Of Hanging Sleeves and Leading Strings

"I knew how to do that before I was out of leading strings!"

"Don’t treat me as if I were still in leading strings!"

"She manages the poor man as if he were back in leading strings!"

We have all read some variation of at least one of these remarks in at least one Regency romance novel. The first time I encountered the phrase was in Georgette Heyer’s novel, The Nonesuch, so it will always be cataloged in my mind as a "Heyer phrase." But just what were leading strings, when and how did they evolve, who wore them, when, how, and by whom were they used?

Leading strings were a serendipitous discovery which began as hanging sleeves. The origins of the hanging sleeve go back to the Middle Ages. However, the type of hanging sleeve which was to give rise to leading strings developed in the latter decades of the fifteenth century. These late-fifteenth-century hanging sleeves were a mere vestige of the large and complex hanging sleeves found on the garments of previous decades. They were essentially a pair of long tubes of cloth, usually of the same fabric as the garment, which fell free from the shoulders to just above the level of the hem of full-length gowns.

From at least the Middle Ages until the mid-eighteenth century, for the most part, children’s clothing was modeled on that of adults, though the styles of garments made for children changed much more slowly than did adult fashions. Thus, children from the late fifteenth century wore outer garments, typically called coats or dresses, that included hanging sleeves which hung down their backs. It did not take long for their mothers, nurses and other care-givers to discover how convenient those long strips of cloth were in keeping crawling babies out of danger as they explored their floor-level world. These same vestigial hanging sleeves were also quite beneficial in assisting toddlers to walk and in gently controlling their direction to ensure a safe path for their first faltering steps. For well over a century, though the fashions in children’s clothing slowly changed, hanging sleeves were retained on the outer garments of the very young.

By the seventeenth century, the hanging sleeves on children’s clothing had become somewhat narrower and shorter, no longer hanging nearly to the hem of their dresses. It seems that they first began to be called leading strings at about this time, though this is one phrase which is conspicuously absent from the Oxford English Dictionary, so it is difficult to be certain of the date. It is curious that these lengths of cloth were called "leading strings," as they were always attached to the backs of children’s garments, never the front, and were used more to steer toddlers trying to walk rather than to lead them. Leading strings were much more like the reins used to guide a horse than they were a leash used to lead a dog.

As the seventeenth century slipped into the eighteenth, leading strings become even more narrow. By this time, they might be made of the same cloth as the garment to which they were attached, but they might also made with ribbons of matching or contrasting colors. There are records of leading strings for particularly large or heavy children being made of a sturdy cord rather than ribbons or lengths of cloth. By the early eighteenth century, most leading strings were still sewn to the shoulders of the child’s outer garment. But in some cases, leading strings were pinned to the shoulders of the outer garment. Thus, only one set of leading strings would be needed for a child, regardless of the number of garments in their wardrobe. This seems to have been more common among those of lesser means. There are also a few children’s garments in museum collections in England which have a pair of bound slits at the shoulders, similar to large button-holes. Some scholars speculate that these slits were for the purpose of passing the leading strings, probably ribbons in these cases, though the outer garment so that they could be attached to the child’s corset. Yes, corset. From the beginning of the eighteenth century and well into the nineteenth century, nearly all children, both boys and girls, were put into corsets as babies. Corsets for children were never boned, but they were made of multiple layers of sturdy linen or cotton. They were usually quilted or corded for strength. The intent of these corsets was to keep the child warm and to begin, at an early age, to train them up to have good posture. Corsets would also have been the perfect garment to which to attach leading strings, particularly for very active and energetic toddlers, who might tear leading strings from their thinner, less sturdy outer garments.

There is much evidence to suggest that leading strings were more likely to be worn by the children of the aristocracy, the gentry and the upper middle classes. The memoir of William Hutton, growing up in a poor family in the 1730s, seems to support this theory. Young William was aware that his beloved little sister was not like other, more affluent, children in their area, because she did not wear leading strings. Her loving brother saved his pennies to buy a packet of string from which to fashion leading strings for his little sister. But, when he attempted to place his leading strings under her arms, he tells us, " … the dear little thing informed me by her cries that I hurt her." And so, his little sister remained free of leading strings. However, there are some records of women of the working classes who had leading strings on their children. Many of them seem to have been women who had no servants, and used the children’s leading strings to keep the little ones out of mischief or harm’s way as they dealt with their many demanding house-keeping chores. In some cases, these women did treat leading strings more like a leash, using them to tie their toddlers to a bed-post or other heavy piece of furniture indoors, and a tree or a fence outdoors, to keep them safe while they worked.

