shift dresses with dropped waists worn by adults in 1920 were not so different from the frocks worn by young girls in 1910. And as adults clothes got simpler, children’s did too.
Therompers worn for outdoor play by girls became standard garments for toddlers, rather than dresses or shirt and shorts suits. Their loose cut made them easy to fit over nappies, and allowed for growth. They were also easy to mass produce as only one or two sizes were needed: as we see in a Mosco of Manchester catalogue from 1928. Their rivals Oxendales of Manchester offered a slightly more complex version in 1929,with a buttoned back and a belt. But it was still ‘so easy to slip on’ and available in a choice of four colours and four sizes.
In the 1930s, fashion for women had shifted back to be more complex, with fitted bodices, puffed sleeves, and long skirts with bias-cut panels. Then with the onset of World War II styles were simplified again, with the ingenuity of dressmakers focussed on squeezing the greatest number of garments out of the shortest lengths of cloth – and of remaking clothes to keep them going a bit longer. Everything that could be, from vests to hats, was made by hand knitting, which could be unravelled and recycled as necessary. This of course included babies’ dresses, pants and rompers. By the time fabric became more easily available again in the late 1940s, rompers were firmly established as a garment that every baby should have – and that every dressmaker should know how to make. The 1948 Pictorial Guide to Modern Home Needlecraft included this draft for a romper pattern – with suggestions on how to personalise what was now a very standard garment. The simplicity of the romper suit made it endlessly adaptable – fresh and modern for every new generation of mothers and babies. They’ve even been featured on the Great British Sewing Bee!