Sailor Suit Components


Figure 1.--This French fashion magazine illustration shows some the garments that made up a sailor suit. There is no headwear. It does show the kneepants, a jacket (rather than a middy blouse), dickie (referred to as a vest), along with a fourth garment (the white one) which we are unsure about. The magazine appeared in 1895 and was described as suitable for a 7-8 year old boy. Click on the image for a fuller discussion.

A complete sailor suits were made up of a hat or cap, middy blouse, long or short pants, skirts (for girls and small boys), and sailor hat. Other accesories might include a sleeve buttions, bow, and lanyards with brass whistles. The accessories varied, but the hat of cap was once a very important component. The wide brimmed-sailor hat in fact became so popular that boys wore it with many other garments such as Little Lord Fauntleroy suits or Buster Brown suits. Dickeys were used to cover the space between the "v" of the sailor collars of the middy blouses. Both pull over middy blouses and button front jacket-like blouses wee worn. The bows worn with middy blouses were generally dark blue, even for white suits. The origin of the bow was the black silk neckerchief originally worn by seamen and called a "sweat rag." Boys in the Victorian era wore either long or short pants with their middy blouse. Some of the earliest sailor suits had long trousers, often with bellbottom trousers like those actually worn by British seamen. Sailor suits were worn with long stockings or socks depending on the chronological period and or season. Footwear varied chronolgically and between countries as well.

Hats and Caps

The sailor hat or cap was once a very necessary part of a sailor suit. Several different styles of hats were worn, determined by the style of suit chosen and the whims of the mother. Some of the most common in the 19th Century were broad brimmed sailor hats. English boys also wore the flat topped cap cloth cap worn by more modern British sailors, also with a ribbon dangling at the back. French and German boys wore the caps worn by the sailors in their navy. The French cap was clearly destunguishable from the others at it had a red pom pom on the top.

Pull-over Middy Blouse

The middy blouse had a "V" shaped collar open at the front had a deep square flat collar and the back. The "V"-shaped neck opening in front showing the vest or dicky. Many authors attribute the three white stripes on the classic middy blouse as a tribute to Nelson's three great victories, but this is probably not the case.

Button-up Garments

The pull-over middy blouse is generally associated with the sailor suit. We note, however, a wide range of sailor garments which button up thefront. We note garments that were very similar to pull-over blouses and others that seem more like jackets. Some were very similar to middy blouses and also blouced at the waist, probably using a draw string. A good example is English boy Harry Shaw. He wears a button-up middy blouse. Some of these garments had buttons, but were worn open, rather like a Fauntleroy suit. Other btton-up upper (torso) garments tended to longer and extended below the waist. These seem more like jackets. We are not sure how to describe these garments. They may at the time been considered a blouse, but this seems to be an incorrect usage given the length of the garment. The can not accurately be called a shirt. We are tempted to call them jackets. This probably is not the best term as there was not shirt or blouse underneath. We do not yet have contemporary catalog entries which describe this garment provbiding us with contemporary terminology.

Buttons

The decorative bone buttons that are today sewn on many suit jackets, sports coats and blazers began as an effort by Lord Nelson to keep young midshipsmen and cabinboys from wiping their noses on their sleeves. In the days of sail, young boys, often as young as 9 years old, would sign on sailing ships as cabinboys, usually becoming midshipmen as they got older. Many, particularly on their first voyages, would become homesick, tearfully tending to their duties in their fancy gentlemen's uniform. That uniform had no pockets for a hankerchief, so the young boys would, like all young boys, wipe their noses on their sleeves. To break his cabinboys and midshipmen of this ungentlemanly habit, Lord Nelson had large brass buttons sewn on the sleeves of all midshipmen and cabinboy uniforms. The decorative value of the buttons were soon realized, and in short order, London tailors were adding decorative buttons to frocks, coats, and dinner jackets. Though the buttons have become less gaudy, the practice continues. We note buttons being used as ornamental devices. A good example is an American biy--William Dougherty.