Up until the mid-eighteenth century, most children were taken out of leading strings once they had learned to walk properly. In most cases, at about age three or four. Mothers were always very proud to report this milestone in their child’s development to family and friends. There are some letters, and diary entries, in which women write with satisfaction of cutting the leading strings from the clothes of their son or daughter, once they felt the child no longer needed the support. Children of privilege might even get new clothes which had no leading strings, once they had learned to walk. However, in the last decades of the eighteenth century, it became the fashion for young girls of the upper classes to have hanging sleeves, sometimes called hanging bands, on their formal gowns. These were worn as a symbol that they were still a child, under their mother’s care, and not of marriageable age. These hanging sleeves were broader and shorter than leading strings, but are often mistaken for them. The situation for boys was different, as they were taken out of leading strings as soon as they learned to walk, at about age three or four, never to wear them again. They would be breeched a few years later, and the style of their clothing at that stage would mark them as still within their childhood.

Some social reformers and physicians began writing against the use of leading strings in the latter half of the eighteenth century, but their opinions were not quickly heeded by the majority of the public. Jean-Jacques Rousseau, who was a strong advocate of all things natural, particularly in the raising of children, believed that leading strings should never be used. An issue of The Lady’s Monthly Museum, in 1799, cautioned mothers against the premature use of leading strings. In his book, Advice to Mothers, first published in 1809, Dr. William Buchan warned women that the use of leading strings could lead to any number of ills, including "habitual indigestion" or "consumptive complaints." By the Regency, many mothers, especially those who thought themselves forward-thinking, chose not to put their children into leading strings. But the use of leading strings did not die out during the Regency. They were still in use by some mothers well into the nineteenth century, typically by very conservative women who refused to relinquish the traditions of their own upbringing. Leading strings were also still used by women who had no servants or other help and still found them the most convenient way to keep their children safe while they worked.

Most people of the better classes who reached adulthood during the Regency would have worn leading strings as children. Some children of working class families might also have worn leading strings, though their leading strings might have been more restraining leash that guiding rein. Everyone in the Regency would have known the meaning of the term "leading strings," associating it with childhood and powerful parental controls. There were some progressive young Regency mothers who would have decided to forego leading strings for their own children. That decision could easily have brought them into conflict with a conservative mother or mother-in-law who felt that what had been good enough for her children should also be good enough for her grandchildren. Young mothers might also have anguished over whether or not they should use leading strings, considering the respected doctors and reformers who were writing against them, predicting a host of dire consequences to the child if they were used. Many upper class young girls would have worn hanging sleeves attached to the back of the dresses and gowns they wore in public. This practice was still fairly common as the Regency began, but it was dying out as that decade came to an end. So, Dear Regency Authors, the term "leading strings" has many possibilities for use in a Regency novel beyond a means by which to convey extreme youth and/or the need for adult oversight. How might you use it?

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About Kathryn Kane

Historian with a particular interest the English Regency era.   An avid reader of novels set in that time, holding strong opinions on the historical accuracy to be found in said novels.
This entry was posted in Apparel & Grooming and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink.

19 Responses to Of Hanging Sleeves and Leading Strings

  1. Another fascinating post! Never came across these before. I do remember that when I was a child (many years ago!) what were called ‘reins’ were used for toddlers (probably me too, but that I do not recall). They were made of leather and had a sort of harness which was strapped over the clothes. They were used to restrain the child from (e.g) running out into the road when out walking.

    • Kathryn Kane says:

      I did come across mention of leather “harnesses” and “reins” for children. They came into use towards the end of the nineteenth century, and, according to my sources, remained in use until at least the mid-twentieth century. There was some disagreement, though, as to whether they were a separate invention, or a more sophisticated and advanced form of leading strings.

      To the best of my recollection, these harnesses did not become widely used in the US, at least out west, until the 1970s. I, and my siblings were too old for them by then, but I do remember some of my parents’ friends were horrified at the idea of putting a leash on a child, and others thought it was a great idea. To each his own, I guess.

      =^..^=

      • Starfire says:

        I just found your article and enjoyed it very much.

        My mother used a harness on me when I was a toddler, I remember feeling very secure and much prefering it to having my hand held, which I hated.

        I was born in 1961 in the SFBA; maybe the SFBA was a few years ahead.

        My mother told me she told a lot of dirty looks sometimes, but she thought keeping me safe, comfortable, and happy as I safely explored without getting lost or hurt was worth a whole lot of dirty looks. ❤

        • Kathryn Kane says:

          I am glad you liked the article.

          I was born a few years before you, in Phoenix, and there were a few parents who used harnesses for their children there, too. We saw them most often at places like the park or the mall. I am sure the parents used them to keep their children safe. Like your mom, they did get some dirty looks, as I recall, mostly from older people. But some of the younger parents wanted to know where to get them for their own children.

