Sailor Suits: Chronology--19th Century Trends

Figure 1.--This CDV s not unidentfied. We believe the boy is American, probably taken in the 1870s. Note that there is no dickey, but rather you can see a collar-buttioning garment worn under the sailor top. Mother has also added a large ruffle. there are stripes on the "V"-collar, but notice that they are not prominant.

Major changes in children's clothing had occurred in the late-18th and early-19th centuries. A range of more comfortable, loose fitting styles appeared. English children were among the first to be emancipated. Another major innovation was the sailor suit wjich appered in the mid-19th century. Queen Victoria is usually given credit for the innovation, although we are not entirely sure if some may have introduced the innovation erlier. It took a while for the fashion to catch on with the general public, but it gradully grew in popularity and spread to many other countries. There were many stlistic variations, often divering in various ways from the traditioal uniforms of the Royal Navy. Styls were developed from the uniforms of other naional navies. Some styistic innovations were more styles of fashion. Girls began wearing sailor suits as well by the 1860s abd was a major stylistc influence by the 1870s. By the late-19th the sailor suit was among the most popular style for boys and girls.

Early-19th Century (1800-1840)

Major changes in children's clothing occurred in the late-18th and early-19th centuries. A range of more comfortable, loose fitting styles appeared. English children were among the first to be emancipated, little girls changing to soft, unlined frocks in the 1770's with France and the Colonies following next. Some well-known writers had taken the age to task for its manner of confining infants' bodies in tight clothes, among them John Locke, the noted English philosopher (1632-1704). He was probably the big influence in the change. He was followed by Jean Jacques Rousseau, the French philosopher (1712-1775), who carried on the crusade and was forced to flee Paris for England because of his revolutionary ideas. Although the change over in men's dress to trousers occurred early in the period, knee breeches were still worn for dress at formal occasions as can be seen in contemporary portraits. The writings of the Age of Reason were having an effect in putting children into comfortable-clothes, like skeleton suits. We also notice tunics worn with loose-fitting pataloons. What we have not yet found is saolor suits--one of the most popular of all children's styles. It would seem to fullfit the idea of comfortable, loose fitting children's outfits. It was in England during the mid-19th century when someone had the inspiration that boys should wear sailor blouses and trousers.We are not entirely sure when this first occurred. Queen Victoria is normally given credit for this. Some sources suggest there were some English boys that wore sailor suits before the royal princes. We have not yet been able to confirm this. English seamen had been dressing in pantaloons since the 17th century and English boys adopted trousers a half century before their fathers did. But we have not yet found evidence of English boys wearing sailor suits in the early-19th century. That is not to say that we have not noted fashion historians claiming that there were boys wearing sailor suits in the early-19th century. A museum curator responded to our uinquiry to this matter, "So glad you are reading our collection records on the web. However the reference by curator, Margaret Simpson to sailor suits as the 'early-19th century' in the production notes is a reference to the general practice in the early nineteen hundreds of young boys being dressed in sailor suits and not the specific sailor suit The next sentence starts talking about the particular sailor suit of 1846." [Turnbull] We are always skeptical when we hear evidence being phrased as a 'general practice', especilly when we have found no evidence of this prctice. I asked Ms. Turnbullmis she could suggest paintings or fashion magazines showing or sescribing boys' sailor suits in the early-19th century. She apparently could not as she never replied. Thesailor suit did indedd become a major syle for boys, but as far as we can tell,monly after the British royl family began dressing the princes i sailor suits at mid century (1846). One reason we think that Ms. Turnvull and Simpon are mistaken is that the Royal Navy and other important navies had not yet formalized naval uniforms for enlisted men (ratings) in the ealy-19th century. Only officers and marines wore formal officers. o it is unlikelky that boys wore uiforms that essentially did not yet exist.

The 1840s

Few men as both boy and adult have had more influence on fashion than Edward VII. He was largely responsible for popularizing nautical garb. The sailor suit may have been worn by boys earlier, but it was in 1846 after Winterhalter painted the 5-year old Prince Bertie (future Prince of Wales and King Edward VII) in a white sailor suit complete with bellbottom trousers, his first long pants, that the style became popular for boys. The young prince was depicted wearing a diminutive but accurate version of naval uniform in a white suit with bell bottom trousers, a sailor collar and neckerchief and sailor hat. Sailor suits for boys were still rare in the 1840s. But as far as we can tell. this ws ehe origin of the syle. But royal fmilies were important arbitors of style in Euope and inditectly America. Very soon, the sailor suit emerged as th most icomic of ll boys' fashions. The style would endure as a boys' fashion staple for decades. Countless formal studio photographic portraits show boys in sailor suits. After the late-1840s, few if any fashion magazines appeared without at least some sailor suits for boys and girls.

