French Sailor Suits


Figure 1.--The sailor suit was one of the most popular styles for French boys' clothes. Note that not all French sailor suits had the V-style blouse collar. This postcard shows a suit commonly worn about 1910. These French cards were used as we now use greeting cards. The card says, "Pour me recompense d'avoir ete bien sage. On m'a fait mon portrait dont je vour fais hommage!" A French contributor tells us that it reads, "As a reward for having been quite wise. One has made my portrait of which I make you the homage!"

France is one of several countries where sailor suits were quickly adapted for boys wear after first appearing in England. Sailor suits influenced by the English became very popular for French boys by the late-19th century. This was interesting because it was a style begun by royalty, albeit to appeal to the wider public. France until World War I was along with America a rare republic. As un other countries, it becmae popular with the middle class. The popularity of the sailor suit was a Europan-wide development not to mention the United States. We see sailor suits done in many different styles. Some clothing styles have national associations. The sailor suit soon became an international style, but was probably worn more in France and Germany than any other country. As in most countries, the classic English sailor suit was influenced by the uniforms of the national navy. Also in France, designers experimented more with styling inovations than in other countries. In most cases, hoever, it was the classic styling that persisted over time. A popular style was to wear middy blouses with knickers, both above and below the knee styles, with short ankle socks. By the 1920s they were being worn by younger boys, mostly with short and long pants. Sailor suits continued to be popular during the 1930s. French boys wore many kinds of straw hats with their sailor suits, including the wide-brimmed style with streaming ribbons. They also wore them with the soft white caps with red pompoms like the caps worn by French sailors. Sailor suits continued to be popular in the 1930s when they were made in sizes to 12 years in both short pants and long pants styles. This meant French boys through about 13 wore sailor suits. Several different styles were worn. We see far fewer sailor suits and younger boys wearing them after World War II. although we see sone boys wearing them for special occassiins suchn as First Commumion.

Background

Sailor suits were popularized by Queen Victoria in the 1840s when she dressed the young princes in sailor suits after they were breeched. The style quickly spread to the Continent. The style gained momentum when Queen Victoria's daughters and granddaughters married into most of the important royal families in Europe. France had, however, become a Republic in 1848. Even so the style also spread to the new French Republic. British naval uniforms have strongly influenced naval uniforms around the world. As it was the French Navy that the British Navy was often engaged with, I'm not sure how this affected the spread of the fashion in France. At any rate, the sailor suits for boys soon began taking on the styles of the national navies.

Styles

French boyshave worn both classic, traditional sailor suits as well as a large number of sylistic inovations based on the classic styles. Sailor suits came in summer and winter versions. The summer version consisted of a white or stripped cotton middy blouse worn with white or dark trousers. The winter version was usually dark (blue or black) serge. A large white collar was obligatory. The collar and sleeve usually supported embroidered nautical themes. The sailor suit was often worn for every day activities. In the 1890s sailor suits appeared in velvet and might be worn for ore formal occasions. A new style appeared in the 1900s. It was called the quartermaster suit and was worn by boys and girls. It was a jacket rather than a blouse and was worn open over a stripped front that tucked into the short pants or skirt.

Chronology

French boys commonly wore sailor suits for more than a century. HBC does not know of French boys wearing sailor suits before the 1840s and Queen Victoria began dresing the princes in sailor suits. I am not sure just when sailor suit crossed the Atlantic and began catching on as a boy's fashion. I have not noted French sailor suits and hats in the 1840s and 1850s, but that may because of the limired available information. The sailor suit as a boy's fashion seem to have caught on in France by the 1860s and had become one of the most popular boys' fashions by the 1870s. I currently have only limited information on French sailor suit fashions. French syles do not seem to have followed British styles as closely as in some countries, in part because French naval uniforms varied more from English styles than is the case in many countries. Older French boys wore knickers in the 1920s, but not with sailor suits. Boys commonly wore sailor suits at ages up to 12-13 years, with both short and long pants--some suits came with both. This suggests a somewhat different approach to long and short pants than in England and America. Most French boys stoped wearing sailor suits after World War II, especially in the 1950s. Some younger boys did continue to wear them. Almost always the younger boys wore short pants sailor suits, often with quite short shorts. They are now not commonly worn, but still have not totally disappeared.

Garments

The two basic garments associated with the sailor suit are a middy blouse or jacket type top and pants. French boys wore both classic middy blouses as well as many stlistic variations. French boys have wore long bellbottoms as well as kneepants and short pants. Knickers were also worn, but primarily the bloomer type worn by younger boys. A variety of other garmnetrs such as dickies and black silks scarves were also common. French boys wore many kinds of straw hats with their sailor suits, including the traditional wide-brimmed style with streaming ribbons. They also wore an exclsduively French style, copying the hats of French sailors--soft white caps with red pompoms like the caps worn by French sailors. Footwear also varied. Strap shoes were common until the 1930s. Long stockings were less common than in America. Some boys wore kneesocks, but three-quarter length socks were most cpmmon.

Hair Styles

French boys wearing sailor suits have generally followed overall hair styling patterns. They have worn a wide variety of hair styles with sailir suits. Some boys have worn long hair with sailor suits. Usyually the hair was not curled into ringlets. One beginning school, generally haie styles were shorter, especially by the 1910s. After World War I (1914-18), few school afe boys wore long hair.


Figure 2.--These boarding school boys are nrewing their First Communion vows in a photograph taken during the mid 1930s. Notice the similarity with the advertisement above. This is a black and white portrait, but almost certainly these were white suits with navy blue trim.

First and Renewal Communion

Sailor suits were one of several styles that French boys wore for their First Communion or renewal of vows. The white sailor suits were always chosen and were worn with short or lonmg pants, depending primarily on the boys' age. French girls who did extensively weae sailor-styled clothes, did not wear sailor dresses, but rather fancy white dresses.

Social Class

The sailor suit in Europe was adopted by royalty and airistocracy, led of course by the British royal family. France after 1870 had no ruling royal family. Even so the sailor suit became adopted by the middle class which loved to copy the styles of royalty and the elite. Middle class boys very commonly wore sailor suits. The style was much less common for working-class boys and the peasantry. A good example here is a passage from Marcel Pagnol's Le Château de ma mère (My Mother's Castle) which was also included in the film. Marcel's friend Lile is very proud about a sailor suit he is given.

Colors

French boys like boys in other countries primarily wore blue and white sailors suits, the traditional colors used in naval uniforms. We see blue suits, white suits, and blue and white suits. Navy blue was the modt popular blue, buth others blue shades were also used. During the time in which the sailor suit was popular, almost all photographs were black and white. While we know most suits were blue and white, we also know that there were other color. This was not only because clothes normally are made in a variety of colors, but also because many colors showed dirt less than white and thus were more practical play suits. We are not sure what colors were used. We note, for example, light colored suits. We are not sure what colors they were, but they were clearly not white. We suspect brown and grey were used for play suits. We know these colors were used in America, but we can not yet confirm this in France. We do note a pink suit.

Gender

We do not yet know how common sailor suits were for French girls. They do not seem as popular as in America or Germany, but we do not yet have much information.

Personal Experiences

Some limited information is available on French boys who wore sailor suits.

The 1890s--France: The Zolas

The 1890s--France: Paul

The 1920s--France: Unidentified boy

The 1940s-50s--France: Alain Paul

The 1950s--Belgium

Additional Information

Fashion article: 1920s







HBC







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Created: November 27, 1998
Last updated: 12:25 AM 7/1/2009