          They obviously worked, since my guess is that you turned out just fine! Thanks for stopping by.

          Regards,

          Kat

  2. Isobel Carr says:

    I think my favorite childhood bit of apparel is the pudding cap. Love them. I’d like to write a baby into a book just so I can have them.

    • Kathryn Kane says:

      Sounds like a good idea. Maybe the pudding cap could come off in a gust of wind and the hero catches it for the heroine?

      I did see a passing reference to a pudding cap in one source, but no illustrations. So I did a Google Image search. For those of you who would like to see images of pudding caps,
      Click Here.

      I do like the cap name, but I can’t say I care much for the cap look! 😉

      Isobel, thanks for sharing pudding caps!

      Kat

  3. Hey, I just found your blog – this is great! I’m on a Heyer re-reading kick this week so have been recently wondering again about some of these references.

    I’d guessed that “leading strings” were something like a child harness, but now I actually know. Off to search your archives for some of the other things I’ve been wondering about! 🙂

  4. Pingback: Little Boys in Dresses? Typical Apparel in the 1800s | Kim Rendfeld

  5. Pingback: When Regency Boys Outgrow Dresses, It’s Time for Skeleton Suits | Kim Rendfeld

  6. Sia says:

    English child, was born in 1990 and I had toddler reins. Apparently, I hated those things with a passion….and they were hardly ever used as anything other than a very effective warning to behave. Pitching a fit because I didn’t want to hold mum’s hand when we crossed the road? Out come the toddler reins. Yeah, I learnt that lesson quickly. Most of the time, the threat was enough.

  7. Sia says:

    ” It is curious that these lengths of cloth were called “leading strings,” as they were always attached to the backs of children’s garments, never the front, and were used more to steer toddlers trying to walk rather than to lead them. ”

    Perhaps the idea is that the toddler is leading the poor servant or poor whoever puffing along behind to “Lookit! Pretty sight!” or some such nonsense?

    • Summer says:

      That was exactly what I pictured, and much as it was helping my younger brother learn to walk (except I was holding his hands.)

  8. Angela says:

    Dear Kathryn,

    Thank you very much for the info about leading strings and hanging sleeves – I had had a hard time looking for how they were worn by adults before finding your webpage, and it helps my PhD project a lot!!!

    I wonder if you have any recommendation for academic references about the two garments – how did you find info about them? I would appreciate your help!!!

    Thanks a million indeed!

    Best,
    Angela

    • Kathryn Kane says:

      I am glad you found the article useful. However, so far as I know, adults did not wear leading strings. They did wear hanging sleeves, but that was a style from the fifteenth century.

      I consulted a number of sources for this article and my article on skeleton suits. I have listed them below:

      Ashelford, Jane, The Art of Dress: Clothes and Society, 1500-1914. London: National Trust, 1996.

      Baclawski, Karen, The Guide to Historic Costume. New York: Drama Books Publishers, 1995.

      Buck, Anne, Clothes and the Child: A Handbook of Children’s Dress in England 1500 – 1900. Bedford: Ruth Bean Publishers, 1996.

      Ewing, Elizabeth, History of Children’s Costume. London: B. T. Batsford Ltd., 1977.

      Harris, Kristina, The Child in Fashion, 1750 – 1920. Atglen, PA: Schiffer Publishing, Ltd., 1999.

      Jenkins, David, The Cambridge History of Western Textiles, v. I & II. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2003.

      Ribeiro, Aileen, & Cummings, Valerie, The Visual History of Costume. London: B. T. Batsford Ltd., 1989.

      I hope this will help you with your studies. I found Anne Buck’s book particularly helpful, since she uses a number of period paintings, which provide contemporary illustrations of many garments.

      Regards,

      Kat

  9. Summer says:

    Thanks for this article, and what a relief. When I found out leading strings were a thing, they nearly ruined what I’d hoped would be a very funny passage I’m writing in which the heroine’s little brother escapes her and accosts the doctor who’s been giving her looks, and an utterly embarrassing encounter ensues. Obviously such a thing couldn’t happen if the little squirt was reined in. But if leading strings are going out of fashion, such an escape is possible, and it’s a great conversation starter. She’s all, “I ought to keep him on a leash!” and the doctor’s all, “No, think of his health! :D” And it fits both his medical integrity and the fact that it’s a happier accident from his point of view, forcing attention from this girl who’s been trying to avoid his notice.

    • Kathryn Kane says:

      I am glad you found the article helpful. You are quite right that leading strings had become “optional” by the Regency. So if your little boy is out and about without them, though older folks might disapprove, younger people would think nothing of it. And, if it helps to advance your story, so much the better.

      You are welcome to post a link to your book in a comment here once it is available.

      Regards,

      Kat

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