When it comes to their clothes, today's children are very often the decisionmakers. Yesterday's seen-but-not-heard boys and girls seldom had a voice in the selection of what they wore. Children were victims of the fads and foibles taken up by their parents. Grown-ups saw their offspring as diminutive replicas of themselves and they frequently foisted the fashions of the day on their small children.
In the matter of dresses, adults made an exception to the general rule. Men did not wear dresses but upper-class little boys of the late 19th- century were commonly put into skirts. Why little boys wore dresses has never been satisfactorily. explained.
Source books say it was to protect them from the evil eye, but that does not seem like much of a reason," says Laura Sinderbrand, assistant director of the Fashion Institute of Technology's Design Laboratories and producer of a new exhibition called the "The Age of Innocence."
The show, which will be at the Galleries of FIT in New York through spring 1980, is a serious survey of changes in children's dress. Through displays of some 110 costumes, the exhibition provides a look backward to early in the 18th century and forward through spring 1980.
The exhibition is composed of tableaux suggested by Cora ginsburg, a noted costume and textiles authority and collector. Mrs. Ginsburg served as Mrs. sinderbrand's guest curator and she lent many of the clothes seen in the vignettes at the Galleries of FIT.
A skating party, a dancing class, a one-room school, an 1940s toy shop, and eight other scenes chosen to illustrate the months of year have been re-created by galleries' director Marty Bronson and his staff. To contrast with the golden-curled Little Lord Fauntleroys and girls dressed like the drawings in Kate Greenaway books, there is a large modern playground populated with active youngsters wearing such clothes of today's society as H. H. cutler football jerseys, Calvin Klein jeans, and colorful jogging outfits.
"Corsets, corset covers, hoopskirts, petticoats -- children had the counterparts of everything adults had," Mrs. sinderbrand remarked during a recent tour of the exhibition.
Artifacts that date from 1760 to 1860 underline her point. There is the miniature corset big enough for a two-year-old, and a white cotton corset cover, wire hoops, and eyelet-embroidered petticoats that would fit a girl of four or five.
"Corset-wearing for children started in theh 17th- century," says Mrs. Sinderbrand." Today's young parents are more indulgent."
Bustles were other grownup fashion burdens that hampered the young as children's clothing made what Mrs. Ginsburg terms "slow advances . . . in which anomalies and encumbrances were discarded on the road to liberty." Throughout, there was no lessening of what she views as "the charm with which children always endow their appurtenances."
Sailing, the theme chosen for the June tableaux, was an early sports fashion influence, traceable to Queen Victoria, which lasted well into the 20th century.
"Victoria's children were meant to go into the Navy," Mrs. Ginsburg points out. "So she always dressed them in sailor clothes."
Frills and ruffles lasted, too, as the five identical dresses that belonged to the Dionne quintuplets and a dress Shirley Temple wore in the film "Little Miss Marker" demonstrate.
TRends in contemporary children's clothes are still related to the adult market. But now, Mrs. Sinderbrand emphasizes, "adaptation is not patronizing. Young people's clothes reflect interests in sports and health more than high fashion.
"Children's designers see very well what children want to wear and how they want to look," she says. "They are keenly aware of what children watch on TV and who their heroes are. So the racks are filled with sportswear that ranges from wild roller disco getups to jogging suits shimmering with reflective tape."