Story: Clothes

Page 3. Children’s clothes

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New Zealand children are said to have dressed with more freedom and informality than their British counterparts, a characteristic shared with Australian children. Children often went barefoot, regardless of their parents’ financial status. Despite such steps towards the loosening of old-world conventions, not all children dressed alike – what they wore was influenced by their gender, age, social class, ethnicity, locality and upbringing. Children had little choice in what they wore, especially if resources were limited.


Many of the key milestones of childhood involve steps towards wearing adult styles of clothing. Set practices, such as breeching boys at the end of infancy (when they began wearing trousers instead of gowns) and putting girls’ hair up at the end of adolescence, once signalled increasing maturity. In the 20th century, as childhood became more prolonged, such clearly defined stages were not so evident.

19th century

Colonial children’s garments became increasingly gendered as they aged. Male and female babies were dressed in the same manner. Many layers of garments were used to provide warmth, including underclothing, gowns, shawls and caps. As the century progressed, robes became shorter, reaching to just below the feet. Long robes were only retained for christenings. Boys moved into knickerbocker suits, and girls continued to wear dresses, which by the late 19th century were often yoked and frilled, with a washable cotton pinafore over the top for cleanliness.

Labour of love

Keeping up children’s appearances was a significant amount of work for mothers. It was one of the ways in which ‘motherhood’ was on display. A Plunket nurse noted in 1912 that ‘mothers make themselves extra work by putting white starched gowns on the baby instead of just making a plain silk gown which can be washed and done up at a moment’s notice, making the baby look just as nice.’1

20th century

New forms of playwear, such as romper suits (a loose-fitting one-piece garment with buttoned or elasticised pants) were available for young children in the early 20th century. Many variations on playwear developed. Staple items for boys through the mid-20th century were shorts and shirts. Girls wore dresses, or shorts or rompers with blouses. Jumpsuits were popular in the 1960s and 1970s, signalling a wider social acceptance of girls in pants, followed by denim dungarees in the 1980s and 1990s.


The popularity of homemade knitwear was a significant development in children’s clothing in the 20th century. Jerseys and cardigans became widespread forms of children’s wear, until they were superseded by sweatshirts in the late 20th century.

Knitted fabrics were more widely used after the Second World War, and in the 2000s there were very few children’s garments for which these were not used. Most casual children’s wear – hoodies, T-shirts, track pants, tunic dresses, skirts and leggings – was made from cotton and polyester knits.

Significantly less clothing was made for children at home. Gendering of children’s clothing had become less consistent. Boys’ and girls’ clothing could range from unisex to unashamedly gendered styles, with pink predominating in the wardrobes of many young girls.

Peer pressure

A Polish immigrant who arrived in New Zealand as a child after the Second World War recalled: ‘On the first day, I wore leather pantlets that German children [often] wear. They are very sensible gear as they are almost indestructible. You can even slide round rocks in them. They were ornately patterned. I wore these pantlets to school and all the children laughed at me. I couldn’t understand it. I felt humiliated and embarrassed. I think I got New Zealand pants pretty quickly.’2

Formal clothes

Dressing up for formal occasions, such as weddings, has been a long-standing feature of childhood. At these events children’s clothing was more likely to resemble adult clothing. It was newer, fancier, cleaner, and, if not starched, then more crisply pressed than everyday clothing. Special accessories, including jewellery, were often worn or held. Wearing ‘Sunday best’ was a weekly routine for children of church-going parents.

Dressing up

Fancy-dress balls were a prevalent feature of childhood from the late 19th to the mid-20th centuries. These began as fundraisers for such causes as children’s hospital wards, or for special occasions such as the Queen’s Birthday. In the late 19th century children’s costume choices came largely from European art, history, literature and popular culture. Military and humanitarian archetypes such as ‘rough rider’ and ‘Red Cross nurse’, and racial stereotypes such as African Americans or ‘Māori maidens’, became common in the early 20th century.

For many decades through the mid-20th century games of cowboys and Indians were common. They derived from a long tradition of the Wild West as popular entertainment. Cowgirls also dressed for a part in the skirmishes that eventuated.

In the 2000s dressing up in character continued to be popular, particularly for birthday parties and school fun days. Mass-market dressing-up costumes, such as Superman and Disney Princess outfits, co-existed with creations inspired by wearable art and arts recycling movements.

  1. Northern Advocate, 15 November 1912, p. 3. Back
  2. Quoted in Ann Beaglehole, Facing the past: looking back at refugee childhood in New Zealand, 1940s–1960s. Wellington: Allen & Unwin, 1990, pp. 60–61. Back
How to cite this page:

Fiona McKergow, 'Clothes - Children’s clothes', Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, (accessed 16 July 2024)

Story by Fiona McKergow, published 5 Sep 2013