There is my sister; and really quite her own little elegant figure! and the face not unlike. I should have made a good likeness of her, if she would have sat longer, but she was in such a hurry to have me draw her four children that she would not be quiet. Then, here come all my attempts at three of those four children; — there they are, Henry and John and Bella, from one end of the sheet to the other, and any one of them might do for any one of the rest. She was so eager to have them drawn that I could not refuse; but there is no making children of three or four years old stand still you know; nor can it be very easy to take any likeness of them, beyond the air and complexion, unless they are coarser featured than any mama’s children ever were. Here is my sketch of the fourth, who was a baby. I took him, as he was sleeping on the sofa, and it is as strong a likeness of his cockade as you would wish to see. He had nestled down his head most conveniently.

Emma, Chapter 6

This passage shows Emma at her best; fondly talking about her family and her attempts to immortalize them, being honest about her ability and its limits. Her success in capturing the baby’s cockade is a very funny and revealing line. But exactly what was a baby’s cockade ? Shall we find out together? Yes, lets…..

Quite simply, a cockade was a formal arrangement of ribbons,a little motif, that decorated a male baby’s cap or hat. Here are some examples from the 18th century billet books kept by the Foundling hospital which I saw  on display at their marvellous Threads of Feeling exhibition.

The cockade took its inspiration from cockades worn by the military in their hats during the eighteenth century.

Hogarth’s painting The March to Finchley, above in its home at the Foundling Hospital, and below

in clearer detail, has a central section which  shows soldiers wearing black cockades in their hats (and doing unmentionable things..well, they are soldiers off to fight and it IS Hogarth).

Black was the colour associated with the Hanoverian royal family,who were of course the then ruling royal family not only in Hanover but in England.

Young children of both sexes in the long eighteenth century wore identical clothing- dresses- until the boys were breached and began to wear breaches or skeleton suits. The cockade was a means of distinguishing boys from girls as it would appear that certainly until the early 19th century only boys wore them.

SusanSibbald, shown below on the right of the engraving

confirms that cockades were worn by boys, certainly in 1811. In her memoirs she recalled  seeing a baby boy on display in a drawing-room in Jersey wearing one, in a scene that has echoes of both Sense and Sensibility and Pride and Prejudice:

In the drawing-room Mrs Harker had her baby brought, only about two months old, to exhibit to Mrs Gibbons, and expecting it would be much noticed by her but she was disappointed  for she barely looked at it and said she thought that  children were not presentable until they were of age to introduce themselves. Poor Mrs Harker seemed shocked which obliged me to be doubly interested in the little infant which I thought from his being so young would have looked better in his nursery attire of bed gown and nightslip instead of a robe and sash and tied up sleeves a bare neck and a cap like a sunflower with a scarlet cockade to match the ribbons  on the robe

(page 307)

Hogarth-again!-illustrated a young boy attired as Mrs Sibbold described in one of his paintings in the series of paintings which formed The Rake’s Progress. Below is the penultimate scene in the series showing the rake,Tom, in prison. Doubt reigns in the art world as to whose child he is, but he is most definitely a boy,wearing a red cockade on his cap.

Here is a section from that painting, to show you the details: do note you can enlarge all the illustrations in this and every post merely by clicking on them.

interestingly at this point in history(and until the mid 20th century) the colours pink and blue were NOT associated with any one of the sexes. Below is a predominantly pink cockade,worn by a boy at the Foundling Hospital.

Here is Sir Lawrence Dundas and his grandson painted by Johann Zoffany, painted in 1769.

You can clearly see that the grandson, not having yet been breeched, is wearing a long white gown with a pink sash.

This conversation piece of Sir Wiloughby de Brooke , the 14th baronet, and his family showing them at breakfast with their three eldest children at Compton Verney in Warwickshire. Though he eventually had five children, his daughter was not born until 1769.This painting finished  in 1766, therefore clearly shows the lack of distinction between the colours pink or blue, as all the children in the painting are boys.

Linda Baumgarten in her magisterial book, What Clothes Reveal: The Language of Clothing in Colonial and Federal America, states the position very clearly.

It is often difficult for the modern viewers to determine a childs gender in paintings and prints from the 18th century. Because the corseted torsoes of boys echo the feminine shape of the girls there appears to be little if any difference between the clothing of girls and boys.  Sets of childhood linens were unisex of either gender. Indeed both sexes of young children wore skirts when they were not in their shirts or bed gowns. Skirts apparently had an unspoken but genuine symbolic value in the society of the time. They symbolised children’s dependence in the same way that adult women all of whom wore skirts were also dependant on their husbands or fathers. People who wore pants(men) were the dominant member sof the family and society.  Skits had also a  more concrete, practical value for the mother of a child who was not yet fully toilet trained ;it would be easier to keep the child clean if clothing did not fit  closely around the loins….Despite the unisex appearance of children’s garments there were distinct differences between clothing of boys and grils. The signals of gender were subtle and some may yet go unnoticed. Nevertheless, they were obvious to people at the time. The young boy at the left in Joseph Badgers painting(above-jfw) wears a a low-neck dress….boys, not girls, wore this particular style with coat sleeves, a complete front opening to the hem and full skirts…Gender distinction had nothing to do with the presence of petticoats, the colour of the fabric the use of flowers silk or delicate textiles.Clothing that was colour coded-pink for a girl and blue for a boy – did not come in to well into the 20th century”

(pages 164-166)

So the question remains what did girls wear to distinguish them from boys?  Studies of the Foundling Museum textiles reveals that in the mid 18th century girls did not wear cockades but a loose bow with long trials known as a top knot:

Ribbons attached to girls caps always took the form of what was called a topknot, a loose bunch of knotted ribbons with strands hanging down…The difference (between boy’s cockades and girl’s topknots-jfw)arose almost certainly from the military and therefore masculine associations of the cockade.

(page 48 Threads of Feeling exhibition catalogue by John Styles)

However, by the time Jane Austen was writing Emma, the situation regarding top knots may have changed.In the Jane Austen Society Report for 1991, Mrs Duncan-Jones wrote of Mrs Ogilby, friend to Elizabeth Barret Browning’s mother:

Mrs David Ogilby the friend of Mrs Browning says in her recollections : In those days (1848)young infants wore lace caps with cockades of satin ribbon: a round cockade for a boy an oval cockade for a girl.

Now this date-1848- is clearly too late for Emma,but there may have been a change in the fashion at some time in the early 19th century in respect to the top knot/cockade for girls. But what is certain is that Emma’s cockade was worn as was the usual fashion by her nephew, a boy and Jane Austen in that passage in Emma, which may puzzle us now, was recording a long held tradition.