Finding fashion in wee wardrobes

Monday, August 6, 2001 at 1:00am

I've always loved drawing old-fashioned children's clothing. You can really pile on the detail -- just the way people used to do when they sewed clothes by hand for their little ones. Nowadays, it's rare to find such lavish touches as embroidery, hand-crocheting and smocking in children's wear, so this gives you a great excuse to become a collector of retro styles.

By flipping through the pages of my magazine and others, you'll probably notice the resurgence of interest in collecting and displaying these togs for tots. To get the real lowdown, I connected with Anna MacPhail, author of The Well-Dressed Child: Children's Clothing 1820-1940 (Schiffer). A collector of antique linens, lace and clothing, Anna has always had a special fondness for the daintiness of babies and children's wear. Though she once had a store, the Floridian now shows her collectibles privately in her home and on her Web site (see resources).

Anna tells us that there is "quite a lot of antique and vintage clothing for babies and children" out there at flea markets and antiques shops.

"I expect all old clothing that was no longer wearable was cut up for the sewing basket, ready to be made into patchwork so as not to waste it," says Anna.

So for the most part, only the really good stuff has survived. Anna has scored some of her best finds abroad. "In Europe and the U.K., you can still find items that were never worn -- possibly from prestigious families who purchased large amounts for their children and had many gifts bestowed on them."

Don't despair, though. There's still enough to go around. You just have to be patient and discriminating. Anna specializes in clothing from the Victorian to the early 20th century and is always on the lookout for "all the wonderful stitching and handmade lace in particular." Examples of her best finds include a white voile baby bonnet that ties with silk ribbons, a hand-smocked baby boy's romper, a white batiste dress with hand embroidery and lace trim, as well as numerous heirloom christening gowns.

Who are her customers? Many are proud parents who want to dress up their babies in a retro fashion. "More and more new parents want to a have a tradition christening with an authentic gown around 100 years old," says Anna.

Of course, many of her customers simply love antique and vintage children's clothing, since its small size opens up so many display possibilities. For instance, you could dress up dolls in the clothing to show it off. Or frame it in a shadowbox. Yet another possibility is displaying it on old-fashioned wooden children's hangers on a pegboard. "If one is lucky enough to have a child-size Victorian dummy," says Anna, "this would make a very decorative idea in the corner of a room."

Retro resource

The Old Lace and Linen Shop Inc.

Plantation, South Florida

by appointment: 954-327-3330; www.antiquelinen.com

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