The young girl stands beside a hulking industrial spinning wheel woven with spools of ivory thread. Hardly older than 10, she gazes toward the windows, her creamy petticoat skirt brushing against the top of sensible black lace-up boots. Her tweed overcoat and a thickly woven wool cap, pulled tight over her ears, work to keep out any chill. Her clothes appear practical and homespun, her look melancholic.
Is she a sepia-toned emblem of America’s working conditions in the days before child labor laws? Nope, she’s a child model, decked out in Barcelona-based Little Creative Factory, a kids’ clothing shop that sells swingy ankle-length linen dresses that Abigail Williams might have donned while accusing Goody Proctor of signing the devil’s book, and rolled pants with leather braces that I imagine Gilbert Blythe tucking his thumbs into while he proclaims his love for Anne Shirley. The brand, with its nearly 50,000 Instagram followers, is at the forefront of a burgeoning trend among the Kinfolk-minded Instagram set: kids’ apparel that is more peasant than royalty, street urchin turned street style.
These clothes aren’t bound to one particular genre — think Western prairie maiden plus London newsies with a good mix of colonial farmhand and early 20th-century Irish peasant tossed in for good measure. They’re united in their dedication to nubby wool, burlap-like linen, and the occasional sherpa lining (fabrics worn on whaling vessels or at the homestead). The clothes’ silhouettes offer hits of nostalgia for a time gone by, when Laura Ingalls lived in a house dug into a hillside and oranges were a luxury. Smocks and tunics abound, along with blowsy sleeves, high waists, and tortoiseshell buttons. The only patterns are faint stripes, washed-out gingham, and the daintiest of florals. The colors — rust, ivory, ochre, sage — are properly muted to ensure that every last garment appears to have freshly emerged from a tin wash bucket filled with beet dye.
They’ll cost you, of course: $79 for a teeny linen dress, $40 for a chambray fleece-lined bonnet, €98 for a woolen long-sleeved baby onesie that your little one will grow out of within weeks — but not before he barfs and craps all over it. But what parents are really paying for is a bizarre subversion of these very stout, hardwearing styles. Kids used to don these clothes to work in the fields and now they’re putting them on to frolic — and to pose, of course, for an Instagram that captures their whimsical, unencumbered childhood. Freed from the tyranny of polyester fibers and garish primary colors, the aesthetic seems to think, a kid in a smock can really think and wander and create.
Brands like Brooklyn-based Soor Ploom, with its striped cotton-canvas pinafores, are obviously tailor-made for children who sit quietly in window seats, pondering leather-bound books full of botanical sketches. Shops like Briar Handmade and Petite Soul crown the heads of cherub-faced tykes with brimmed bonnets, perfect for strolling the open grasslands on nature walks. Yoli + Otis is the Southern Hemisphere’s beachy answer to the trend, with crinkly white blouses that smell like salt water even over the internet and dusty-colored trousers that are offset against tiny tawny limbs. These are clothes for children who don’t need plastic Playskool buckets and shovels because the vastness of a sand dune is adventure enough for their free-wheeling souls.
Kids in these lookbooks are never gleefully leaping about on a magenta-hued photo set or giggling conspiratorially in a bedroom stocked with toys. They’re wandering through mossy forests or lolling in knee-high wildflowers, contemplative looks on their faces, like tiny Thoreaus who will examine and catalogue a bird skeleton. They’re kids who study lichens and recite Tennyson and don’t watch TV because they can better use their time to learn embroidery or perform impromptu science experiments using only materials found in the woods.
They’re fantasy kids. The nostalgia of the clothes, these people must think, will rub off on their lives and onto the kids themselves. A child in a glitter-covered, “Princess Power”–emblazoned tee can throw a mean tantrum in the check-out at Target. A kid in blowsy linen trousers and a delicate lace-up blouse will ponder puddles and properly pronounce “Rimbaud.” Hell, that kid won’t ever see the inside of something so gauche as a Target. It’s all part of the ruse that parents tell themselves. If I wrap this tot up into a better-kept version of the Little Match Girl, they must think, then the person I raise will inherently be more interesting, more unusual. Less basic.
Really, dressing your child like an elegant serf is the new way to show off your parental bona fides. Once you’ve Marie Kondo’d your home into blissful minimalism and replaced every plastic toy with a wooden rattle, there’s no better way to proclaim your commitment to raising mindful, gentle, inquisitive children than to wrap them in hand-tailored Japanese linen and let them loose in a field of wheat. You’ve already turned your house, your food, and your closet into a vision from Instagram: A peasant frock is just the next step in matching your kid to the rest of your life.