Long baptismal or christening gowns have been an essential part of the christening ceremony at least since the nineteenth century. The earliest were made of silk, gradually replaced by lavishly embroidered white-on-white fine cotton or linen. The gowns were very long, designed to show off the elaborate handiwork as the infant was cradled in its mother's arms during the christening ceremony. The basic shape and silhouette of the gowns followed fashionable female dress of the time, and there was no difference between gowns worn by infant boys and infant girls. Several sources note that a pointed extension overlapping the waist seam on the bodice might be worn out if the gown was worn by a male child, and inserted into a hidden opening if the child was female. Constructed to be worn by a number of different-sized family members, the gown's fit was adjusted by tiny drawstrings at the neck and waist. Often handed down through many generations, a christening gown can be a family's most treasured possession.
Today, some families mark this ceremonious occasion with new ensembles for the very smallest members of their families. Options range from luxury silk christening ensembles from Christian Dior, and miniature christening tuxedos and blue-trimmed christening sailor suits for boys.
The christening gown on the seated mannequin(left) is the Sage family christening gown, made in France, from about 1870. The bodice of this dress was replaced at a later date, and the original bodice remains at the Sage Collection. Elizabeth Sage, the Sage Costume Collection's namesake, was the first professor of clothing and textiles at Indiana University. Recruited from Cornell University in 1913, Elizabeth Sage was an early proponent of the academic study of dress and appearance. Author of one of the first costume history textbooks, A Study of Costume From the Days of the Egyptians to Modern Times, published in 1926, Elizabeth Sage collected textile and clothing samples for classroom use. This collection of samples was donated to Indiana University upon her retirement in 1937, forming the basis of the Elizabeth Sage Historic Costume Collection. Formally in existence for more than 70 years, collecting has been ongoing for nearly one hundred years.
Long appreciated for their beautiful handiwork and craftsmanship, christening gowns are prized by collectors interested in exquisite lace and fine textiles. Do you collect christening gowns? Does your family have a special christening gown that has been handed down through generations?