Sailor Suits: Germany--Chronology

One of the best known style of bpus' clothing has been the sailor suit or Die Matrosenkleidung. The sailor suit was as popular, if not more popular, in Germany than any other country. The style appeared in Britain in the 1840s, but began to became popular in Germany sometime later--beginning about the 1870s. It was inspired by English aristocratic fashions for children and it was first adopted by German aristoctratic families. The fact that the wife of the crown prince Frederich was the eldest dauther of England's Queen Victoria who had first dressed the princes in the uniform of enlisted sailors brought the style to Germany. Thus Kaiser Wilhelm II himself wore one of the earliest German sailor suits as a boy in 1862--a suit given him by his English aunt. Following this style, Wilhelm's children also wore sailor suits. It was only the Imperial family that adopted the sailor suit, but the other German royals and aristocratic families also adopted sailor suits for their children--especially the boys. The sailor suit had become an important style in Germany during the 1890s. Political developments, however, made it even more popular. Prussia and the other German states had no navies of any significance. Once the German Kaiser and Austrian Emperor started building a navy in the 1890s, however, their popularity for boys in both Germany and Austria took off. The sailor suit became the most popular and best-loved outfit for boys among the bourgeoisie and well suited the culture of militarism and nationalism that flourished at the end of the 19th century when the German navy rose to become one of the major navies in the world--challenging the British Royal Navy for supremecy. The sailor suit turned into something of a status symbol for the middle classes and was at the same time both a comfortable and practical way of dressing boys. Virually every German boy in the late 19th and early 20th century wore a sailor suit, especially middle-class boys. They were commonly worn to school by German boys.At this tine, however most of our information on German sailor suits is limited to the 20th century. The style declined in popularity after World War I as it did in other countries. While still widly worn during the 1920s, the sailor suit's association with artistocracy and the middleclass made it unpopular with the NAZIS in the 1930s because the NAZIs were trying to break down the prevailing class structure to create a more unified Volk and Reich.

The 19th Century

We know little about the early use of the sailor suit in German boys' clothes during thre mid-19th century. It does not appear to have been a common style, but our archive of 19th century German images is still limited. Certainly the attire of the British royal family was followed even in Germany as advances in publishing and printing illustrations made fashion magazines available to virtually any woman. The Germans do not appear to have been fashion setters. It was inspired by English aristocratic fashions for children and it was first adopted by German aristoctratic families. The appearance of the style in England and subsequently France introduced the style to the Germans. The marriage of the Princess Royal Victoria into the German royal family certainly was a major factor in bringing English fashions to Gemany. The clothing of royal families in the 19th century were major fshion influences. We have little information about the early development of the sailor suit for boys in Germany. It does appear, however, that German boys in the 1870s and early 80s were not yet being worn by German boys. Marine blue sailor suits became very popular for young boys of all ages after 1889, when Kaiser Wilhelm II started to stir up the enthusiasm for a German navy with his new naval policy. Sailor suits were practical, durable, and could be worn for all occasions. Even girls began wearing them. The pattern for the German sailor suits and the material of the suit have their origin in the uniforms of the British naval forces. The characteristical three white stripes on cuff and collar recall the three famous sea battles of Nelson. At the end of the 19th century, textile factories for sailors' clothes were established in the naval port of Kiel, from where Germany pursued its colonial and imperialistic policies. The real 'Kieler' (meaning Kiel or naval oufit), also among the favorite clothes of the emperor's children, became an expression of national pride for the bourgeoisie. by the 1890s German boys were also commonly wearing sailor suits.


Figure 1.--German boys after the turn of the century often wore short pants sailor suits to school. This photograph looks to have been taken in the 1910s.

The 20th Century


Edwardian Era (1900s-1919)

The sailor suit appears to have been the most popular outfit for boys by the turn of the century. The sailor suit became the most popular and best-loved outfit for boys among the bourgeoisie and well suited the culture of militarism and nationalism that flourished at the end of the 19th century when the German navy rose to become one of the major navies in the world--challenging the British Royal Navy for supremecy. The sailor suit turned into something of a status symbol for the middle classes and was at the same time both a comfortable and practical way of dressing boys. Virually every German boy in the late 19th and early 20th century wore a sailor suit, especially middle-class boys. They were commonly worn to school by German boys.At this tine, however most of our information on German sailor suits is limited to the 20th century. The suits were worn primarily with short pants as the knee pants style disappeared after the turn of the century. I believe long pants sailor sits were less common than in England and France. The sailor suit was worn by much older boys than in England. Most English boys stopped wearing sailor suits when they began boarding school. Less affluent boys followed this change at about the same time. German boys, however, continued wearing sailor suits well passed 8 years, in many cases into their early teens. German schools did not require school uniforms. Boys wore their own clothes to school. In many cases this meant sailor suits, usually with short pants.


Figure 2.--These German brothers in the early 1920s are flying kites made with nearly worthless German banknotes. Notice the rather long shorts worn with short, stripped ankle socksr.

