Christening gowns are traditional outfits made just for baby’s baptism. They are almost always white and can be very ornate, highly decorated garments.
Usually, the christening gown is quite long – much longer than the baby being christened, particularly when it is worn by a young or very small baby.
Many families keep a ‘family’ christening gown that has been passed down through various family members and is used for the baptism ceremony. Some older christening gowns are hand-stitched, beautifully embroidered and even feature hand-made lace.
While lace and beading are popular decorative features of many christening gowns, there are also traditions that involve the embroidery of meaningful symbols into the outfit; Irish families, for example, may have a pattern of celtic knots or crosses embedded in the fabric or design.
Many sewing, knitting and handcraft fairs and competitions around the world have a (often fiercely competitive) category for entries of handmade christening gowns, and the gown gives skilled craftspeople a great opportunity to demonstrate their talents.
Christening Gown Origins and History
There are historical records that suggest christening gowns were used in the early years of the Christian church.
Baptism is a very old ritual that has existed in various forms in such religions as Judaism for many centuries and became part of Christian ritual from the earliest days of the Church.
In the early church, those converting to Christianity as adults often wore a white christening gown, but before the seventeenth century, babies were usually wrapped tightly in swaddling cloth, which are strips of linen that were wrapped around the baby and then unwound and changed a few times each day.
In medieval christenings, babies were wrapped before the ceremony in a large square of silk fabric, often with lace or beaded trim, called a ‘bearing cloth.’
By the mid-seventeenth century, many christening traditions were established – including the introduction of decorative christening gowns.
Infant mortality was very high, and babies were baptised as early as possible, to ensure the child’s soul would go to heaven.
During the early part of the seventeenth century, in broader society, children’s fashions had started to change from miniatures of adult clothing, to childhood frocks.
For the christening ceremony, even less wealthy families would try to dress their child in very formal long white robes with detailed embroidery, while those of greater means would spend large amounts of money on intricately detailed christening gowns.
Traditions associated with Christening Gowns
There are lots of different cultural traditions associated with christening gowns. A Scottish tradition has babies sleeping in their christening gowns the night before. (Although it’s said to be good luck, it’s taking a bit of a risk that the gown will stay dry and clean overnight. Perhaps the custom was started to save some time on the morning of the ceremony!)
In another old Scottish custom, a piece of shortbread was pinned to the Christening gown before the ritual, then given to an unmarried female relative to eat afterwards. Folklore had it that night, her future husband would appear in her dreams.
An old Irish Catholic custom had it that a woman only wore white on three days of her life – her christening, holy communion and her wedding.
Evolving from this was a tradition (which still happens sometimes today) where women cut down their wedding dress to make christening gowns to be used in all of the families’ christenings. Variations of this custom include the christening gown then, years later, being sewn back into the wedding dress of the mother’s first-born daughter.
In some families, part of the mother’s wedding gown was also used to make a white dress for her daughter’s holy communion ceremony.
Some families embroider, on the bottom of the gown, the name of each child who has been christened wearing the outfit.
Historic Royal Christening Gowns
There are some famous historic christening gowns still in use; babies born into the British Royal Family, for example, are all christened in the family’s Honiton lace christening gown, lined with satin, which was made in 1841. The gown was made for the christening of Queen Victoria’s eldest daughter, Victoria.
By 2004, more than 60 babies had worn the Royal Christening Gown, which has changed colour over the last century and a half to a creamy colour. The net background has become very delicate, and the Victorian satin is almost worn out.
Similarly, more than one hundred Danish royal babies have been christened in a cream lace christening gown first worn by King Christian the 10th in 1870.
This article was written by Fran Molloy, www.ultraverse.com.au, journalist and mum of four