Centre for Innovation and Research in Childhood and Youth

Not Only Dressed but Dressing: clothing, childhood, creativity

Children’s clothes might seem like a minor concern. So long as children are warm enough, who cares what they wear? In fact, children’s clothing raises important issues not just of changing styles, but also of power dynamics between adults and children. Clothes can constrain children.

This is true of adults too. But certain widespread aspects of children’s dress, such as uniform regulations, may be incompatible with children’s right to express their religious, racial, and gender identities. At other times, clothing allows children to ‘adorn themselves in dreams’, to borrow the fashion historian Elizabeth Wilson’s celebrated phrase. It fosters rebellion and self-growth.

These issues are at the heart of ‘Not Only Dressed but Dressing: Clothing, Childhood, Creativity’, the Arts and Humanities Research Council (AHRC) Research Network led by Hannah Field alongside Co-Investigator Professor Kiera Vaclavik (founder and director of the Centre for Research in Childhood Cultures at Queen Mary University of London). Between 2021 and 2022, the network brought together UK-based and international scholars from a range of disciplinary backgrounds (including art and design, history, law, literary studies, sociology, and theatre and performance) with expertise in childhood and/or dress in order to foster dialogue between university researchers, museum professionals, and artists in order to forge new methodologies.

The project worked with three museum partners, all of them with outstanding collections of children’s clothing—the Young V&A, the Worthing Museum, and the Musée du Textile et de la Mode de Cholet in the Loire region of France. It ran four network events. The first was a children’s event at Worthing Museum designed by Anna Twinam-Cauchi, the museum’s Education Officer. A group of ten seven- to twelve-year-old kids came to Worthing to learn about historic children’s dress and to make their own artworks inspired by dress: from paper dolls to bonnets to fully-fledged outfits. The next three events, held in conjunction with the network's museum partners, were for academics, curators, and makers. These included a presentation at the V&A from CIRCY members Nuno Ferreira and Maria Moscati (Law) on school uniform and human rights, and contributions from artists and designers who work with or make children’s clothes. Presentations from these events will be available on the project website

As the network winds up, Field and Vaclavik have been thinking about how the revamp of the V&A Museum of Childhood as the Young V&A—a museum for children, celebrating creativity, rather than a museum of the history of the childhood—provides directions for new interdisciplinary work in childhood studies. They are also preparing a special issue of the peer-reviewed journal Costume that will offer expanded versions of some of the papers given at network events.

Kindly supported by AHRC Research Networking grant AH/V001787/1