The 1850s

Photography appeared in the 1940s, but we only have large numbers of images from the United States for the 1850s. We do not see American boys commonly wearing sailor suits in the 1850s. We are not syre, however, about British and continental European trends.

The 1860s

The sailor suit by the 1860s had begun to spread to other countries in Europe. One fashion magazine, Englishwoman's Domestic Magazine, in 1861 suggested sailor suits for boys of 6 or 7. It was still confined, however, primarily to younger boys. Winterhalter was not the only painter to depict boys in sailor suits. Renoir often painted children in sailor suits. Perhaps the most celebrated portrait painter of the day, John Singer Seargent, painted relatively few boys, but one well known painting of an American boy shows him in a white, keepants sailor suit and wide brimmed hat. Countless European royals were commonly outfitted in sailor suits. Some like the children of George V or the ill fated Tsarevich Alexei and his sisters commonly were outfitted in sailor suits. By the turn of the century even women adopted it. Early sailor suits, however, often did not follow Royal Navy styles as cloesly as Queen Elizabeth.

The 1870s

While Quen Victoria and Prince Albert set the precedent for dressing English princes in sailor suits, the style did not begin to catch on with the general public. By the 1870s, however, the sailor suit had become a major style for boys. A good example is Maurice Carmichael Tweedie, an English boy in 1878. The sailor suit achieved immense popularity, in both Continental countries (especially Belgium, France, Italy, Germany, and the Netherland) as well as countries outside of Western Europe like Greece. The style was also widely popular in the United States. Interestingly, the sailor suit was more popular in many of these countries than England itself. Sailor suits were especially popular for the royal princes in virtually every European country--most with powerful navies. Many royal families had strong naval links. Both the British and German royal families dressed their children in the new fashion. This reached a peak with the children of George V who wore virtually nothing but sailor suits, except for kilts on visits to Scotland. The sailor suit by the 1870s had begun to spread to other countries in Europe. The fact that royalty wore sailor suits helped to make them increasingly popular with the general public making it a major boys' style. By the 1870s sailor suits were one of the most popular styles for boys. Younger boys might wear dresses with sailor styling even before breaching. We are unsure as to what age boys would wear sailor suits in the 1870s. We believe that older boys wore sailor suits on the Continent than England, but this needs confirmation. We stillhave only limited information as to the popularity of the sailor suit in individual countries or the ages of the boys weaing them in specific countris. We note that sailor suits were being worn even in countries outside the Western mainstream like Greece.

The 1880s

They were still generally worn by younger boys, but by the 1880s the style was being extended to older boys as well who began to commonly wear them. By the late 1880s the style had become almost a uniform for boys and even spread to girls fashions.

The 1890s

The sailor seat reached its peak in the 1890s. Few boys in the 1890s did not wear a sailor suit at some time. A factor here was Kaisser Wilhelm II of Germany who became Kaisser in 1888 and dismissed Chancellor Bismarck only 2 years later. The new Kaisser launched a more agressive foreign policy and decided to build a naval force to rival the British Royal Navy. A major publicity campaign mastermined by Admiral Tripitz was necessary to convince a reluctant Reichstag to approve the vast expenditures required to build a modern navy. This and the resulting arms race had a major impact on the popularity of the sailor suit in Germany and the rest of Europe. Battleships were ship of great national prestige which added to a boy of wearing them. It is no accident that nowhere was the sailor suit more popular than Germany which proceeded to build a powerful navy, deemed necessary for a modern colonial power. The sailor suit was one of the most popular outfits for boys in the 1890s. We see them being worn by boys in many different countries. We note an American boy in 1891.


Turnbull, Anni. Assistant Curator, Museum of Applied arts & Sciences, Syndney, Australia. E-mail Message (October 22, 2013. Ms. Turnbull and Ms Simpson are in Australia. They were, however, referring to European trends as Austrlia had not yet been settled by Europeans in the early-19th century. While we take issue the chronology, Ms Simpson wrote a good summary of children's sailor suits.

Englishwoman's Domestic Magazine (1861).


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Created: 5:31 AM 11/14/2010
Last updated: 5:45 PM 10/28/2014