European Fashion Heritage Association

Journal EFHA World

Object Voices / Barbara Farber’s funky clothes for kids

children wearDutch fashionfashion collectionfashion exhibition

Guest post by Debra Knopp, from the Fashion and Costume Department at Centraal Museum, Utrecht on the interesting collection of Barbara Farber’s design in the museum

Who is Barbara Farber? That’s what I wanted to know as I admired this mysterious individual’s stunning samples of childrenswear that I’d stumbled upon while going through the Centraal Museum’s collection. The Amsterdam-based American designer appears to have turned Dutch people’s fixed and unimaginative idea of childrenswear completely on its head in the 1970s.

There I was in the Centraal Museum’s storage facility, going through their collection of clothes for suitable items from the seventies for the forthcoming exhibition Dreams cast in concrete: about the turbulent history of Kanaleneiland and Hoog Catharijne (2019), when I stumbled upon some boxes of children’s clothes by Barbara Farber. My desire to learn more about this neglected designer would see me knee-deep in the museum’s archives and poring over old newspapers.

The mysterious Barbara Farber

Barbara Farber (1931), an American, moved to the Netherlands with her family in 1961. As a mother of three, she was more than familiar with all the difficulties of shopping for children’s clothes and making them last. But upon settling in the Netherlands, she found there was nothing in the shops that she liked: “Childrenswear back then was so stiff and unimaginative. The kids all looked the same.”[1] Undaunted, she began making her daughter’s clothes herself. The other mums in her vicinity couldn’t help but notice how different her daughter looked from the other kids in the playground, and were soon asking if she could see fit to making something for their kids too. Farber, not having had any formal training as a seamstress, was initially reluctant to respond to the requests.

Why childrenswear?

In putting together the 1983 exhibition Two centuries of children’s attire: a selection from the Centraal Museum collection, the fashion curator Hanneke Adriaans researched the history of children’s attire,[2] and noted, in the accompanying publication, that children’s clothes had for a long time been miniature versions of whatever the adults were wearing. It was only in the fifties, with the emergence of mass production in the clothing industry, that people began making allowances for children’s particular needs and desires. Yet, while children’s clothes were ideal for mass production, most mums carried on making their kids’ clothes themselves. By the sixties, however, more and more people were starting to earn enough to afford ready-made clothes, and the need for more expressive attire began to grow. Children’s fashion boutiques began popping up all over the place, selling both ready-made and homemade items. Nonetheless, writes Hanneke Adriaans, some mums still couldn’t find anything they liked among the offerings, and so took matters into their own hands by setting up their own labels. Among this group was Barbara Farber.

“People who don’t have kids themselves are bringing out these miniature versions of adults’ clothes. It’s become cool to dress kids like hippies, but I’m not keen on that. Kids simply don’t have the same proportions as adults, and I also try to make my designs reflective of youth. You cannot simplify enough when designing for kids.”[3] – Barbara Farber (1968)

B.F., a label to call her own

Before striking off on her own, Barbara Farber earned a living by sketching sewing patterns for Margriet magazine and making paper dresses. But once she made the leap, she quickly began to draw people’s attention with her designs. Among those who noticed was Vroom en Dreesmann, the Dutch department store chain, who approached her in 1968 to design a childrenswear collection for the anniversary of its branch in The Hague. The collection — her first to be mass-produced — was sold under the name “Barbara and Edward”. Within a year, Farber would launch a comprehensive collection under her very own name.[4]

Hallmarks of Farber’s designs

A common feature of Farber’s designs was the endless possibilities they offered for the mixing and matching of items, and their suitability for boys and girls from kindergarten age right through primary school. In fact, Farber can be credited for introducing the Dutch to the idea of mixing and matching kids’ clothes with the launch of the collection Kombineer-Maar-Kollekties. And while the Dutch newspaper de Volkskrant‘s fashion critic snootily declared it a “very American idea that appears ideally suited to unimaginative mums”[5], other critics were impressed by the way it allowed people to create the impression of owning a varied wardrobe.