Figure 2.--The hats and the knickers and knee pants worn by the boys suggest this photograph was taken in the 1910s around the time of World War I. Notice the boys wearing kneepants and knickers with three-quarter socks.

Pants/Skirt

Boys in the Victorian era wore either long or short pants with their middy blouse. Some of the earliest sailor suits had long trousers, often with bellbottom trousers like those actually worn by British seamen. These bell-bottom trousers, which came to epitomize 1960s and early 1970s fashion, were thus actually a practical item for sailors living aboard ship. The wide, flared, legs were easy to roll up above the knees when swabbing a deck or wading through slightly flooded spaces. As the 19th century progressed, however, knee pants became increasingly common. By the late Victorian and Edwardian period knee-length pants became almost universal. Smaller boys might wear a modified kilt-like sailor suit with a regulation middly blouse worn with a white or blue kilt-like skirt. Girls and younger boys wore skirts/kilts.

Reefer Jackets/Coats

The reefer jacket and suit has quite a bit of history attached to it. Historians, however, disagree on its origins and HBC has yet to find a definitive account. We have acquired some information on this important account and eventually hope to provide a more definitive account. These jackets were called reefer jackets owing to their naval origins. The nautical term "to reef" conotates reducing the area of the sail to catch the wind. Sailors wore heavy jackets when they had to go aloft to take in or let out the sails. It must have been a bitter cold experience in bad weather. While heavy, they were short so the sailors could better manuever in the rigging. At any rate the heavy jackets they wore became known as reefer jackets.

Bows and Kerchiefs

The bows worn with middy blouses were generally dark blue, even for white suits. The origin of the bow was the black silk neckerchief originally worn by seamen and called a "sweat rag." Black was chosen because it didn't show dirt. It was worn around the forehead and the neck. Some men used the neckerchief in the days when pigtails were fashionable to protect their jackets. Some authors claim black was chosen in honor of Nelson after he was killed at Trafalgar. Black neckerchiefs were, however, used long before Nelson's death. The bows worn on boys' middy blouses were usually, but not always much smaller than the collar bows worn with other suits such as Little Lord Fauntleroy suits. White bows were also worn, but not as commonly. They were mostly solid colors, but some America suits had insignias on them (figure 2).

Dickeys

Dickeys were used to cover the space between the "v" of the sailor collars of the middy blouses. The dickeys varied greatly. Many were solid colors, either the same color as the suit or contrasting with it. Some had insignias. Some were stripped. The stripped dickeys were particularly popular in France and Russia. There were different kinds of garments. Some just covered the V-gap. Others were a kind of vest that buttones from the back or at the side. There were also "T"-shirt like garments.

Hosiery

Sailor suitswere worn with long stockings or socks depending on the chronological operiod and or season. Boys in the late 19th century mostly wore long stockings, although this varied somewhat by country. Most American boys wore dark long stockings until after the turn of te century. Three-quarter length stockings seem to have been more common in France well before the turn of the 20th century. Three-quarter length stockings bcame more common in the early 20th century in both America and Europe, although long stockings were worn n cold weather or for formal occasions. Both black and white long stockings might be worn for dressy occasions. After Wrld War I, kneesocks became increasingly common. Trends varied somewhat between countries.

Footwear

Footwear varied chronolgically and between countries as well.

Accessories

Other acesories worn with sailor suits. We see many suits with lanyards. Lanyards were very popular, especially in the 19th century. A good example is an English boy, Carl Roos in 1881. The lanuards had tin or brass whistles on the end. At least we assume there are whistles on the other end of the lanyards. Normally they are neatly tucked away in pockets and we can not see. The whistles were quite popular with the boys. Apparently some mothers quite aware of how their sons would make use of the whistles, had them decommissioned and the boys complained about it.

Lace Collar and Trim

The lace collar is not normally considered to be part of a sailor suit. Some mothers in the 19th cebntury, while liking the sailor style, considerd it to plain. As a result mothers occassionally added a lace collar to a standard sailor suit or bought elaborate suits, especially sailor tunics, with lace trim weorked into the styling.







HBC




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Created: April 10, 1998
Last updated: 5:06 AM 1/12/2010