Inter-War and War Era (1919-1945)

The style declined in popularity after World War I as it did in other countries. Sailor suits continued to be popular in the 1920s. Even older boys wore them during the 1920s and even the 1930s, although not as commonly as in the 20s. The military had been a revered institution before World I. This changed with the tragedy of the War. Even so, the sailor suit as a fashion for boys continued to be very popular, especially in the 1920s and early 1930s. The sailor suit's association with artistocracy and the middleclass made it unpopular with the NAZIS in the 1930s because the NAZIs were trying to break down the prevailing class structure to create a more unified Volk nd Reich. Germany boys wore sailor suits both for dress and play wear. Boys, especially younger boys commonly wore sailor suits to school. They could be worn to dressy occasions instead of a suit. Even so, some boys wore them as casual or play wear. Jeans at he time were not worn in Germany. Another casual style which became popular popular in the 1920s were lederhosen. Lederhosen were, however, never worn with sailor suits. English boys wore sailor suits with both long and short pants. In Germany boys in sailor suits wore long pants much less commonly. Even older boys wearing sailor suits, commonly wore them with short pants. The short pants in the early 1920s were quite long, rather like kneepants. The shorts gradually became shorter and by the 1930s could be quite short. Sailor suits with kneepants were commonly worn with long stockings. As shorts became more popular, boys began wearing them with kneesocks and short socks. Gradually the kneesocks became most common, especially with older boys. Kneesocks were mostly solid colors. I don't have a great deal of information on the 1930s, but I think with the coming of the NAZI era in 1933 that the sailor suit declined in popularity. I don't think that this had anything to do with official or adult criticisms of the navy. Rather boys and probably many parents seemed to have found the Hitler Youth uniform more appropriate in the New Germany of the Third Reich. Perhaps some did not see the sailor suit fashion as the proper image for tough NAZI youth. Perhaps the NAZI Government set guidlines for styles of clothes produced and may have encouraged private companies producing boys' clothes to deemphasize production. Hopefully German visitors to this page can provide some insights. For whatever reason, sailor suits, at least for older boys, seemed to have gradually declined in popularity during the 1930s and were even less common during the War years (1939-45).


Figure 3.--Sailor suits were worn by many German and Austrian boy choirs, but this was a fairly recent development--mostly after World War I. This was not the case for choirs in England and France. Some German and Austrian choirs still wear sailor suits. We are not sure which choir this was.

Post-War era (1945-60s)

The once popular sailor suit was rarely seen in Germany after World war II. German boys after the War, even younger boys, did not commonly wear sailor suits. Where once the sailor suit was a major style for even younger-teenagers, suddenly We see very few examples in the photographic record. The sailor suit did not dissapear entirely. Some younger boys were still dressed in sailor suits, but not very many. We see a few examples in formal family portrits, but not informal snapshots. We see only a few school-age boys and no older boys at all. This was a continuation of the trend during the 1930s when fewer boys wore sailor suits, but much more definitive. Usually major changes in fashion trends are gradual. This one was not. There were still some boys wearing sailor suits during the War, bur after the War we rarely see boys wearing them. We are not yet sure about the girls. We are not sure how to explain the rapid disappearance of the sailor suit in Germany. It was probably a reaction to any symbols of Germany's discredited militaristic past.

Late-20th century (1970s- )

The sailor suit was adopted as the costume for some boys' choirs on the continent. This was especially the case of German and Austrian choirs. But choir boys in Poland and other countries also wore sailor suits. Choirs in England and France, however, did not wear sailor suits. The Austrian Vienna Choir Boys are the most familiar boys choir wearing sailor suits, but they were several other German boy choirs. Some are still active and continue to wear sailor suits. Some of the choirs have long histories and the sailor suits are relatively recent inovations. Some of the choirs had military uniforms before the First World War, but then shifted to sailor suits. I'm not positive why this was, but assume it was connected with the German revulsion with war following the catastrophic losses in the war. Somehow the sailor suit was not viewed similarly, perhaps because it was more associate with boys wear. One source also suggests that sailor suits wee selected for the Vienna Choir Boys because Vienna boys commonly wentbto church dressed in sailor suits. This may have also been the case in Germany and Scandinavia.

The 21st Century


Sources

German Hosiery Museum.






HBC






Navigate the Boys' Historical Clothing Web Site:

Sailor Suit Country Related Pages:
[Returnt to the Main country sailor suit pages]
[American] [Denmark] [English] [French] [German] [Italian]



Other Related Pages:
[Sailor suits] [Kilts] [Smocks] [Pinafores] [Sailor Hats] [Blouses]
[Ring Bearers] [Long hair] [Ringlet curls] [Hair bows] [Bangs] [Collars] [Bows]



Navigate the Boys' Historical Clothing Web Site:
[Return to clothing styles]
[Introduction] [Activities] [Biographies] [Chronology] [Clothing styles] [Countries]
[Bibliographies] [Contributions] [FAQs] [Glossary] [Images] [Links] [Registration] [Tools]
[Boys' Clothing Home]



Navigate the Historic Boys' Clothing Web German pages:
[German choirs] [German country page] [German sailor suits] [German school wear] [Lederhosen] [German youth groups]
[German royal family] [Hitler youth] [German coordinated styles]




Created: November 27, 1998
Last updated: 5:07 AM 4/8/2011