In addition, the clothes were often made using locally produced natural materials, such as denim and unbleached and printed cotton or corduroy. The durability of these materials made the clothes easy to maintain, infinitely washable and perfect for the rough-and-tumble play ubiquitous to childhood. The clothes were distinctively practical and sporty, and came in bright colour combinations and cheerful designs.

All items bore the BF logo, which the kids loved, according to Farber. But above all, the cuts were simple, and functional elements such as patch pockets, zips and cuffs were tailored fashionably. Thus, fashion trends in the adult clothing market were adapted to the practical needs of children.[6]

The reign of Barbara Farber

“I was amazed [at] how quickly my designs gained traction in the Netherlands, considering how unusual it was at the time to see kids in such vibrant clothes.”[7] – Barbara Farber (1970).

Every department store in the Netherlands, including de Bijenkorf, Gerzon, Maison de Bonnetterie and the Society Shop, would go on to stock Farber’s clothes. Her designs would also make their way to stores in America, Belgium, Germany, England, France and Switzerland.[8] She was even elected the Dutch representative of the International Cotton Institute for the World Exposition Expo ’70 fair in Osaka, during which she exhibited two of her designs at a children’s fashion show.[9]

Nevertheless, not everyone was laudatory of her work and achievements. Some found her striking designs and unusual colour combinations a bit too expressive for kids.[10] In addition, her premium prices were a frequent source of complaint for those who believed kids’ clothes ought to be more affordable. It was not uncommon to see headlines such as “Barbara Farber’s childrenswear: vibrant, durable and easy to maintain, but far from cheap”[11], or “Barbara Farber dresses children gorgeously but expensively”[12].

Eventually, in 1979, after more than a decade of success in children’s fashion, Farber changed direction by opening an art gallery, Galerie American Graffiti (later renamed Galerie Barbara Farber), which also met with success.[13]

How did the items end up in the Centraal Museum Utrecht collection?

Barbara Farber’s new spring and summer collection was unveiled during a fashion show at the Centraal Museum Utrecht on 19 February 1974. Against the backdrop of the period room in which the event was held, which included a seventeenth-century doll’s house[14], kids modelled Farber’s designs alongside other kids in nineteenth-century attire from the Centraal Museum Utrecht collection, which made for a striking contrast of colours and styles. Various other kids’ clothes and fashion prints from the museum´s collection were also on display. At the time, Hanneke Adriaans, the museum’s fashion curator, was busy putting together a collection of contemporary items for the costume department, which included items by Farber that the museum had acquired the year before. Adriaans would go on to mount an exhibition in 1983 on the subject of children’s fashion, and it would include Farber’s designs.[15] To date, the Centraal Museum Utrecht is the only one in the country to boast a collection of Farber’s designs.

Exhibition Dreams cast in concrete

Has your curiosity been piqued by all of this? Then you should definitely visit the museum´s online collection, to admire all of Barbara Farber´s pieces that the collection of the Centraal Museum Utrecht contains.

A selection of these pieces were displayed during the exhibition Dreams cast in concrete: about the turbulent history of Kanaleneiland and Hoog Catharijne, at the Centraal Museum Utrecht, from 28 September 2019 to 12 January 2020. The items of fashion in this exhibition were an integral part of the zeitgeist of the fifties and seventies. For more information about the exhibition here.

[1] Trouw 30-09-1968.
[2] Two centuries of children’s attire: a selection from the Centraal Museum collection [written by Hanneke Adriaans], Centraal Museum (Utrecht, 1983) (20 p.).
[3] Het Vrije Volk (social-democratic newspaper). 01-10-1968.
[4] Trouw 30-09-1968.
[5] De Volkskrant 16-02-1973.
[6] Trouw 22-03-1971; Het Parool 07-09-1971; Trouw 16-03-1972; Het Parool 16-03-1972.
[7] De Volkskrant 03-10-1970.
[8] Nieuwsblad van het Noorden 20-03-1972; De Volkskrant 25-08-1972.
[9] Trouw 17-02-1970.
[10] Nieuwsblad van het Noorden 17-02-1973.
[11] Nieuwsblad van het Noorden 20-03-1972.
[12] NRC Handelsblad 27-02-1973.